Saturday night I was working on my list of the best comedy movies. As always when I try to think through my list, the first movie that comes to mind is Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. It’s not only that the movie teams up two of the best actors Hollywood ever met, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, nearly every line of dialogue has a rhythm, perfect comedy timing that squeezes the pulp out of the English language. Simon passed away today at the age of 91. No writer accomplished what he did to entertain audiences with both his plays and films. Simon put forward only the right words to optimize each moment of his stories. Often the very best laughs were throwaway lines, humor that’s dropped along the stream of dialogue that must continue in furtherance of the story. So that means frequently you don’t have time to laugh before the net joke is set. I don’t laugh out loud at the movies very much–it takes something really funny to get me rolling, and no comedy writer has provided me with more laugh-out-loud moments of movie watching than Neil Simon.
My first introduction to Simon was in Barefoot in the Park. He wrote the play and screenplay for the 1967 film. If you love Robert Redford or Jane Fonda it could be in part due to Simon’s dialogue for their characters in this film, which showcases the actors’ talents and makes them incredibly likeable. The film was an instant hit. His characters are frequently frustrated, with others, with their own current circumstances, so the audience readily empathizes with them. We’re right there with them. For Barefoot in the Park, it’s a newly married couple trying to get their footing in their new apartment, with their new daily routine. The humor doesn’t just flow through the lead parts. The mother of the new bride gets her own laughs, as does the mystery man who lives upstairs.
Only a year later The Odd Couple arrived in theaters, another Simon play adapted to film. Many are familiar with the television series adaptation later, but nobody gave the rhythm, drama, and glorious comedic tones to Simon’s sports writer Felix Ungar and his suicidal friend Oscar Madison like Matthau and Lemmon. Ask me the funniest line ever written and I won’t skip a beat. I’d swear I almost died laughing when I first watched this film late at night on cable by myself, lying on the carpet, holding my stomach, tears filling my eyes, trying to breathe. It was one line that hooked me, a dropped laugh that scoots along with another Oscar Madison rant about Felix, this one about Felix leaving notes on his pillow. I’d include the video but you need the context to maximize the punch. Just put The Odd Couple on your list at the top of your comedy must-watch list. I wasn’t around yet in 1967 and 1968, but I’m sure all I need to know I can find in these two films. Simon’s works are far-reaching. The most obscure reference I can think of is a recent homage comic book cover from Buffy the Vampire Slayer that was an homage to The Odd Couple.
Simon achieved critical acclaim on Broadway and for his films, four Oscar nominations, 17 Tony nominations, and his dialogue resulted in 50 Tony nominations for the actors that said it. One of his only actual wins was the Golden Globe Award for his screenplay to The Goodbye Girl, a 1977 film he wrote directly for the screen, with his then wife Marsha Mason in the lead role opposite Richard Dreyfuss fresh off his success in Jaws and released in the same year as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s easy to feel for the single mother actor auditioning for roles that keep getting taken by younger women. The juxtaposition of drama and humor in Simon’s work can hardly be found as electric as in the rants between Mason and Dreyfuss’s characters here.
Of all Simon’s works I’ll leave you with one more recommendation not to pass up. Simon wrote the screenplay for the 1980 film Seems Like Old Times. Again, his writing showcased the actors, this time it was Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase, and Charles Grodin, all at their best. And again, the great lines didn’t just fall to the leads. Only last week I was looking for a recipe for something that might rate as high as Aurora’s famous chicken pepperoni. If you like dogs, you owe it to yourself to meet Hawn’s character. And Simon was great at writing lawyers–not the in-the-courtroom performances you see in Law & Order, but lawyers as real people. He nailed the young lawyer with Redford’s Paul Bratter in Barefoot in the Park, and he nailed it for Hawn’s public defender Glenda Parks and Grodin’s district attorney Ira Parks. Simon also showed his stories outside the familiarity of his hometown of New York City could be just as good when they take place somewhere else.
Keep these four movies (and the rest of his works) in mind the next time you’re up for something funny.
And thanks to Neil Simon for all the laughs.