(Dir. Elaine May) (1971)
Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) has a big problem: his sizeable inheritance has dried up and as his disdainful uncle tells him, he is “an aging youth, with no prospects, no skills, no character.”
The confrontation with Mr Graham’s solicitor, Mr Beckett, is a classic. After explaining with some difficulty to his client that he is broke, Beckett declares that “I have given you $550 of my own money for only one reason. Disliking you as intensely as I do, I wanted to be absolutely certain that when I looked back upon your financial downfall, I could absolve myself completely of any responsibility for it.”
There ensues a lovely montage in which Henry, stumbling into a Manhattan street, realises that he is ‘poor in the very real sense of not being rich’, thereby kissing Goodbye To All That, driving his Ferrari 425 GTV4 slowly along affluent streets, visiting his tailor, dropping by a favoured posh eatery, checking if he was still welcome at his racquet club, farewelling his polo ponies, fondling the objects d’art in his hideous apartment…His practical valet, Harold, recommends marriage as “the only way to acquire property without labour.”
Enter Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a rich but vacant Botanist, who hopes to “discover a new variety of fern that has never been described or classified.” Henry woos her by working up an immunity to the unique taste of ‘Mogen David’s extra heavy Malaga Wine with soda and lime juice’, vacuuming the crumbs away after she eats and boning up on Mendel’s experiments with garden peas. All the while, he is planning some botany of his own, with the help of poison from Henrietta’s garden shed.
After overcoming the formidable opposition of Henrietta’s grasping and unethical solicitor (“who do I know who’s pregnant and a good sport?”), surviving the shambles of a civil ceremony in which he accuses the flower girl (“that little woman”) of theft and vandalism (“she’s touching things…oh, no – she’s unscrewing my Montrazini”), standing up to Henrietta’s staff (without doubt the most contemptible bunch of thieves ever assembled) and helping her put her head into the correct part of her Greek style toga, Henry finds himself, surprise, surprise, falling for her.
The film looks unfinished and there are set-ups that just don’t come off, but May’s script is a dream and her turn as a beatific dill is sublime. Matthau is perfect as the misanthrope and the support roles are ripe but apt. “Damn, damn, damn: nothing ever turns out the way it’s supposed to, you work, you plan….”