We're pleased to offer an excerpt from the September issue of the online magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room. This month marks their 75th issue, and they're celebrating by devoting the entire issue to the career of Elaine May. In addition to this piece by Veronica Fitzpatrck on "A New Leaf," the issue also features new pieces on the other three films May directed ("The Heartbreak Kid," "Mikey and Nicky" and "Ishtar"), as well as "The Birdcage" (which she wrote), plus various deep dives on May's career, themes, and style, and an interview with Kenneth Lonergan on May's genius and what it was like to work with her last year.
At the beginning of A New Leaf, two golden EKG lines pulse over opening credits before pausing for an instructive, if brief, vignette. The film cuts between tight shots of a pair of doctors and a sharply dressed man looking concernedly out of frame. What little background there is conveys the cellophaned space as something between a surgical suite and a kill room. As the editing accelerates from doctors to man, syncing expressions of worry to the monitor’s rising throb, we’re invited to expect—what? Something medical, vital. Despite an ominous crescendo to flatline, the news is good: “She’ll be alright now, Mr. Graham!” Mr. Graham, buoyed, lifts gloved hands to tug a glossy motorcycle helmet over his head. Herein lies the switcheroo: we’re in a garage, not a hospital. These men are wearing coveralls, not white coats (explain the stethoscope, though). And “she” is a cherry red Ferrari 275, not a woman, let alone a wife.
In school, I was trained to think about the significance of a movie’s beginning not only in terms of its narrative scaffolding, establishing characters and a setting, seeding plot events, and so on, but also because these moments teach you how to watch the thing that’s already underway—such that you learn, for the first time every time, how to distribute your attention and refine your expectations according to the object at hand. Maybe that sounds—even from “training”—supremely fun-sucking; in practice, it’s liberatory, especially insofar as it frees strange films from our often tacit but substantial notions of what a movie should attempt.
A New Leaf is precisely the kind of thing that benefits from a critical suspension of disbelief. A comedy whose first images evoke the idiom serious as a heart attack, it’s a marriage farce with a murder plot, soaked with what Jessica Kiang calls “batty darkness.” We learn a lot from its opening maneuver: We're introduced to paunchy playboy Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a man who extends to his sports car the kind of care conventionally assigned to a loved one. And it’s not care, exactly; more like insistence, as when Henry reflexively repeats himself verbatim, not just loving to hear himself speak, but unable to perceive or summon interest in the fact of others listening. Disregarding the advice of his mechanics, Henry demonstrates a self-satisfied obtusity whose repetitiveness and general heel-digging help shape the film’s defining polyrhythm, wherein textures of physical comedy, melodrama, and the prospect of violence compete to depict the film’s dilemma: having apparently drained his inheritance, and owing $50,000 to his guardian/uncle, Henry had better marry rich quick (and dispense of his wife, landing a fresh inheritance), or lose everything, or kill himself.
I like Kiang’s phrase because it’s a chiller way to say there’s something Buñuelian about A New Leaf’s goofiness. Scenes don’t so much build and culminate as they endure or simply end, pulling laughter from the body like a rollercoaster drop. Think of the opening fake-out of Belle de Jour, where Catherine Deneuve’s demure Séverine displeases her husband on a romantic carriage ride. As quickly as the scene takes shape, it transforms: she’s hauled off the carriage into the woods, bound, whipped, and nearly ravaged by one of the coachmen when we suddenly cut to Séverine’s blissed expression in bed. The cut is a dual revelation, both a dream where we likely expected reality, and a fantasy where we perhaps perceived a nightmare. Like Séverine from the carriage, we’re yanked from observing a contextless rape to sharing in the secret of her desire. The difference is, Elaine May-the writer-director doesn’t rely on the conceit of the dream to facilitate strangeness or enable an awkward transition. She simply bends reality to her specifications.
