Friday, October 08, 2010

Overlooked and Forgotten

This month would have been actor Walter Matthau's 90th birthday.

I suppose, when most people think of Matthau, they think of the work he did with Jack Lemmon in "The Odd Couple" movies and "The Fortune Cookie." I certainly do.

Or perhaps they think of "The Sunshine Boys," the movie in which Matthau's co–star was the legendary George Burns. That's another one that I think of frequently.

But, lately, my thoughts have been drawn to a film that got a warm reception from critics and audiences when it was released nearly 40 years ago but has been largely overlooked and forgotten since — "A New Leaf."

It is rarely seen on TV anymore, and I simply can't understand why. Matthau's performance as playboy Henry Graham (an "aging youth," in his uncle's words, who is unskilled at anything except being one of the idle rich) is nothing short of brilliant.

But he is matched with the deliciously dry, deadpan delivery of Elaine May, a talented writer and director who is seldom recognized for what she has accomplished. Perhaps she stole some of his thunder.

May wore many hats for "A New Leaf." She was writer and director as well as co–star, adapting a short story into a dark comedy that managed to work in some timeless truths at the same time. Matthau's Henry was self–absorbed; May's Henrietta was the opposite, and together they proved that opposites really do attract — sometimes in spite of themselves.

It's hard to discuss the plot in much detail because so much of the humor of the film has to be experienced. The attached clips are funny — and even presented in a kind of chronological context — but you can't appreciate the film until you see it.

And I encourage you to see it whenever you can.

In a nutshell, though, Matthau plays an aging playboy who has spent his inheritance and is not equipped, by training or temperament, to support himself through labor. His options seem limited and, aside from the step that he can't quite bring himself to take — suicide — he decides to ask his uncle, who was his childhood guardian, for some money.

His uncle refuses so Henry makes a deal with him. His uncle will loan him enough money to keep up appearances for six weeks, during which time he will try to find a wealthy bride, court her and marry her. After the wedding, with his newly acquired fortune, he will repay his uncle.

In the event that he fails to find a bride by the end of the six weeks, he will give all his possessions to his uncle.

Henry's situation looks bleak when the days go by, and all his attempts to woo rich single girls fail. It looks like his uncle (delightfully played by James Coco) will win their wager.

But fate intervenes, and Henry happens to meet Henrietta. She is the heir to a huge fortune, shy (painfully so), naive, klutzy, a botanist.

Upon meeting her and learning of all her shortcomings, Henry, feeling the pressure of the deadline looming only days away, mutters, "She's perfect."

So Henry sets about courting Henrietta and wins his wager with his uncle. But there are complications.

For one, Henrietta's lawyer and her domestic staff have been taking advantage of her trusting nature for years and aren't happy about having to share their gravy train with the new husband. Henry, on the other hand, has no intention of sharing anything with anyone and dismisses them all.

The marriage also encounters opposition from Henry's uncle, who doesn't want to lose his bet.

And the couple's greatest obstacle to wedded bliss is Henry's own self–centered nature. At heart, you see, he is a confirmed bachelor. There is no room for a significant other in his world. He needs Henrietta's money to live the lifestyle to which he is accustomed, but he doesn't need her, and he tries to find a way to do away with her so he can have it all.

But, in the end, he realizes that he really does love her, and the movie ends with the two of them walking away together. "I'll always be able to count on you, won't I?" the hopelessly naive Henrietta says to Henry, and he replies, resignedly, "I'm afraid so."

In many ways, I have come to see it as the triumph of Matthau's career. The character of Henry required him to walk a fine line. Contrary to what some would have you believe, comedy is not always comedy.

In this film, Matthau had to alternate between screwball comedy and a comedy that was sometimes understated and cynical. His role sometimes veered into dramatic territory — but anyone who ever saw his performance in "Fail–Safe" knows he was capable of dramatic turns, even if he was known for his comedy.

But movie viewers who are only old enough to remember his latter years may not realize that Matthau got his start in dramatic roles, and he was equally skilled at both drama and comedy.

Walking the tightrope that he did in "A New Leaf" proved it.