A New Leaf (film)

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A New Leaf
A New Leaf.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byElaine May
Produced byHillard Elkins
Howard W. Koch
Joseph Manduke[1]
Screenplay byElaine May
Story byJack Ritchie
StarringWalter Matthau
Elaine May
Jack Weston
George Rose
James Coco
Music byNeal Hefti
CinematographyGayne Rescher
Edited byDon Guidice
Fredric Steinkamp
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • March 11, 1971 (1971-03-11)
Running time
102 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.8 million (initial)
$4 million (final)
Box office$5 million (US/Canada) (rentals)[2]

A New Leaf is a 1971 black comedy film based on the short story The Green Heart by Jack Ritchie, starring Elaine May, Walter Matthau, Jack Weston, George Rose, James Coco, and Doris Roberts.[1] Better known for her collaboration as a stage comedian with The Graduate director Mike Nichols, May also wrote and directed[1] (in her debut). For this film May consulted Dr. Dominick Basile, a botany professor at Columbia University. Dr. Basile wrote botanically accurate lines into the script and supplied the botanical equipment seen in the film. May also modeled Henrietta's office after his.

The film was a critical success upon its initial release. However, despite several accolades, award nominations, and a Radio City Music Hall run,[3] A New Leaf fared poorly at the box office and remains little known by the general public. It is now considered a cult classic.[4] In 2019, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[5]


Henry Graham, a playboy from a wealthy patrician family, has run through his entire inheritance and is completely unequipped to provide for himself. His childhood guardian, Uncle Harry, refuses to give him a dime. Henry considers but is unwilling to exercise the only solution he can think of—suicide. At the suggestion of his valet Harold, Henry decides the only other viable option open to him: marrying into wealth. With a $50,000 loan from Uncle Harry to tide him over, Henry has just six weeks to find a rich bride and repay the money, otherwise he must forfeit all of his property to his uncle.

Desperation sets in as Henry's attempts to meet a suitable mate comically fail. With only days remaining, Henry meets clumsy, painfully shy heiress Henrietta Lowell, a botany professor. She is the answer to his prayers; wealthy and with no family. However, Henrietta's suspicious (and crooked) lawyer Andy McPherson is a problem for Henry, as his Uncle Harry plots with the shyster to prove to Henrietta that Henry only wants her for her money. They fail, and Henrietta marries Henry. On their honeymoon, Henrietta discovers what may be an undescribed species of fern.

Murder never far from his mind, Henry takes charge of his wife's life. He reorganizes her household staff, who had been taking full advantage of her timidity and naivete—and sharing their profits with her former lawyer. He also learns how to manage accounts and a vast estate. Henrietta is completely disorganized and welcomes Henry's guidance. She also finds out that he has a B.A. in history, and suggests he could get a teaching job at the university she works at, so they could be together all the time and grade term papers together. Wishing nothing more than to be rich, single, and completely idle, Henry finds this prospect utterly horrifying.

When Henrietta's fern is confirmed as an entirely new species, she names it Alsophila grahami after Henry. He is unexpectedly touched, since this gives him a form of immortality, something he has always desired. She invites him to join her on her canoe trip to the Adirondacks for her annual field trip. Henry sees this as an opportunity to rid himself of Henrietta forever in a remote area with no witnesses. He is tortured by mosquitoes and utterly miserable as they portage their way from lake to lake.

Before Henry can figure out a way to dispose of her, their canoe capsizes in an area of rapids. Henry makes it to shore, but Henrietta tells him she cannot swim. Henry tells her to let go of the log she's clinging to and he'll rescue her—intending to do nothing of the sort. Then just as he's departing the scene, already thinking of the story he'll tell to the police, he finds an example of the fern Henrietta named after him and turns to tell Henrietta about it, forgetting just for a moment what he's done. He discovers that the token she gave him with a sample of the fern in it has been lost, and he is deeply upset. In this moment Henry realizes that his old life is gone forever, along with the man he used to be, and despite himself he loves Henrietta. Cursing the turn of events, he rescues Henrietta and embraces his unexpected fate as a married man and future professor of history. Henrietta asks him if he'll always be there to take care of her, to which he responds "I'm afraid so." Accompanied by bird song and twee music, they walk off into the sunset together.[6]


