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Tag Archive: Jack Lemmon


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.

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1959.  A gallon of gas cost a quarter.  Movie tickets were a dollar and color was replacing black and white film.  You could buy a new car for $2,000.  In technology the Soviets beat the United States to the Moon, with a hitch, crashing their Luna 2 spacecraft into the lunar surface.  The U.S. selected seven astronauts for their Mercury space program.  Xerox began selling copiers to companies, IBM made headway with its mainframe computer, and Jack Kilby invented the microchip.  Kids first began playing with Play-doh, Etch-a-Sketch, and Barbie dolls.  On one end of the country The Sound of Music opened on Broadway and everywhere music fans faced the day the music died.  The world first witnessed The Twilight Zone.  The gray flannel suit defined the businessman.  And in 1959 the great filmmaker Billy Wilder produced and directed his own screenplay and the film would become the best reviewed comedy of all time, pegging the number one spot on the American Film Institute’s registry of best American comedies.  The film was Some Like It Hot.  And it’s back in theaters this weekend for a limited release.

Some Like It Hot has it all.  Marilyn Monroe in arguably her best performance.  Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon only at the beginning of their long and distinguished careers.  The movie doesn’t take place in 1959–it is set 30 years earlier in the heyday of speakeasies and Depression era mobs.  Tony Curtis is Joe, a ladies’ man and gambler–the sax player.  Jack Lemmon is Jerry, a straight arrow–the double-bass player.  They play in a band in a speakeasy (disguised as a funeral home) run by mob boss “Spats” Colombo (George Raft).  When Joe and Jerry accidentally witness a Valentine’s Day massacre-inspired mob hit, they must go on the run.  They find an all-female band heading to Miami via train and disguise themselves as the original bosom buddies, Josephine and Daphne, befriending the band’s gorgeous and upbeat lead singer and ukulele player, Sugar Kane, played by Marilyn Monroe.  That’s where the laughs begin, and a back-up cast of classic Hollywood staples, including Pat O’Brien and Joe E. Brown, fill in the gaps.

    

Despite the popularity of color film, Wilder shot Some Like It Hot in a steamy black and white.  Wilder had already directed Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, so the pairing was an obvious fit.  Wilder and Lemmon would start a partnership that lasted until 1981.  Wilder was the true King of Comedy.  He worked on nothing but hit movies over the course of his career–serious stuff like Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Spirit of St. Louis, and Witness for the Prosecution, in addition to comedies including Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, The Apartment, Ocean’s 11, Irma la Douce, The Fortune Cookie, and Casino Royale.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Allen Purcell, the protagonist in Philip K. Dick’s 1956 novel The Man Who Japed, unexpectedly reminded me of a character from a classic Hollywood film from 1955, Ensign Pulver, from John Ford’s comedy drama Mister Roberts.  If you haven’t seen Mister Roberts or read The Man Who Japed, you’re missing out on two of the best comedic works from their respective creators.

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