Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

Director: Herbert Ross                                  Writer: Neil Simon
Film Score: Irwin Fisch                                  Cinematography: David M. Walsh
Starring: George Burns, Walter Matthau, Richard Benjamin and Carol Arthur

Though Neil Simon has always been hit or miss for me, there is no denying his comedic talents. No one in the seventies, or any other decade for that matter, was able to consistently churn out one comedy gem after another, year in and year out. When look at in purely logistical terms, he is the Stephen King of Broadway, but with screams of laughter instead of horror. The Sunshine Boys was another in a long line of hits for the playwright going back to the early sixties. The play premiered in 1972 with Sam Levene and Jack Albertson in the title roles. Alan Arkin was the director. The play ran well over a year and earned Tony nominations for Simon for best play, Albertson for best actor, and Arkin for best director. The play was revived twenty five years later featuring the stars of another of Simon’s brainchild’s, The Odd Couple, but in it’s television form, Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. One of the interesting things about the film version is that the part played by Matthau is clearly the lead role in the film, but the Academy Award that year for best supporting actor went to George Burns, as Matthau had already won a statuette for his work in The Fortune Cookie by Billy Wilder, yet another collaboration between Matthau and Jack Lemon. Matthau was also nominated that year for best actor, as was Simon for the adaptation of his stage play.

The film begins with Walter Matthau wandering through New York looking for an address. His nephew, Richard Benjamin, has arranged an audition with commercial director Howard Hessman. He’s an hour late because he went to the West Side instead of the East Side, and he can’t remember the name of the potato chips once he gets there. Matthau was one half of one of the great comedy teams in vaudeville. He lives alone, a grouchy old man who has a great comedic touch that infuriates everyone he talks to. When Benjamin gets him a job on an ABC special, Matthau refuses because he won’t work with his old partner, George Burns. Benjamin makes the trek out to New Jersey where Burns is living with his daughter. Though he appears to have no short-term memory whatsoever, he agrees to do the show. Then Benjamin rushes back to see his uncle, who agrees only on the condition that Burns knows he’s against doing the show. Long before there was Grumpy Old Men with the two stars of The Odd Couple, there were The Sunshine Boys. It turns out Matthau is still angry that Burns decided to retire and walk away from the act before Matthau was ready. The reunion, of course, has disastrous results and serves up plenty of the kind of comedy that Simon is known for. Even the ending, which had the potential for maudlin sentimentality, is perfectly done in a realistic and yet upbeat manner.

Originally the roles had gone to Jack Benny and Red Skelton, but both of those actors were forced to drop out. Benny suggested his role go to fellow vaudevillian George Burns, while Matthau was a known quantity for Simon. Both of the actors do a terrific job, especially Matthau as the volatile Willy Clark. One of the really nice bits of casting is Richard Benjamin who plays the straight man to Matthau and comes off much more convincing than he did later in a series of bad comedies later in the decade. Also appearing in a bit part at the beginning of the film is the great F. Murray Abraham as an auto mechanic with a full head of hair. While the film score by Irwin Fisch is serviceable at best, one of the unsung aspects of the film is the tremendously masterful work by cinematographer David M. Walsh. His use of moving camera, not only in tracking shots, but in front and behind the actors is a much needed way of opening up the long sections of dialogue that take place in Matthau’s apartment. The film is a wealth of Jewish comedy of the kind that Simon was so versed in that one would have thought he invented it. Sure, it wears thin after a while, but there is so much to be impressed by that it doesn’t really matter. Matthau was already a major film star, but this was Burns’ first film in 39 years and it sparked one of the most impressive comebacks in Hollywood history as he went on to make several more moneymaking films at the end of this career. The Sunshine Boys may not be to everyone’s liking, including mine, but it is an undeniable comedy classic.

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