Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Exit Laughing: The Movies of Neil Simon

In two days, we’ve lost two very different men I consider American heroes. John McCain lacked for nothing when it came to courage and valor: brave in wartime, he later bucked political tides in the U.S. and had the guts to make friends across the aisle. Neil Simon wasn’t called upon for acts of physical bravery. But in writing 32 Broadway plays and almost as many screenplays, he increasingly used his comic gifts (not to mention the details of his own uneasy upbringing) to comment shrewdly on life in 20th century urban America.

I have a special affection for Neil Simon’s brand of comedy because over the years it has brought so much joy to my own family. Take, for instance, The Odd Couple, which started life in 1965 as a hit Broadway play. This story of a slob and a neat-freak rooming together after the breakup of their marriages resonated so strongly with audiences worldwide that in 1968 Simon adapted his script for film. (This is the rare movie comedy that begins with a serious stab at a suicide attempt.) Walter Matthau found movie stardom by recreating his Broadway role as the slovenly Oscar, while Jack Lemmon took on Art Carney’s stage role as Felix. But what my parents and I loved best was the TV version that took to the airwaves from 1970 to 1975, starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. Remarkably, Simon’s simple premise led to years of hilarity on this series as well as several follow-up shows, one of them an animated series involving a fastidious cat and a sloppy dog.

Screen versions of Neil Simon comedies brought serious accolades for a number of actors. Maggie Smith won her second Oscar for her hilarious turn in California Suite. Comic George Burns, almost 80, nabbed an Oscar and launched a brand-new acting career as an over-the-hill vaudevillian in The Sunshine Boys. In 1977, when Simon wrote The Goodbye Girl directly for the screen, I doubt he suspected that this amiable romantic comedy about another sort of odd-couple living arrangement (between a hard-luck dancer and a neurotic actor) would garner five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Perhaps the evening’s biggest surprise was young Richard Dreyfuss winning the Best Actor statuette over the much more serious and more celebrated Richard Burton (for Equus), as well as  Marcello Mastroianni, John Travolta for Saturday Night Fever and Woody Allen for Annie Hall.

As a chronicler of The Graduate, I’m particularly interested in the strong link between writer Neil Simon and director Mike Nichols. Nichols, casting around for a viable career after partner Elaine May broke up their sketch-comedy act, was asked to direct a very early Neil Simon play about newlyweds in a New York walk-up. Under Nichols’ assured direction, Barefoot in the Park became a palpable hit, running for 964 performances. On the strength of this play’s success, Nichols was invited by producer Larry Turman to direct his very first movie, The Graduate. He came quite close to casting the play’s leading man in the plum role of Benjamin Braddock. Though Robert Redford ultimately lost out to Dustin Hoffman, his endearing 1967 performance in the screen version of Barefoot in the Park (opposite Jane Fonda) helped move him into the bigtime.

One other Graduate connection: eight years after her slinky and audacious turn as Mrs. Robinson, Anne Bancroft was cast opposite Jack Lemmon in Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, about a laid-off exec driven crazy by life in New York City. Whodathunk she’d be so convincing as a loyal, loving, thoroughly frazzled urban wife? 

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