Critical reception[edit]

The film was well received by critics. It received a top rating of four stars from Roger Ebert, who described the movie as "hilarious, and cockeyed, and warm."[7] In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it "a beautifully and gently cockeyed movie that recalls at least two different traditions of American film comedy... The entire project is touched by a fine and knowing madness."[3] The film was placed at #2 on Gene Siskel's list of the best movies of 1971.[8]

As of June 2019, A New Leaf holds a rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 34 reviews, with a weighted average of 7.99/10.[9]



Alternate versions and edits[edit]

After May would not show Paramount Pictures a rough cut of the film ten months into editing, Robert Evans took the film away from her and recut it. May's version was rumored to run an unwieldy 180 minutes. Supposedly, at one point May hid the negative under her bed in order to gain negotiating leverage. It is not known if the original cut still exists. Evans shortened it to 102 minutes. Angered by the alterations, May tried to take her name off the film and unsuccessfully sued Paramount to keep it from being released.

The original story included a subplot in which Henry discovers from the household accounts that Henrietta is being blackmailed on dubious grounds by the lawyer, McPherson, and another character played by William Hickey; Henry poisons both of them. This darkly casts Henry's eventual acceptance of a conventional life with Henrietta as his "sentence". By eliminating the subplot, Paramount fixed the excessive running time, avoided the awkwardness of Henry getting away with murder and transformed the ending into a rather sweet affirmation of love and personal redemption.

Roger Ebert discusses this issue in his review: "Miss May is reportedly dissatisfied with the present version; newspaper reports indicate that her original cut was an hour longer and included two murders. Matthau, who likes this version better than the original, has suggested that writer-director-stars should be willing to let someone else have a hand in the editing. Maybe so. I'm generally prejudiced in favor of the director in these disputes. Whatever the merits of Miss May's case, however, the movie in its present form is hilarious, and cockeyed, and warm."[7]

Vincent Canby remarked: "Not having seen Miss May's version, I can only say that the film I saw should be a credit to almost any director, though, theoretically at least, Miss May is right. The only thing that gives me pause is the knowledge that its success will probably be used in the future as an argument to ignore the intentions of other directors, but with far less happy results."[3]


A New Leaf was filmed in both Maine and multiple sections of New York City, including Lutèce restaurant on 50th Street in Manhattan and the interchange between the Long Island Expressway and Cross Island Parkway in the Oakland Gardens section of Queens.

It was co-produced by Aries Productions and Elkins Productions International Corporation, whose only other production was A Doll's House (1973).

Financial issues[edit]

In what would become a hallmark of Elaine May, the film's original $1.8 million budget shot up to over $4 million by the time it was completed. Shooting went 40 days over schedule and editing took over ten months. Similar problems dogged her subsequent projects, Mikey and Nicky and Ishtar.

During shooting, producer Howard W. Koch tried to have May replaced, but she had put a $200,000 penalty clause in her contract and he was persuaded to keep her.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "A New Leaf". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
  2. ^ "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, 7 January 1976 p 48
  3. ^ a b c Canby, Vincent, "A New Leaf (1971): Love Turns 'New Leaf' at Music Hall", The New York Times, March 12, 1971. Retrieved 2011-01-02.
  4. ^ McLean, Ralph. "Cult Movies: Walter Matthau shines in A New Leaf's superlative 70s screwball comedy". Irish News. Retrieved February 11, 2018.
  5. ^ Chow, Andrew R. (December 11, 2019). "See the 25 New Additions to the National Film Registry, From Purple Rain to Clerks". Time. New York, NY. Retrieved December 11, 2019.
  6. ^ The New Yorker
  7. ^ a b Ebert, Roger. A New Leaf review, rogerebert.com, 6 April 1971. Retrieved 2011-01-02.
  8. ^ "Gene Siskel Top Ten Films as Published in Chicago Tribune (1970-1997)". Official website of Gene Siskel. Archived from the original on April 2, 2012.
  9. ^ Rotten Tomatoes
  10. ^ Golden Globes

External links[edit]