Neil Simon passed away yesterday and in the interest of rapid response I shared an earlier post of mine that was perhaps less celebratory of the writer than one would prefer for a eulogy. This will be an attempt to redress that.
First, a few words about what Simon wasn’t. Somebody shared an Onion piece yesterday which I found appallingly off-the-mark. Not because it made fun of Simon (as there’s plenty of room to make fun of everybody) but because it was based on a mistaken premise that could only have been cooked up by young people only partially familiar with the playwright’s work. Based I guess on some vague awareness of the Brighton Beach trilogy and Lost in Yonkers, the piece cast Simon as primarily a writer of sentimental nostalgia plays. The comic premise, playing against that reputation — one he’s never had — was that he was actually nasty. Which might be funny if the real Simon were something like Mr. Rogers, but he wasn’t. If what you think you know about Neil Simon was that he wrote sweet, saccharine memory plays, you’re tipping your hand that you know nothing about him, because those plays (which aren’t the best example of that kind of thing anyway) represented just a tiny handful of the dozens of plays and screenplays Simon wrote or co-wrote, very few of which could be described as “nice”.
Like millions of others, I cut my teeth on the Neil Simon of the 1960s and ’70s, whom I think influenced pop culture in palpable ways. Through the host-organism of his comedies I think he was instrumental in mainstreaming such concepts as divorce, extramarital sex, and mild profanity in casual conversation into our culture, for better or worse. He certainly contributed to New York’s popular image as a place of yelling loudmouths, full of colorful insults and stress and angst, a town of crooks and characters, with garbage in the streets, and flashers on the subway. He didn’t only write about the 1940s as the Onion piece suggests; that’s late period Simon. Most of the time he wrote about the here and now, during a time of frightening change and apparently permanent decline.
In the late ’70s, Simon began to self-cultivate deeper ambitions, with mixed results. NY Times critic Richard Eder wrote of “first class humor” and “second class seriousness” in his work, and I’m afraid I have to concur, but at the moment my mission is to praise Caesar’s writer, not bury him. So here are four Simon comedies that have not just meant a lot to me, but that I have actively studied, broken apart, analyzed, and (a couple of them) even memorized, they are just that perfect.
The Odd Couple (1965)
The Odd Couple was undoubtedly my pathway to discovering Neil Simon. I didn’t grow up in New York attending hit Broadway plays. I grew up watching television. So I saw the ’70s sitcom adaptation of The Odd Couple, and then later discovered the 1968 screen version with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and, around the same time, read the published play. For a time I became a partisan of the nearly perfect film at the expense of the series, of which I was already a massive fan, as I blogged here. But I also became intrigued by the fact that Art Carney had originated the role of Felix on Broadway. I liked comparing the various actors in the roles, and this can truly be a nonstop exercise. Almost any male actor with a flair for comedy would die to play either of the co-leads in this play (and so would many females, and this has actually been done more than once). In fact, at this stage, so many HAVE played Oscar and Felix that illustrator Drew Friedman has had a great deal of fun sharing the posters and programs from the regional productions. He’s constantly adding to it; his blogpost on the topic is here. So…I certainly memorized this play as a teenager. My high school buddy and I dreamt of getting to do it, with me as Felix and him as Oscar, but it never came to pass. In retrospect I’m sure all we’d have done was imitate the screen performances and characterizations we’d watched countless times, but that still would have been an ecstatically fun ride. And anyway — as has so often been said, with real truth — there is only ONE way to deliver a Neil Simon line. The line readings are baked into the lines themselves, so strong is the music of it. Audiences love getting to watch actors play that music, thus this play’s perennial blockbuster success, and the success of the CONCEPT which lasts to this day. It’s constantly being revived in new forms, although seldom with as fortunate a chemistry as it had in its early adaptations.
Part of The Odd Couple’s structural strength is its dualism, where opposites both attract and repel, a well which Simon revisited many times in works like Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Star Spangled Girl (1966), and The Sunshine Boys (1972). This was also a period when Simon was fairly cutting edge (for his time and his chosen platform, commercial theatre) on the topic of sex, as it gets touched on here and in works like Come Blow Your Horn (1961), Sweet Charity (1966), Plaza Suite (1968), Promises Promises (1968) and Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969). I enjoy all of his writing from this period, but to me (as probably to most people) The Odd Couple is the pinnacle.
