Coming soon: From the sublime to the ridiculous

Elaine May and Walter Matthau in “A New Leaf,” written and directed by Ms. May.

You’ll be able to catch Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times on the big screen at Metrograph this weekend. It screens Saturday, May 5, and Sunday, May 6, at 11.00am, so don’t forget to bring the kids. Or just go yourself; it’s among Chaplin’s best films, and worth seeing in a theater.

Yesterday the New York Times ran an essay by Manohla Dargis about the upcoming series “A Different Picture: Women Filmmakers in the New Hollywood Era, 1967-1980,” a 42-film retrospective that starts at the BAMcinématek tomorrow and runs through May 20. The retrospective will screen some old favorites from the period, including Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA, and Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends, but they (and Dargis) are giving extra props to Elaine May, two films from whom will be featured at the festival. Her first film, A New Leaf (1971), is a comedy that concerns an aging playboy (Walter Matthau) who marries a clumsy but wealthy botanist (Elaine May), scheming to kill her for her money; Mikey and Nicky (1976) is a scabrous anatomy of machismo and male friendship between two petty Philadelphia gangsters (Peter Falk and John Cassavetes). About May, Dargis writes:

[Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood] doesn’t mention Barbara Loden (Wanda) and refers to Elaine May (A New Leaf and Mikey and Nicky) only in passing. He notes that Ms. May wrote Heaven Can Wait and also that she dated John Calley, a Hollywood power player. Ms. May deserved far better, of course, and not only because she was at that point one of only a few women since the 1920s hired to direct by a studio. “I pitched very hard,” her producer said, “that having a woman director would be of consequence.”

Although Ms. May repeatedly clashed with Paramount while making A New Leaf — she later sued the studio — the movie is flat-out great. In one of his best performances, Walter Matthau plays a bankrupt snob who schemes to marry a clumsy heiress and botany professor played with sneaky charm by Ms. May. Paramount took the film away from her, softening it (in her version, the Matthau character kills several people), but its genius remains. John Cassavetes was such a fan of Ms. May that he appeared alongside his frequent collaborator Peter Falk in her fantastic Mikey and Nicky, about a small-time hood in trouble who calls an old friend for help.

To grasp how women and men are treated differently even in movie histories all you have to do is read about Ms. May. Her problems with Hollywood — she went over schedule, shooting miles of film — are legendary but rarely, if ever, are they framed as a matter of her auteurist prerogative, as they often are when male artists take on the Hollywood barbarians. (The author of a monograph on The Godfather — its director, Francis Ford Coppola, also famously fought Paramount — deems Ms. May’s three-hour cut of A New Leaf “un-releasable,” thereby siding with the studio, and describes her character as “homely” and Matthau’s as “an aging ‘gentleman.’”)

The decidedly wonderful Ms. May will return to Broadway in The Waverly Gallery in September. In the meantime, I recommend catching up with her excellent body of film work.

Finally, the Times also posted yesterday this “oral history” of National Lampoon’s Animal House, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of its 1978 release this year; it’s one of those films that’s great by accident rather than by design. The comedy, set at a small college in 1962, inspired a host of crude imitators and is a bit guilty of crudity itself — it ends with the rude, glorious, Dionysian destruction of a small American town — but it’s just as funny now as it was then. Unlike those imitators, Animal House used its plot as a pot to hold a stew of satiric observations about race relations, sexual politics, corruption, higher education, politics, class, anti-Semitism, and hypocrisy — and those issues haven’t gone anywhere. So far as the Deltas themselves are concerned, they’d be as out of place at Columbia University in 1968 as they were at Faber College in 1962, and they’d be out of place now (even if one of their number ended up a United States Senator). The film is available on blu-ray from Amazon.

Below, a short clip from Elaine May’s A New Leaf. Put the popcorn in the microwave and let’s get started.