A New Leaf (1971) is a black comedy based on a short story by Jack Ritchie, starring Elaine May, Walter Matthau, George Rose and James Coco. Better known for her collaboration as a stage comedienne with The Graduate director Mike Nichols, May also wrote and directed (in her debut).
The film was a critical success upon its initial release and is now considered a cult classic. However, despite several accolades and award nominations, the film fared poorly at the box office and remains little known by the general public.
With a loan from Uncle Harry to tide him over, Henry has six weeks to find a rich bride and repay the money, or else he must forfeit all his property to his uncle. With only days remaining, Henry meets clumsy, painfully shy heiress Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May). She is the answer to his prayers, though Henry has to overcome Uncle Harry, Henrietta's lawyer, and his own distaste for marriage. He considers the latter to be a temporary inconvenience, however, since he plans to do away with his wife as soon as possible.
Without quite knowing how it happens, Henry finds himself taking good care of his hopelessly disorganized, meek spouse. Botany professor Henrietta discovers a new species of tree fern ("a new leaf") and names it after him. When she suggests he join her on her solo canoe trip to a remote area, Henry sees his opportunity, as he knows she cannot swim. The plan works perfectly; the canoe overturns and Henrietta is swept away down the river. But when Henry swims to safety, he finds a tree fern, of the type named after him, and comes to the realization that he has fallen in love with his would-be victim. He rescues her and resigns himself to his unexpected fate.
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."
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."
It was co-produced by Aries Productions and Elkins Productions International Corporation, whose only other production was A Doll's House (1973).
During shooting, producer Howard Koch, Sr. tried to have May replaced, but she had put a $200,000 penalty clause in her contract and he was persuaded to keep her.