“Unseemly? Unseemly!? Harold, after her behavior tonight, anything I do will be seemly. Never have I seen one woman in whom every social grace was so lacking. Did I say she was primitive? I retract that. She’s feral. I’ve never spent a more physically destructive evening in my life. I am nauseated. I limp. And I can feel my teeth rotting away from an excess of sugar that no amount of toothpaste can dislodge. I will taste those damn Malaga coolers forever. That woman is a menace not only to health but to Western civilization as we know it. She doesn’t deserve to live. Forget I said that.”
“She’s about to drop that teacup…” Teacups, the European kind with handles, the pretty porcelain things you balance on saucers and daintily sip while eating crumpets or finger sandwiches or whatever little crumbly confections are served, seem a cruel creation intent on exposing the shy and the nervous. In Elaine May’s A New Leaf, this is made abundantly clear as May’s heiress/botany professor, Henrietta Lowell, attempts to sip at a posh afternoon tea party while she sits on a chair up against a wall, dressed in a prim suit with pearls, her handbag resting next to her. She is noticeably not seated at a table with the other guests (Mr. and Mrs. Sims, Toot and Roggie, Dr. and Mrs. Daryl Hitler, etc., “Excuse me, you’re not by any chance related to the Boston Hitlers?” Walter Matthau’s Henry Graham asks) as she politely and nervously looks around the room, gracious to others but in her own world. She is utterly charming. To us. To Henry Graham she is horrifying. But as he’s searching, quite frantically, for a wealthy wife to save him from poverty, she’s exactly the one he’s been looking for. Henry sits next to a man with a crooked bowtie and tape on his glasses (a nice, perfectly ruffled blue blood touch that Paul Fussell would have studied for categorization) who reveals to him how enormously wealthy and alone Henrietta is. No family, nothing. Henry says: “Rich, single, isolated . . . she’s about to drop that teacup. Oh, she’s perfect.”
She does drop that teacup and it causes quite a scene. Her hostess requests another cup of tea while Henrietta nervously apologizes, drops her gloves, drops her glasses, drops the teaspoon resting on the new cup and sits back down to dab and blot, or whatever the hostess has been annoyingly suggesting as she fusses over Henrietta. Henry makes his move, but Henrietta’s head collides with his teacup, spilling tea on the carpet. The snowball effect of that damn teacup in the trembling hands of poor, innocent Henrietta has now upset the rude hostess who berates her in front of the party: “Henrietta, is this some kind of joke? Because if it is, I do not find it amusing. If your nerves aren’t steady enough to hold a cup and saucer in your hand, then you shouldn’t be drinking tea.” This is when Henry defends her tea-drinking honor (as he should) and in another movie would be seen as the purely gallant romantic gent. Henrietta is the damsel in distress here – the dropping the handkerchief routine – only, dropped by a woman continually dropping her teacup and everything else in her hands, and one who is oblivious to dropping handkerchiefs for any other reason save for they’re in the way of her teacup. She’s also been spotted by a gold digging predator – she’s about as vulnerable as that cup balancing on the saucer – no wonder it keeps slipping.
There’s no romance or flirtation here, Henry has other motives, and yet, as written, directed and acted by May (one of greatest living writers, directors and comic talents), it is both oddly romantic and hilariously cynical. Henry’s heart is beating black, but we feel a surge of victory for this pair. Who wouldn’t want a cantankerous Walter Matthau disparaging a discourteous woman with, “Madam, I have seen many examples of perversion in my time but your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque and certainly the most boring I have ever encountered.” As Henrietta would say, and does say, often, “Heavens.” Never mind he might murder you after your wedding day.
The sweetness and darkness of May’s brilliant first feature (she’s directed four, all excellent: The Heartbreak Kid, Mikey and Nicky, Ishtar) looks at this absurd world, the relationships we find ourselves in (or create) and the institutions we march through with a jaundiced yet utterly human eye. May’s genius with the teacup, that quivering teacup and that woman’s stupid carpet, is one, among many moments in which May dissects a detail, whether small, like crumbs rolling off of Henrietta’s dress, or large, like Henry losing all of his money, and shows us how painfully recognizable it is, even among such extraordinary characters. And Henry is certainly not a common type of man. An entitled trust fund playboy, a millionaire who has never worked a day in his life, Henry seems to only love his red sports car (a Ferrari), himself, of course, and maybe (maybe) he harbors a fondness for his butler (George Rose). He spends too much money – something that is called to his attention via his long suffering lawyer, Beckett (William Redfield), who despises him, in a scene that reveals just how hilariously out of touch Henry really is. So used to luxury, he can’t wrap his mind around destitution, much less the word capital:
Beckett: “I’m trying to explain to you that it is impossible to pay the check because your expenses have exceeded your income to such a point that you have exhausted your capital. Now you have no capital, no income, therefore no funds for the check, you see?
Henry: Don’t treat me as though I were a child, Mr. Beckett. I am as aware of what it means to have no capital as you are.
Beckett: Oh, good.
Henry: Now, what about this check?
Beckett: Well, are you entirely sure that you really do understand what I mean by capital, Mr. Graham? You see, you’ve exhausted the capital. I can’t cover the check because the check is for $6,000 and you don’t have $6,000. In other words, you don’t have $60.
Henry: Come to the point, Beckett.
