A New Leaf

"..rich...that's all I ever wanted to be."

(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.

"Heavens."

“Heavens.”

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….”

5 Comments

  1. Reply

    Lisa

    May 22, 2015

    Hey, many thanks for reminding me about this film, which I haven't seen for about a zillion (approximately) years. And what was the name of the new species of fern she named after him (Linnaeun version of his name)?
    And what a nice Capraesque stroke to give him immortality with this; what better thing for a historian?

    • Reply

      Lesley Jakobsen

      May 22, 2015

      Ascophyllis Grahami! An immortal true species, like Brussels Sprouts.

  2. Reply

    John Halford

    July 26, 2015

    This is one of my favorite movies of all time, which I discovered by accident as a kid when it appeared late one night on television. I have virtually every line memorized, and while there are many brilliant scenes the exchange between Henry and his lawyer, Mr. Beckett, tops them all. Unfortunately, in that scene Henry makes a reference that I don't get. He is asking Mr. Becket about his stocks ("Well what of my stocks, my AT&T, my General Motors ...") but at the end of that line he adds what sounds to me like "my Amaratta Pete." I've replayed the snippet many times and tried to Google the reference to "Amararatta Pete" phonetically but I come up empty. Does anyone know exactly what he is saying, and to what it is a reference? I assume some sort of investment of course but, again, I can find nothing.

    • Reply

      Lesley Jakobsen

      July 26, 2015

      Dear John, thanks so much for your comments. What a wheeze it would be to meet you somewhere and trade lines from this recherché classic. "Are you related to the Boston Hitlers?" "You're more to be scorned than pitied." "I can feel my teeth rotting away from an excess of sugar that no amount of toothpaste can dislodge." "I still intend to sue you for slander."

      We regret to inform that we cannot disentangle the line about Henry's shares. The original script, published online, refers only to AT & T and General Motors. TVC will (with pleasure) re-watch the scene but we fear it will be as hard to discern as the strangled mutters that preface Peter Gabriel's song, 'Sledgehammer'. We surmise that Walter Matthau, with encouragement from Elaine May, extemporised. We are also confident he referred to 'Peat' and maybe he was thinking of that spectacular failure of 1929, Anaconda Copper, in so doing. TVC will attempt to obtain a clarification from the divine Ms May herself. Any conclusive answer will be published.

  3. Reply

    Lesley Jakobsen

    August 2, 2015

    John Halford posted a comment about this film, which continues to resonate with wise film buffs, and asked about one of Henry Graham's stocks. We cannot give a definitive answer but are fairly sure the reference is to 'Amerada Peat'. Amerada Petroleum Corp. was a U.S. oil company that became, in a merger, Amerada Hess about 1969. Whilst peat and oil occupy, we understand, different parts of the energy spectrum, Amerada had something to do with peat over the course of its many decades of operations. While we haven't been able to identify 'Amerada Peat' as a listed stock circa 1971, we think this is the most likely reference.
    We haven't been able to source a script that refers to it and in desperation, even consulted that fairly mediocre book by Walter Matthau's wife Carol ('Among the Porcupines') but no dice. Hope this helps!


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