This week, we’ll be recapping some of our favorite film events of 2013. This conversation with Elaine May took place on October 25th at the Rollins Theater in Austin, Texas during the Austin Film Festival.
It turns out the only thing that may be more difficult than getting Elaine May to speak in public is to pay her a compliment, as “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal would learn.
After a screening of May’s first film “A New Leaf” at the Austin Film Festival, Rosenthal opened a post-screening Q & A by remarking how much he admired its star Walter Matthau, saying, “He’s irreplaceable, or you, for that matter,” as he gave a loving glance over to the filmmaker.
“We’re different in that I’m still alive,” observed May, drolly cutting the sweetness of the sentiment down to size while being convivial as ever in Austin. While four decades had passed since making the dark comedy in which Matthau played Henry, a socially oblivious upper cruster whose recent bankruptcy leads him to pursue a wealthy heiress to maintain his high-flying lifestyle, eventually settling on a clumsy botanist named Henrietta (played by May), the writer/director clearly hadn’t lost her fastball.
Thanks to an Olive Films Blu-ray release of “A New Leaf” last year after being unavailable on any video format since VHS, the film has enjoyed a recent resurgence, though for May, it’s always been a bit of a sore subject. Despite succeeding critically and commercially when it was released in 1971 and recasting May as an auteur after first finding fame with fellow future director Mike Nichols as a comedy duo, the film wasn’t May’s final cut, despite having that clause in her contract.
As May explained, it was because she wasn’t given other rights that she was in the director’s chair in the first place. Describing herself as someone would “wouldn’t be hired as a PA” given her limited knowledge of a film set, May said Paramount chief Charles Bludhorn wouldn’t grant her either approval of either director or actress – the studio’s first choice for the latter was Carol Channing – when she submitted her script to the studio, but offered her the chance to do both herself. She accepted so long as the studio wouldn’t interfere.
“I wanted to get away with murder,” May said, meaning it literally since it was a combination of seeing “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and reading Jack Ritchie’s short story “The Green Heart” in an Alfred Hitchcock omnibus about a bank teller who killed his lawyer that led her to see if she could craft a romantic comedy where the audience would stick with her lead even after doing the deed. Keen-eyed viewers can actually see remnants of her original vision in the version of “A New Leaf” that was released since Henry’s fantasies of murdering Henrietta were chopped up pieces of one he actually committed — of her lawyer (Jack Weston).
“It was one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen because Walter watched Jack Weston drink poisoned scotch for just like 10 minutes and he was fascinating to watch in the dailies,” said May. “I said [to Walter], ‘What were you playing?” And he said, ‘I was playing that when he died, I was going to eat him.’”
She continued, “It was really the center of it because it gave the movie some kind of credibility. That it wasn’t just this love story, which I never meant it [to be]…it was a love story, but what was interesting was that he murdered a guy. And [the studio] took the murder out and we went to court because I had script approval and the judge saw the movie and he said, ‘It’s such a nice movie, why do you want to sue?’”
May would note that the judge was none other than Irving Saypol, who had been the lead prosecutor of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg before ascending to the bench, and while she would pursue the case for nearly a decade, her lawyer Martin Garbus warned her of the considerable cost and advised her in her next contract to get a penalty clause.
“It was really just a very tough movie,” May said wistfully. “Paradoxically, because I had so much struggle with him, the nicest part remembering it is Walter because he was fun.”
May recalled that she wanted someone “debonair” for the part and Matthau really wanted the role, though once on set, it wasn’t always easy.
“The first scene we did together, they did the clapper, and I really knew nothing about movies,” May said, with a laugh. “So I was sitting next to Walter in our first scene and they did this clapper where they say ‘sound’ and I said, “Action!” And he said, ‘Don’t look in my face and say action! I’ve done 30 movies! I know when action is!’ And I never said ‘action’ again.”
Not that she always made life easy for her actors, either. In an early scene from the film where Henry’s attorney informs him that he’s broke, she learned the actor playing the attorney really did know his tax code, so she didn’t give him a script and instead let Matthau really annoy him with absurd questions about his financial predicament. (“It was a really interesting scene because the guy who was playing the lawyer really looked like he would have a breakdown.”) Then for one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Henrietta asks Henry to get her out of her nightgown on their honeymoon and May didn’t tell Matthau she had sewn herself in.
“He genuinely couldn’t get me out of the nightgown,” said May. “We had to do a second take, so by the time he did the second take, he knew, and he was a good sport, but for 10 minutes, he couldn’t get me out.”
As for her own turn in the film, May said that even though she didn’t write the role of Henrietta for herself, it was her onscreen – the way she ate, that cheap Mogen-David extra heavy Malaga wine she enjoyed (“If you added sparkling water to it, seltzer and lime, it was delicious. And yet alcoholic!”).
“I thought of her as someone who you wouldn’t want to kill, which is not a good way to think of a character,” May said. “But I decided when I played her, I just wanted to do everything right so that [Henry] would like me. Then as the movie went on, and Walter was relatively harsh with me, I decided that I knew he wanted to kill me, but that if I did everything really right, maybe he wouldn’t. And when you read [“The Green Heart”], the reason I did it was that it was very short, but halfway through it, you understood that the guy who was going to murder the woman really loved her and didn’t know it and you read the story and thought, ‘Oh, he’s not going to know it in time.”
It was only after filming started that May herself figured out what “A New Leaf” was about.
“After it started rolling, I wrote a scene for the butler explaining what it meant to have no money in America because I thought it had to have some statement about that,” said May. “As I wrote it, I realized it was really a turnaround, that if you’re with someone really helpless, you actually become competent. When I’m with someone who has no sense of direction, I could find my way down the street, but when I’m with a regular person, I don’t know where I am.”
Given May’s insistence that she knew nothing of how to make a movie, the fact that “A New Leaf” is as accomplished as it is may be proof that that’s true. When asked by someone in the audience about what it was like to be a rare female filmmaker on her first film set, May described how she ultimately used it as well as her inexperience for her benefit.
“It was very tough when I started because I was really young and I’d never done a movie and the producer didn’t want me,” said May, who recalled how the first three weeks of shooting zoomed by since no one told her she had to shoot coverage. “He took me because they had said you could direct and the crew was a lot of really tough Irish guys, really good, but they were sort of careless with me. Some guy would say, ‘hurry her up, etc.’
“The first time I did my scene as Henrietta, this very feminine woman, the entire crew came to my side and then treated the producer with contempt. They’d say things like ‘We’ll do [the job] when she’s here.’ I always thought after that, this is the way a woman should direct a movie. Put on those glasses and speak softly. The guy who ran Paramount [Charlie Bludhorn], who was a businessman really, said ‘You can’t choose the director, but you can direct it’ and they let me. I cannot tell you how insane that was, and I’m not sure that a guy who knew nothing about movies and wandered onto a set, would’ve been treated the same way. And he’d never get to put a dress on and drop his glasses, so the crew would never get on his side. It’s really an odd thing, which will never happen again now that movies are so sane and corporate.”