The Odd Couple (1968) Directed by Gene Saks. Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fiedler, Herb Edelman (105 min.)
"Who hasn't experienced sheer hatred for the sounds his roommate made while he was eating?" --Neil Simon. A comic institution on stage, big and small screen, classically mismated roomies Lemmon and Matthau try to cope with the reality of their divorces while reinacting the pathology of their failed marriages. Deft comic performances, rafts of zingy dialogue and a strong undercurrent of despair keep this classic fresh.
Neil Simon was inspired to write The Odd Couple by the experience of his brother Danny (also a comedy writer) who moved in with an agent friend of his after their divorces to ease the financial pain of paying alimony. They quickly discovered the same traits that infuriated their ex-spouses also annoyed one another. In his introduction to the screenplay, Simon writes, "Who among us, sometime in his life, hasn't shared living quarters with another human being? It didn't matter whether they liked each other or not. Eventually their silent anger became audible, complaining how one whistled in the kitchen, and usually the same awful tune, while the other one claimed control of the TV clicker and blipped through a hundred stations in six seconds constantly through the night? Who hasn't experienced the sheer hatred for the sounds his roommate made while he was eating? The play represented everyone in the world, including, I imagine, astronauts for weeks at a time."
Now, of course the plot is reiterated constantly in uncounted plays, films and tv shows, not to mention the constant amateur revivals of The Odd Couple, in both its male and female incarnations. Simon is appreciative, not just of the royalties indicating the ongoing popularity of the play, but that the phrase, "the odd couple" has become such a colloquial part of the English language that his play is constantly being advertised inadvertently in photo captions and newspaper articles.
Director Billy Wilder cast Lemmon in two landmark films in the first part of his career, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. But he also teamed Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie, resulting in a comic partnership that would last over the remainder of Lemmon's career (they would make 10 films together). The Lemmon-Matthau films dominated the comic side, although Lemmon's dramatic performances in films like The China Syndrome, Missing, Glengarry Glen Ross and Save the Tiger, (for which he won his second Oscar) were equally important in his career. Lemmon's worked for Equity scale on Save the Tiger and his commitment was so complete that he did a national press junket to which even college film reviewers in Cincinnati, Ohio, like myself, were invited.
Matthau was a stage actor, and came to Hollywood later than the norm to find himself in a discouraging cycle of bits and supporting roles, such as in the Elvis film, Kid Creole. Billy Wilder had wanted to cast him opposite Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. The studio refused to cast an unknown actor, and Tom Ewell recreated his Broadway part. Wilder wrote the role of shyster lawyer Whiplash Willie in The Fortune Cookie, specifically for him, Matthau's Academy Award winning role.
Lemmon and Matthau had never met before Wilder introduced them on the set of The Fortune Cookie. Michael Freedland wrote,"'"Once the film was completed, Matthau was saying that Lemmon was his best friend. Wilder told me they were like brothers. And Jack described him when me met as 'my wife.' But unlike Jack's real wife, Jack and Walter never quarrelled. 'We each know what the other's next move is going to be,' he said, 'we think for each other. It's uncanny.'" "They kind of clicked" Billy Wilder added, "They were inseparable from the very first day."
Matthau had played Oscar on Broadway, opposite Art Carney as Felix. Lemmon said in an interview with Michael Buckley, "The funny thing is that Walter--to this day, despite the brilliance of his performance--has always wanted to play Felix. In Boston, prior to the NY debut of the play, he was begging Mike Nichols, (the show's director) to switch parts and let Art Carney (who created the role of Felix) play Oscar. When we got to the movie he said, "Jack should play Oscar; he can do anything." He always wanted to play Felix because it's against what you would think of him. Every actor is attracted by that."
But Matthau said, "Well, I had all the living I needed to do that role. It came very easily, naturally. That is not to say I'm a naturally sloppy person. Nor am I a particularly neat person. I certainly know that kind of character. There's a kind of inner calm when you do something that works. You're kind of happy with it." Their rapport was ideal. Lemmon said, "If in the middle of a scene, someone gets an idea, there's no hesitation, we just do it."
The Odd Couple is a time capsule of a world where divorce was becoming more common (and the non-working wives always received alimony) as well as an un-airconditioned and smoggy!) New York. But a funny line is still a funny line, especially when the humor is based so strongly on character. And, it is much less sunny than the long-running tv sitcom version with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman as Felix and Oscar. Walter Matthau said in appreciation of his long-time collaborator, "Jack Lemmon is a clean-cut, well-scrubbed Boston choirboy with quiet hysteria seeping out of every pore."
(Sources include the screenplays, Odd Couples I and II by Neil Simon, Jack Lemmon by Michael Freedland, the three part interview with Lemmon in the Dec, 1984 Films in Review, continuing in the January and February 1985 issues.Photo in the Jan, 1985 FIR)