AFF 2013 Dispatch: Elaine May and 'A New Leaf'

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AFF 2013

Once in awhile, you look at an Austin Film Festival panel listing and your heart just goes pitter-pat. Or thumpity-thump. Or whatever noise it is when you are especially excited about a panelist. I may be old and jaded but still susceptible. When I saw Elaine May would be in Austin for the fest, I decided I would go hear her speak no matter what time of day it was and what else I was supposed to be doing.

But last week was a little crazy for me, and I am never very organized with my fest scheduling, so it's not really surprising I got the date of Elaine May's panel wrong and missed it. (Dale Roe has a great write-up.) However, I did make it to Rollins on Friday to see A New Leaf for the first time and enjoy a Q&A from star/writer/director May.

This 1971 film is May's directorial debut -- she also co-stars in it with Walter Matthau. He's brilliant, she's brilliant, it's terribly funny, and I just found out it's on Amazon Prime streaming so I can watch it again soon. Preferably with my husband, who might find some sympathy with a character who's involved with someone terribly flaky who can't put her clothes on properly and has crumbs all over her front after eating and falls down and spills things a lot.

If you haven't seen it, A New Leaf is about a wealthy man -- played beautifully by Matthau -- who's been living beyond his means and suddenly finds himself impoverished. He has no skills and his only chance to keep up his standard of living is to marry a rich woman. He plans to marry an orphan and murder her so he can have all the wealth and no spousely intrusions. He decides on Elaine May's character, who is ... well, indescribable. Go get your hands on this movie.

George Rose, as Matthau's valet, nearly steals this movie, a difficult feat with those leads. It wasn't until I got home that I realized where else I'd seen him I've watched him many times as General Stanley in the 1983 movie of The Pirates of Penzance. Aha! And it was odd to see Doris Roberts, perhaps best known these days for playing the lead character's mom on Everybody Loves Raymond, as a sexy housekeeper. It was even odder when I realized that the moderator of the post-film Q&A was Phil Rosenthal, who created Everybody Loves Raymond.

AFF 2013

After the film, May talked about how inexperienced she was as a director for A New Leaf -- that she didn't really know anything at all about filmmaking. You can't tell that from the movie. She also remarked on how slow-paced it was -- Phil Rosenthal was pleased with the pace being slower than one finds in many movies today, but she wasn't sure she agreed.

I didn't know about the lawsuit May filed against the studio after the movie was released with a key sequence cut. She told us all about it and explained the sequence (which I've explained at the very end of this dispatch to avoid spoilers.) As much as I liked A New Leaf, I agree that I think the scene would have changed the dynamic, darkened the film and given it a nice edge. But it's enjoyable as is, too. Check it out.

One note about this event: AFF requires badgeholders to get to the theater no later than 20 minutes before a screening, or they will have to stand in the back of the film-pass line. (And at 15 minutes, you have to wait until ticketholders get in.) Several of us arrived at Rollins about 25 minutes ahead and still had to argue with the volunteers to stay in the badge line, which they closed right after us. So they're not fooling around with this rule and you need to get there early.

[Photo credit: Jette Kernion, all rights reserved. Please ask if you want to use these photos.]

*Spoiler: The scene that was removed involved Matthau's character committing a murder and getting away with it -- not his wife, but someone else integral to the plot. That plotline ended rather abruptly and this explains why. May had been inspired by Kind Hearts and Coronets. The studio felt it would make his character less likeable, and that might be true, but I think it would have enhanced the movie, much like the original trailer scene in Kiss Me, Stupid. Oh, dear, if I've referenced a Billy Wilder film then it is definitely time to end this footnote.