The above hyphenate is inelegant, but necessary—Elaine May wrote and directed A New Leaf but also co-stars as the unlikely answer to Henry’s prayers: tender, loaded botanist Henrietta Lowell. As Henrietta, May is quietly effervescent, a flat soda. She’s as kind as Henry is callous, as dreamy as he is devious, and as rumpled as he is refined. “She’s primitive!” he fumes to valet/confidante Harold. “She has no spirit, no wit, no conversation, and she has to be vacuumed every time she eats.” Indeed, Henrietta does have a hard time with things like holding containers upright and keeping liquids in her mouth, and the film spends as much time exploiting her gracelessness for laughs as it does exploring the comedic potential of Henry’s hostility. On their wedding night, her effort to appear alluring in a “Grecian”-style nightgown ends in Henry pedantically and not very successfully helping her differentiate armhole from “head hole” in the white polyester. The scene is interminable and also a joy, thanks largely to May’s contortions within the fabric.
In his exclusive interview with May and former partner Mike Nichols, Sam Kashner suggests Henrietta “comes close to self-parody,” citing May’s own reputation for obliviously wearing shabby or mismatched clothes, and the way her aptitudes in certain subjects coexisted with cluelessness in others. For me, it’s hard to square May’s daffy performance with basically everything I’ve read about her. Softly reproaching her lascivious lawyer for finding her not gorgeous (as men routinely found May), but “plain and shy,” Henrietta is a far cry from “dark, sultry, aggressive,” or the many other adjectives that surface time and again to account for May’s presence: hostile; beautiful; brilliant; mean. There’s the anecdote Janet Coleman highlights in her history of May’s old improv group The Compass Players, where she describes how May’s persona on the University of Chicago’s campus preceded her, informing Nichols’ initial impressions of his future collaborator. He recalls “the story of a windy day at Jimmy’s when Elaine had walked in with wild hair. Someone male called out, ‘Hi, Elaine. Did you bring your broom today?’ ‘Why?’ she replied, without pause. ‘Do you want something up your ass?’”
It’s not that there isn’t a mean energy animating A New Leaf, but it comes from Henry—not Henrietta, and often at her expense—without the superficial comfort of a narrative that’d punish his homicidal self-interest. Critic Lindsay Zoladz has linked renewed attention to Elaine May to the success of a show like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and “uncompromising, multi-talented female auteurs like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Issa Rae, Natasha Lyonne, Kristen Wiig, and Lena Dunham…working prolifically and connecting with audiences.” In most of these cases, connection with audiences tends to work through alienation and awkwardness as inadvertently relatable content. There’s where A New Leaf seems to connect most clearly—both to May’s prior comedic practice of mining marriage and divorce for social satire, and to contemporary, magnetic, self-deprecating creators/characters like Insecure’s Issa and Fleabag’s Fleabag—who, following May, demonstrate little interest in playing the ingénue.
Yet: it’s one thing to watch women flail and self-sabotage but ultimately know more or less what they’re doing. In A New Leaf, Henrietta isn’t afforded direct addresses to camera or meta-narration via bathroom mirror rap (would love to see it). Rather, the unrelenting disproportion between what she knows, and what Henry knows, and what we know, is the film’s final, bittersweet punch line. Henrietta’s invited her husband to the Adirondacks to join her annual vacation, unaware of the risk to her life such seclusion poses. Once they canoe into rough water, Henry has her where he wants her: clinging to a log poised above a waterfall as he, safe on shore, dumps water from his boots at a comically leisurely pace. All he has to do is tell her—speaking of satirizing romance—that it’s safe to let go, whereupon she’ll drown.
Instead, Henry changes his mind. It’s not her helplessness that reaches him; if anything, that quality has long been a source of aggravation. In the moments after telling his wife to relax her grip, he spies a wild specimen of Alsophilia grahami, the fern she discovered on their honeymoon. Prior to their “field trip,” Henrietta named the new species after Henry, and gifted him a clipping encased in acrylic as a token of their breakthrough. When Henry reaches for the medallion to compare fronds, he realizes the charm was lost in the current, and this is what seems to initiate his change, or growth, of heart—but it’s too quick to feel quite sensible. He dives in after her, becomes a human boogie board, and saves Henrietta’s life. Shivering under his arm, she ventures that she knows “this isn’t exactly what [he] planned,” but their possible arrival to the same page is illusory; Henrietta is referring to her proposal that Henry begin teaching in her university’s history department, not acknowledging the dashed murder plot to which she remains oblivious. The suggestion she might know more than she’s let on flickers over Henry’s face, and is gone. His reluctant assent to always be dependable hardly feels definitive, but it’s also hard to worry for Henrietta when she’s pictured so at ease, like a dog dumbly licking its leash.
