Tuesday, February 04, 2014

I'm way behind #14: A New Leaf (Elaine May)

It's not a tragedy in the way the deaths of James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman (my two favorite living American male actors as of nine months ago) were tragedies, but it's at least a terrible injustice that Elaine May hasn't directed more films. I always hold out hope we'll get one more, but since she is 81 years old, semi-retired, and unloved by Hollywood executives, I should probably content myself with the four that exist.
May has a reputation for being difficult, because any woman who stands up for her work against corporate numbskulls gets a reputation for being difficult. She should have a reputation as one of the greatest American filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century, which she does at my home and the homes of any sensible, unruly film aesthete. After the dissolution of her improvisational comedy duo with Mike Nichols in the early 1960s, May wrote several plays before following her old partner into filmmaking. She only got to direct four films, but three of them are near-perfect and one is merely very good. It's the very good one that ruined her directorial career, 1987's Ishtar. A troubled shoot that went dramatically over budget, a box office bomb, and a critical dart board the year it was released, Ishtar once had the reputation of being one of the worst films ever made, mostly by people who hadn't seen it, and its name is trotted out and besmirched whenever an expensive Hollywood film flops big, mostly by journalists who haven't seen it. If you have seen it and aren't an idiot, you know that its reputation as bloated garbage is complete and utter nonsense, and you also know that it's a very funny comedy with purposely terrible/wonderful lounge songs by Paul Williams and a prescient Magic 8 Ball predictor of our country's bungled foreign policies. It drags a bit in the second half, sure, but how an otherwise wonderful film got saddled with the reputation of being one of the worst would make a fascinating book.
Though Ishtar's commercial failure prevented May from directing more films, she wasn't even given proper credit as the creative force behind it. In an all-too familiar pattern of Hollywood sexism, critics, marketers, and studios marginalized May from all four of her own films, assigning their virtues and authorial signature to others. Co-lead and producer Warren Beatty got the credit and blame for Ishtar. Mikey & Nicky was written about as a John Cassavetes film because it starred Cassavetes and Peter Falk and covered superficially similar emotional terrain. Neil Simon got the credit for The Heartbreak Kid because he wrote the script (May wrote the screenplay for her other three films), even though its pace, beats, visual style, and performances were all May. The success of her first film, A New Leaf, was attributed to the studio for putting a talented but uncooperative woman in her place by cutting her edit down from three hours to two. Despite this conflict with the studio, A New Leaf is a great debut and one of the strongest comedies of the 1970s.
May writes, directs, and stars in A New Leaf alongside Walter Matthau, who is cast against type as wealthy playboy Henry Graham (albeit an asexual playboy who is both repulsed by and completely uninterested in romantic and/or sexual feelings) who has never worked a day in his life and has just burned through the last of his inheritance. Due to a disastrous bet with a contemptuous uncle (James Coco), Henry has to marry a wealthy woman in six weeks to maintain his lifestyle or he'll be forced to turn over his estate and all his possessions to the uncle, probably including his devoted servant. He has poor luck until he meets Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), an awkward, clumsy, unsophisticated botany professor with a massive family fortune. Irritated and disgusted by her at first, Henry plans to bump her off at the earliest convenience and inherit the whole shebang without having to deal with the messiness of a lifelong romantic relationship. You may think you know what's coming, and you may be right, but how and when the rest of the story happens is not so obvious.
May's film is constantly funny (Matthau's delivery of a line about carpet is maybe my favorite sentence in comedy), but also very honest about and empathetic toward its lonely, flawed, partially damaged characters. (Well, most of them.) The actors and May as filmmaker have to occupy a fragile, delicate space where exaggerated comedy, subtle gesture, and real, honest emotion share the room. The film manages a happy ending, of sorts, without betraying its characters' personalities or the film's beautifully strange tone, which sometimes comes across as a Jerry Lewis film directed by Jean Renoir, which is more than alright with me. It's a film that's both compassionate and tough, warm and bitter. May should have been able to make 30 more.


James said...

In May's original three-hour cut of the film, there was a sub-plot where Matthau discovers that Weston is blackmailing May, and poisons him.
I don't know if I would prefer that version, as I've never seen it, but I'm happy with the film as it is now. The murder subplot sounds too dark and cynical for the tone of the rest of the film, but I can't say how it worked in the three-hour cut.

Josh Krauter said...

I'm also happy with it as it is now, and Matthau preferred the studio cut, but I do have a lot of faith in Elaine May and really would have loved a chance to see her full version. William Hickey had a role in the hour that was cut, too. But it's a damn good movie as it exists.

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