AFS Turns Over A New Leaf Tonight

Hello, Goodbye series continues with Elaine May comedy

The Austin Film Society’s Hello, Goodbye series – its programming send-off leading up to AFS Cinema shuttering for renovations next month – continues tonight with a 35mm screening of A New Leaf.

In this delectably weird Seventies comedy, there’s no tearing your eyes off of Walter Matthau’s magnificent, craggy puss. But his writer/director/co-star Elaine May's no slouch either.

As a Hollywood player, May never had an easy go of it. The director of only four films, she regularly butted heads with studios and collaborators – finally with Ishtar, the legendary flop that ended her career as a feature director, but firstly with A New Leaf, her 1970 debut that was recut by Paramount Pictures. The edit pushed her reportedly dark satire into daffier terrain, an action that so incensed May she tried to have the film blocked from release.

Matthau plays Henry Graham, a leisure-class layabout who discovers at film’s beginning that he’s burned through the last of his trust fund. He’s a howler here, staggering the streets, moaning thunderstruck, “I am pooooooor.” Even funnier is the follow-up: Wearing the half-smile of the elegantly doomed, Henry revisits the chic restaurant Lutèce, the Racquet Club, and his stables once more – a dying man saying his last goodbyes.

Henry borrows $50,000 to stanch the bleeding, but it comes at a heavy price: If he can’t pay the loan back within six weeks, he’ll forfeit all his property. So what’s an impoverished gentleman with no discernible skills to do? Marry well, and marry fast. Henry sets his sights on Henrietta Lowell, a socially inept botanist and orphaned heiress in oversized owl-frames. Henry’s original assessment of Henrietta is that she is “primitive.” After she accidentally spills hooch on his white llama carpeting, he downgrades her to “feral” and begins plotting her murder – once he’s married into her money, of course.

May co-stars as his intended (she cast herself just to avoid the studio’s original choice, Carol Channing). She has some sublime comic bits as the unsure Henrietta – she moves like a mouse and is about scaled to that size, too – but this is Matthau’s show. He’s marvelous: uncharacteristically proper, seething with self-righteous indignation, and sadistically twinkle-eyed as he researches the poison potential of garden additives.

It’s unclear how much of May’s original vision was gutted, or if her director’s cut exists anymore, making the backstory an irresistible what-if. Still, the film that did survive is pretty swell: a slight, winsome thing of absurdist burbles cut with a sentimental streak and, above all else, a nonpareil performance by Matthau, whose jowls alone deserve a monument to their majesty.

A New Leaf screens at AFS Cinema (6226 Middle Fiskville Rd.) Thursday, Oct. 27, 7:30pm and Sunday, Oct. 30, 1pm. Ticket info here.

This post has been adapted from a 2012 review of Olive Films’ DVD release of A New Leaf.

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A New Leaf, Elaine May, Walter Matthau, Austin Film Society, AFS Cinema

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