May could be, and has been, charged with bad feminism. Her reluctance to seek credit for all the scripts she doctored over the course of her career frustrates efforts to index her body of work—she didn’t even want her name on A New Leaf after Paramount head Robert Evans radically recut the film, nixing her original plan for Henry to actually kill some people. If aspects of her first feature feel a little cruel, I can’t quite imagine being in the audience for her Compass sketch “Georgina’s First Date,” in which a hopeful teenager is asked out as a joke by a popular classmate. Film scholar Kyle Stevens summarizes: “With an overzealous sister and mother, Georgina becomes, in May’s words, ‘so absorbed in her own effort to have “personality” that she is unaware of what she is being used for.’ After being raped and humiliated, she returns home to tell her mother, who is waiting with bated breath, that she had a wonderful time.” Is this what cinephiles have in mind when they sport a “Written and Directed by Elaine May” shirt? The merits of representation aside, I’m not sure May’s work is all that compatible with T-shirt feminism, though I imagine she’d find humor in the irony of clothing produced to salute a person working in Hollywood who shrinks from recognition.
What, incidentally, is most radical in her work is its indifference to palatability. Coleman’s oft-reproduced catalog of May’s off-“type” performative range—“She was the doctor, the psychiatrist, the employer, the wicked witch”—reads not unlike Carol Clover on the slasher film’s archetypal final girl: the Girl Scout, the bookworm, the mechanic. It’s as if May herself innovates on trope, embodying a writer who embraces the inherently alienating power of a mind that quickens the pace, and a performer whose choices subtend conventional femininity, on one hand, and notions of productive feminist politics, on the other.
Judging from myriad testimonials, not least Richard Burton’s prodigiously horny diary, May’s intensity and her appeal were fixed in remarkable tension. “Elaine was too formidable…one of the most intelligent, beautiful, and witty women I had ever met. I hoped I would never see her again.” When I first saw this quote, I was struck by its resemblance to Burton’s many odes to Elizabeth Taylor—particularly May 25, 1969, where he somewhat infamously calls Taylor “an eternal one-night stand,” and “a receiver, a perpetual returner of the ball!”
Here’s where things get weird. Burton’s histrionics take on additional resonance considered alongside the metaphor that performance theorist Viola Spolin (also mother of Compass founding director Paul Sills, and frequent audience to May’s work onstage) offers for the form and function of improvisation: “The art consists purely of players tossing the ball to each other.” Teasing out the full implications of Spolin’s metaphor, Kyle Stevens elaborates, “To be a social creature here is to be able to tell that the ball was thrown, both by someone and to us. We can catch it or dodge it or let it hit us, but we cannot remain blind to it coming at us…And to be a good player, we need to return the ball well.” How does returning the ball move from a conversational model, to a gesture that co-creates reality, to an estimation of erotic power? How does May’s rather singular voice triangulate composition, reaction, and seduction, in ways not yet fully understood, that nonetheless inflect the comedies we love today?
When in doubt, seduce. This is how Nichols recalled May’s greatest rule for improvisation. Likewise, seduction, fights, and negotiations made up the major arcana of possible scenes, to which May added, “But we also discovered that the scene that always works is a blind date.” By the end of A New Leaf, both Henry and Henrietta have achieved their respective goals of financial reinstitution and romantic connection; they’ve also shared an experience of scientific discovery, and the immortality new language affords. But for all the film’s atonal humor and surrealism, May also manages to depict marriage in a bleakly true light: as a continual, if cordial, blind date.