The Out of Towners (1970)
This was a favorite comedy of my both of my parents, who would rock the house with laughter whenever it was on television. It’s one of Simon’s few original screenplays that never had any life on the stage. How could it? A nightmare Odyssey through the streets of New York, it is a non-stop chain of slapstick comedy, stuff you could never do in any theatre. Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis are a middle class couple from suburban Ohio who’ve come to the Big Apple for his important job interview. Their hope is to catch a little weekend vacation on the side, but what they encounter is a combination of bad luck, dystopia, and Lemmon’s self-sabotage as his frustration builds so that he angrily alienates anybody who might help him. In the end the pair are a couple of limping, dirty homeless people. But he still makes it to the job interview! Directed by the underrated comedy auteur Arthur Hiller, it’s like a theme park ride. And I think it has been influential. (For example, I’ve always felt Scorsese’s 1985 After Hours was a No Wave riff on the premise.) I have not seen the 1999 remake nor am I likely to anytime soon. One of the reasons the 1970 one succeeds, in addition to its flawless acting and direction, is that it is anchored to its particular time and place: New York City as it was bottoming out as a hell-hole, the same New York as Serpico and The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (another movie which should never have been remade). There is an appealing darkness to The Out-of-Towners, but to its credit it is dealt with almost entirely through comedy. Interesting to compare it in this light to Simon’s later The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which gives us the same New York, the same Jack Lemmon howling to the heavens, but is a sort of early pivot to the more reflective Simon of the late ’70s.
The Sunshine Boys (1972)
I’ve been overdue to give this one more attention, as I have had occasion to refer to it many times on this blog, due to its vaudeville-related subject matter. The aging comedy team of Lewis and Clark depicted by Simon in the play seems based on Smith and Dale, with more contentious elements drawn from the examples of more quarrelsome comedy partnerships, too numerous to name (although I do note that Clark and McCullough were originally billed as “Sunshine and Roses”). The 1975 movie version is certainly one of the first places I ever would have learned about vaudeville. Although, it was an imperfect lesson: much of the comedy material in the fictitious team’s act is much more the kind of stuff that would have been in burlesque, rather than vaudeville. Jack Albertson and Sam Levene played the parts on Broadway; Walter Matthau and vaudeville veteran George Burns played them in the film (poignantly Jack Benny was to have been in the movie version but died before production started; some test footage survives however. A heresy perhaps but I know for a fact that Benny would have been much, much funnier than Burns). Hope and Crosby were also considered, but they were far too WASPy for the roles. Interestingly, I learned the other day that the uncle of Richard Benjamin (who plays Matthau’s nephew in the film) was also in vaudeville and that Burns knew him (see blog here). Much like The Odd Couple, this is a vehicle that continues to attract actors and audiences, and is constantly in revival.
Murder by Death (1975)
I saw Murder By Death at a drive-in with my family during its initial run, and it’s one of my happiest memories in the cinema. Kids learn so much through parody, at least I did, and this film was my bridge to Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and the B movies Simon clearly grew up on. It’s one of the few full length comedies Simon wrote that were in the vein of the ones his old Caesar colleagues Mel Brooks and Woody Allen were turning out at the time. Like Simon, Allen was to take a turn for the serious in the late ’70s, exceeding Simon many times over in that department. But at the time he was best known for things like Sleeper, Bananas and Love and Death, crazy “comedy comedies”. Simon was no stranger to this kind of straight-up comedy writing. No less than Mel or Woody he had written countless sketches for Your Show of Shows, some of which were this type of parody. But at the time when he began writing full length scripts in the early ’60s, straight-up feature length parodies of the type Brooks and Allen were now scoring with were still far in the future. Simon finally tried his hand at one and knocked it out of the park. (He also did another of this type, The Cheap Detective, in 1978).
Murder By Death is of course an extended riff on Hollywood murder mysteries of the 1930s and ’40s, with an all-star cast, and a bit of stunt casting in the form of author Truman Capote as the murder victim. It’s full of absurd twists and turns, Marx Brothers style word play, and unstoppered scenery chewing. I’m such a devotee of the film, I’ve never been able to get through the similar 1985 film Clue, which apparently a lot of people love. To me it’s like getting chicory when you want espresso.
Murder by Death’s most problematic element is undoubtedly Peter Sellers’ performance as Inspector Wang, an obvious play on Charlie Chan, Mr. Wong, Mr. Moto and other similar stereotyped Asian detective characters from Hollywood movies. One can argue that the characterization’s target is the stereotype and not Asians themselves, but it is undoubtedly a dicey area, especially in light of Sellers’ similar ethnic characterizations in other settings, not the least which was the later The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fun Manchu (1980). Also memorable in the film: Alec Guinness as a blind butler, Nancy Walker as a deaf-mute maid, as well as Elsa Lanchester, Estelle Winwood, Maggie Smith, David Niven, Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, James Coco, James Cromwell (in his first feature film role) and Richard Narita as the various other detectives and their assistants. Much like the previous year’s hit adaptation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Murder By Death is an orgy of period style art direction and comical accents. I love it when loving parody comes so close to the target. The film is one of the best examples of the fact that Neil Simon’s comedy writing chops were second to none.
We’ll miss ya, Doc! But I already missed ya. As you’ll note, the last of these scripts was from 1975. But Neil Simon made the world laugh on a scale the rest of us can only envy. He was a comedy giant, and the acorns from his tree now fill forests.