The point is, he’s broke and as suggested by his sensible butler Harold, he’s going to need to do “what any gentleman of similar breeding and temperament would do” in such a position. Henry responds, “Suicide?” Harold corrects him: marriage. “Marriage? You mean to a woman?” Henry asks. This question isn’t studied further but based on Henry’s attempts at dating and his general disgust for the female sex, we may wonder if he’d rather make love to his Ferrari. In a couple of painful dates, May doesn’t spare both the ridiculousness of desperation and how terribly misanthropic and neurotically fussy Henry is. He’s even terrified by breasts (one of Matthau’s funniest looks of abject horror). As a date declares herself a woman who wants, needs and desires love, melodramatically hollering out: “Oh, I am alive! I want to give love!” Henry yells: “No! Don’t let them out!” He’s an asshole, Matthau is working a kind of upper crust W. C. Fields type, but anyone whose been on a disastrous date might relate to this moment – it’s a bit much. May understands there is a judging prick inside many of us, particularly when we’re rolling through a series of terrible dates. You don’t exactly feel sorry for Henry, you just recognize those moments of distaste. And cringe. For everyone involved.
Offsetting the woman about to pull out her breasts is May’s Henrietta, who can’t even put on her Grecian-style nightgown properly. We don’t cringe for Henrietta here, we find her endearingly dizzy, and really very beautiful even before she gets that thing on. This is one of May and Matthau’s finest comic scenes – Matthau is aiding her so strangely patiently (it wouldn’t be as funny if he were yelling at her, or even if he were overly cranky, he’s simply matter of fact about getting that nightgown on her); and it’s so ingenious the way they talk back and forth about the “arm-hole” that it becomes something like a seduction. Sex scenes are often tedious and typical, so watching May and Matthau fumble with her meant-to-be alluring gown becomes their sort of sex scene. It’s also hilarious and disarmingly sweet:
Henry: I just think you have your head through the arm-hole. If you’ll just stand up for a minute. That’s it. There you are. I think, you see, you have your head through the arm-hole. Now, pick your arm up. No, not that one. Put that one down. That arm down. Let’s pick this arm up. Thaaaat’s it. That’s it. Now, here we are. Just get this over …
Henrietta: Let me put my glasses …
Henry: Oh, here. Let me put your glasses down here. Alright. Now, hold it. No, just a minute. See, you have your … you have your head through the arm-hole. We have to get your head out… out of the armhole.
Henrietta: See, both of the holes look very similar.
Henry: Where is your head-hole?
Henrietta: Well, I thought my head was in it.
Henry: No. You had your head in the arm-hole. Where are you now?
Henrietta: I’m still where I was.
For a moment you think Henry might enjoy Henrietta in that arm-hole nightgown but once correctly fitted, he still thinks she looks “strange.” This is during their honeymoon, and, in her darkly screwball style here, May digs into the cynicism of marriage. It’s an extreme example – Henry rushes into matrimony with Henrietta or he’ll owe his uncle (James Coco), whom he’s borrowed 50K from, everything. That’s the only reason. We barely have time to ponder if Henry secretly likes her for a second, though their chemistry is so perfectly in tune at being out of tune that we suspect, something. Any fraction of warmth from Henry, even with an arm-hole, makes us wonder. Nevertheless, after agonizingly enduring Henrietta’s crumbs, her love of cheap wine that gets smeared all over her lips, her clothes with price tags still hanging from them and her botany obsession, he takes the plunge – with the intention of murdering her. People marry for a lot of reasons and it’s often women who are singled out as those waiting for their rich husbands to drop. Here, Henry is the gold digger and the femme fatale. It’s acerbically funny and touching watching Henrietta fall for Henry – a meaner kind of Ernst Lubitsch as Matthau’s thieving cad is no elegant Herbert Marshall (and he’s murderous), and stealing isn’t as sensuous, and yet, like Lubitsch, May relishes a kind of rebellious sophistication that makes us root for this non-traditional pairing: two disparate people living among those obsessed with class and their carpet – one yearning for languorous luxury, the other, a highly intelligent billionaire searching for ferns and fronds. Why not? Unlike anyone near the altar in the magnificently acidic Heartbreak Kid, we can’t help it – we want these two to work out, in spite of Henry’s murderous intentions.
Would we have wanted it to work out if Henry was more murderous? I actually think so. May’s picture was even darker and longer in its original cut, supposedly sheared at the behest of Robert Evans at Paramount, which upset May enough to sue (unsuccessfully) and attempt to remove her name from the film. Reportedly, in her preferred version, Henry poisons and kills two characters (her lawyer, Jack Weston, and one of her servants, William Hickey). Either too long or too bleak or both, it was cut (and that footage has never been found) leaving a happier ending, however happy you take the ending of the picture (Henry almost really does kill her – the last minute change of heart based on a fern isn’t the strongest indication he’s forever a new man).
But it’s a testament to May’s genius (and Matthau’s) that the film could work either way. As May said in an early, brilliant, Mike Nichols Elaine May routine, it all feels “suicidally beautiful.” Either Henry really is that cold-blooded and we’ll have to grapple with his malevolence as we find him strangely appealing, or perhaps, in love, perhaps a coward (or both), he truly can’t commit murder. Does he find an odd pleasure in sticking up for Henrietta after she drops a teacup on an obnoxious woman’s carpet? A woman far more obnoxious than Henrietta? After all, everyone seems insufferable to Henry. As he said so witheringly and ironically to Harold: “I think I have found, God help us, Ms. Right.” Maybe he did.