This month, President Obama awarded actor-writer-director Elaine May the 2012 National Medal of Arts in recognition of “her contributions to American comedy”–an honor that, after more than 40 years of neglect of her films, seems rather like a consolation prize.
The four movies May directed, between 1971 and 1987, have each come, in their own way, to be eclipsed by the gossip surrounding them, and if her career is invoked at all today, it is largely with an air of derision. Few films have been so widely and vehemently disparaged as her final feature, Ishtar, whose beleaguered production and notorious $40 million box office loss effectively ended May's career.
Though well-received upon release, May's films remain either underseen or underappreciated. Mikey and Nicky, an oblique crime picture starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, is perhaps best remembered for its protracted shooting and editing schedule, which brought the production in at more than four times its $1.8 million budget–and ultimately cost May her rights to the final cut. The Heartbreak Kid, remade in 2007 by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, has been unavailable on home video in any format for years, and out-of-print DVD copies are so rare that they're held hostage on Amazon for prices ranging from $100 all the way up to $1,998.
Watch the movies today, and you'll see that her authorial voice was distinctive, to say the least, and that its absence in American cinema for the last three decades has been regrettable. The brashness and rigor with which she commanded her shoots, precisely the qualities that delayed them, is evident in the work, and her comic sensibility is close only to Cassavetes' in its vitality and raw energy. For all their indulgences, racking up debts and enraging financiers, the films themselves ultimately justify her means–even in the case of Ishtar.
After that flop, May would not write again for nearly 10 years, and when she did it was only twice, both times for Mike Nichols–the other half of the once world-famous comedy duo in which she'd long ago begun her show business career.
A New Leaf, May's exquisite directorial debut, is a strange case. Released last fall on DVD and Blu-ray by boutique arthouse label Olive Films, the film was greeted enthusiastically by critics eager to revisit what they thought of as a forgotten gem. That the film now is readily available is worth celebrating, and that its return to circulation brought it new attention and acclaim is significant.
See Also: “May Days: Recapping a reclusive auteur's brilliant career, from the Jewish new wave to a legendary bomb,” J. Hoberman, 2006.
But A New Leaf remains in thrall to its own legacy as an aborted effort, as though, even 42 years later, it can't be viewed without deference to a speculative final cut that does not exist.
After 10 months of editing yielded only an incomplete version that still ran in excess of three hours, May was removed from the project by Robert Evans, then head of Paramount Pictures. Evans set to work whittling it down to a slender 102 minutes–a change he effected by excising a subplot that would have crucially altered the meaning of the film's ending. May, in response, fought to have the film suppressed, disowning the studio cut and demanding, also unsuccessfully, that her name be removed from it altogether.
It's hardly surprising, given both the extent of the studio's interference and May's public disavowal of the results, that A New Leaf should be so widely regarded as a compromised work. But this reputation fails to account for the caliber of the film. In some sense it even precludes the possibility of the film's greatness. A clear-eyed look at the picture reveals a remarkable truth behind the rumors: A New Leaf, not so much despite its editorial interventions as at least partly because of them, is nearly a masterpiece, a film of such wit and comic invention that it belongs among the great American comedies.
A New Leaf tells the story of Henry Graham (played by Walter Matthau), a wealthy New York dilettante who, after living for years beyond his already ample means, finds himself plunged into bankruptcy, his lavish lifestyle vanishing before his eyes. Henry's obsequious valet, naturally inclined to preserve his employment, advises him toward “the only way to acquire property without labor,” which is of course marriage to a suitably affluent candidate. And so the quest to be married into prosperity begins: Henry, living on a six-week loan from his miserly uncle, must court, wed and then preferably do away with a prospective bride–a feat that, once Henry meets klutzy botanist Henrietta (played by May herself), proves almost too easy.
Much more taxing, as it turns out, is the management of Henrietta's estate, previously run by a lawyer content to fleece her. Henry sets to work sorting out the affairs of the wife he plans to murder and finds himself not only excelling at something concrete for the first time in his life but also, more perplexingly, growing fond of Henrietta herself. In the end, Henry begrudgingly saves his newly beloved's life the moment before he had intended to end it, and if he hasn't quite come upon a new sense of morality, he has at least decided to stick it out and give true love a try. Though far from classical romance, this ending feels remarkably touching and sweet, effective both as closure for two strange but lovable characters and as a metaphor for the sacrifices required of any of us when we commit to another person. By following cynicism through to its logical conclusion, the film exhausts its supply. What's left in its place is hope.
Very few people have seen May's cut, which is now believed lost, but a surviving draft of the original screenplay suggests its direction: A lengthy subplot involving Henry's endeavor to murder his wife's crooked lawyer, after a blackmailing scheme puts his fortune at risk, ups the body count and irrevocably damns our protagonist, recasting his last-minute resignation to a life of domesticity as cosmic punishment rather than reluctant love.
There's no doubt that this version would have seemed more daring and audacious, particularly circa 1971. It's impossible to say which would be superior, so perhaps, in the final estimation, it is better to regard the New Leaf we can watch as its own definitive, singular achievement, no less great in its current form than The Magnificent Ambersons or Greed are in their surviving versions. Whether it was intended to be this way is irrelevant; what matters is the film we have, which is worth celebrating on its own.