Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

In 1975, Simon used both his Odd Couple stars in film versions of his plays: first, Jack Lemmon in the previously reviewed Prisoner of Second Avenue, and then, in November, Walter Matthau, who starred as one-half of the titular duo in The Sunshine Boys, based on the play which first hit Broadway in 1972. It was originally supposed to ht the silver screen even earlier than it did, but casting problems held up production for the better part of a year. First, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were set to star, but Simon nixed that idea, claiming two feuding Vaudeville veterans needed to be Jewish (or at least needed to look the ethnicity). Then Red Skelton and Jack Benny took the roles, but Skelton backed out, claiming he could make more money doing traveling comedy, and in stepped Matthau in the leading role of Willy Clark. They went as far as makeup and screen tests, but Benny developed terminal pancreatic cancer, and had to exit (he died only a couple months later). For his would-be role of Al Lewis, the producers went with the man Benny recommended, George Burns (who hadn’t made a movie in 35 years), and the rest is history.

The Sunshine Boys is nothing less than Neil Simon’s valentine to the old days of Vaudeville, before TV, when travelling comedy acts were the big draws of stage, screen and radio. Al Lewis and Willy Clark are the Sunshine Boys, a fictitious duo from this era (given added verisimilitude with the casting of real Vaudevillian George Burns as Lewis), living in an era that has largely forgotten them, and their time. Willy starts things off by auditioning for a potato chip commercial, which doesn’t go exactly as planned. You see, the man is as about as senile as he is cantankerous, and even his nephew/agent Ben can’t work miracles. What he can do is arrange to have Lewis appear on a network TV special saluting the history of comedy… with his estranged partner Clark. No way Jose, says Lewis, who blames the man for breaking up the act by retiring, and so Ben has his work cut out for him.

When the geriatric gagmen finally reconcile, they can barely be in the same room together to rehearse, so Ben allows them to only show up for a technical runthrough - which they almost get through – until Clark starts in with Willy’s pet peeves, poking and spitting, and they’re at each other’s throats. But when all this lead to Willy’s sudden heart attack, it’s no longer funny, and the TV appearance is clearly called off. Ben calmly coaxes his uncle to face the music and retire, sweetening the deal by offering a retirement home for aged actors in New Jersey. Clark offers his condolences and wants to visit, but stubborn Willy wants to have the last laugh, forcing his partner to apologize for upsetting him. It’s their old act all over again, but the laugh’s on Willy when he discovers his ex-partner will be staying with him at the same retirement home.
In a nutshell, this is wonderful stuff, with Simon taking a break from writing for 20 and 30-somethings and turning his pen toward the older set. It’s a perfect fit, as the playwright’s arsenal of witty jabs and old-school comedic style feels perfect coming from the lips of these two living legends. Yet, there’s still the underlying poignancy that underscored all the other great Simon works, and here, it’s the fear of obsolescence that drives Willy and fuels his irascibility. Here’s a man who headlined major acts and emblazoned marquees, and now he’s can’t even do TV commercials. And he fears loneliness; the most heartfelt scenes comes toward the end when Matthau, for once not shooting off a wry zinger, expresses fear that his nephew might no longer come to see him. “Nobody comes to NJ unless they have a reason to” gets a huge laugh, but it’s rooted with a deep, end-of-life melancholia, as true and as deep as that felt by Norman Thayer in On Golden Pond. 

And just as in Simon’s other uncompromising works, the writer really knows how to turn the screws. He sets up Willy’s character by having the man get the wrong address for the audition. Over and over and over he asks where he is, where the director is, where his nephew is, where the real address is, why no one’s there – all despite his questions being answered by a patient albeit exasperated auto mechanic. He gets to the audition, asking more questions already answered, requiring time that doesn’t exist, doing retakes because he can’t get the name of the potato chip straight. After about 20 minutes we’re completely worn out by this guy, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the lengthy bickering sessions between him and his partner, there’s a repeated bit involving the lock on Willy’s door, and how he can never pen it readily because he doesn’t remember to slide the bold lock (Simon loves starting pre-joking the actors before they enter the scene; remember the winded visitors in Barefoot in the Park because they had to climb 12 flights of stairs?) But it’s all done in an invigorating, theatrical way – we’re being played by Simon like a piano, and it allows us to know Willy Lewis, warts, and more warts, and all.

And I also applaud the unpredictability of the film’s third act, in which we don’t get the expected payoff of Lewis and Clark doing their act on national TV. But the turnaround is as credible as it is unexpected, and it reminds us not to expect happy endings in life, either. We see enough of the act in the dress rehearsal scene to know that they’re good – what matters is that they’ve found each other again – for better or worse – and that’s all the artistic satisfaction they need, whether they know it or not. At first I thought their polished routine was too good; how could they be so incompetent in life and be so expert in front of an audience, But then I realized I answered my own question – it’s the nature of performers to have two lives: one on stage and the other not, and that’s clearly one of the themes of this movie. Willy may very well have been like this as a youth, but performing was likely a way of being “normal,” even if just for those few limelit moments.

DVD note: there’s a great audio commentary by supporting player Richard Benjamin, who talks informatively about acting in the film and working with Matthau, Burns and Simon (he started his career in Simon works so he knows his onions). There’s also a short film called The Lion Roars Again, made in 1975 and intended to drum up confidence in Boys’ studio MGM, which had stopped releasing films in 1973, doing it through other studios, primarily UA. They still produced flicks, and here we see the stars of The Sunshine Boys doing a press conference, with Burns doing the jokes we’ve pretty much heard a thousand times. This, of course, was the film he got an Oscar for, and it began his film comeback, one that would last for another 15 years or so. God bless the man.

Stage in Simon’s life?  None, really, just a paean to the comedy icons of a generation earlier, those that influenced and molded his own comic sensibilities.

This film was directed by Herbert Ross (minimally, wisely) and produced by Ray Stark and his Rastar Pictures. The film was not a huge hit, but certainly enough of one for the exact same team to remain in place for 1977’s The Goodbye Girl. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

Rating: ****

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