NOW Women's Film Festival: A New Leaf

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades


I recently wrote a book titled “Instructions for How to Murder Your Wife and Other People.” You can find it on Amazon. It’s not a new idea (ask any married man). In fact, there was a 1965 film called “How to Murder Your Wife.” And yet another with the same name in 2015.

There have been many other movies with a similar theme.

But my favorite is “A New Leaf,” the 1971 screwball comedy starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May. Don’t confuse it with half a dozen other films with the very same title.

“A New Leaf” is the second offering in this year’s Key West NOW Film Festival. You can catch one of its selected films at Tropic Cinema every Wednesday during the month of March. This one is showing next week.

What we want to focus on with “A New Leaf” is the talented Elaine May. This was the first feature film where a woman was the director, writer and co-star. In Hollywood, they call that a “hyphenate,” the ultimate accolade for cinematic multi-tasking.

You might remember Elaine May from her earlier success as a comedienne, the other half of that duo you used to see on The Ed Sullivan Show – Nichols and May. Their improvisational comedy routines used the Stanislavski method of acting to perform comedy sketches in classic blackout form. “They did no jokes, told no stories. All they did was, with uncanny and uncomfortable accuracy, show us US.”

Nichols and May released three comedy albums. And in 1960, they did a Broadway Show, “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” directed by my old friend Arthur Penn.

Nichols went on to direct films on his own, among them “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Primary Colors,” and “The Birdcage.” And he won an Oscar for “The Graduate.”

Turns out, Elaine May wrote the scripts for “The Birdcage” and “Primary Colors.” She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the latter.

She directed a number of films too – including “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Mikey and Nicky,” and that glorious flop “Ishtar.” In 2022, she received an Honorary Academy Award for her “bold, uncompromising approach to filmmaking, as a writer, director, and actress.”

The Philadelphia Film Circle created an award in her name given “to a deserving person or film that brings awareness to women’s issues.”

Also, she was honored with the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

However, it’s her brilliant handling of “A New Leaf” we’re focusing on. Her directorial debut, this black comedy makes its barbed points about love and matrimony. Although little seen these days, it has become a cult classic.

“In the film, a Patrician New York City playboy has run out of money. He decides to find a rich bride for himself, and soon enough finds a shy heiress. He takes charge of her finances after their wedding, and gets rid of her disloyal staff. He is carefully planning to poison her, but even his own best laid plans, go awry. When the opportunity to kill her arrives, he realizes that he has fallen in love with his wife and instead saves her life.”

Elaine May never intended to act in or direct the picture. She was originally offered $200,000 to write the script, but her agent cut a deal with Paramount so that she could direct and he could produce. Being a woman and a first-time director, she only got $50,000 to direct the film.

Co-star Jack Weston told me the story: “May was told that she could not get the picture made without Matthau, and that Paramount wanted Carol Channing to play the part of Henrietta. May protested, saying it was the man’s movie and that the woman had to be someone who disappeared. She asked if she could pick the actress, and the studio declined, saying that instead, May could play Henrietta, and all for the same money.”

Like all May’s film projects, production of “A New Leaf” ran overbudget and shooting went 40 days over schedule. The original version was 180 minutes long.

Studio head Robert Evans took over the film, editing it down to 108 minutes. May sued to have her name removed from the film, but the courts sided with Evans and co-star Walter Matthau, saying the new version was “hilarious and bound to be a hit.”

Film critic Roger Ebert agreed, saying, “Whatever the merits of Miss May’s case, however, the movie in its present form is hilarious, and cockeyed, and warm.” He gave it four stars out of four. “

Yes, “A New Leaf” was a critical success, but despite several award nominations and a Radio City Music Hall run, it fared poorly at the box office. Today, the film is little known by the general public. “A New Leaf” is featured in “Siskel & Ebert: Buried Treasures.”

One recent moviegoer observed, “Every now and then you stumble across a film that has been forgotten, or just ignored, and for the life of you, you can’t figure out why. ‘A New Leaf’ is such a film. Seeing this wonderful comedy for the first time was the movie-watching equivalent of discovering buried treasure.”

Another said, “This is the most underrated, most unjustly forgotten and ignored comedy of all time.”

Still another opined, “I respect Ms. May so much I feel a little guilty enjoying the film she disowned. I hope one day she will, if possible, do a ‘Touch Of Evil’ style re-editing of the film, so that we can enjoy it as she originally intended.”

In the early ‘90s, there was a movement to restore Elaine May’s original cut of the film, and Paramount’s vaults were searched to see if any of the trims had survived, but – alas – nothing was found.

New York Times critic Vincent Canby once commented: “Not having seen Miss May’s version, I can only say that the film I saw should be a credit to almost any director.”

You will agree that “A New Leaf” is a comic masterpiece.

As for me, I like to imagine what the film might have been like if May had cast her old partner Mike Nichols in the role of the murderous hubby.

Those two made magic together.

Nichols once recalled how he and Elaine May first met: He spotted her when she was sitting in the front row while he was playing the lead in a Chicago production of “Miss Julie,” and they made eye contact. Weeks later, he ran into her in a train station where he started a conversation in a phony accent, pretending to be a spy, and she played along, using another accent. They hit it off immediately, which led to a brief romance. Later in his career, he said “Elaine was very important to me from the moment I saw her.”

“A New Leaf” will make her important to you too.

Email Shirrel:

Ratings & Comments