Archive for Neil Simon

Buyer’s Remorse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2015 by dcairns

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Finally caught up with THE HEARTBREAK KID after meaning to see it for years. Father Ted creators Graham Linehan & Arthur Matthews rate this one as a favourite, which marks it out as above the general run of Neil Simon movies, and it’s almost unique among NS films in that it has a recognized director, Elaine May. The one other auteur collaboration in Simon’s oeuvre is THE SLUGGER’S WIFE, a collaboration with Hal Ashby which ended with the director booted off the film after turning in a first cut which featured no dialogue for the first half hour. An approach better calculated to alienate the king of the one-liners could hardly be imagined.

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May was a lot better at handling Simon, In his wonderful memoir It Would be So Nice If You Weren’t Here, Grodin talks about how Simon briefly wanted to fire him (after the first read-through) and constantly wanted to fire Jeannie Berlin, complaining that she wasn’t attractive enough. May graciously accepted Simon’s criticisms, soothed his feathers and carried on, never letting him know that Berlin was in fact her daughter.

May is so good at the comedy of conflicted response, and that area seems so alien to Simon’s work, that I find myself wondering to what extent she’s subverting the material — with the author in the room. From what he says in his book, Grodin was clearly aware that his character could easily be seen as “creepy and hateful” –and those qualities played a part in my reading of him, though maybe ultimately “pitiful” is a better word — this guy, who runs out on his wife on their honeymoon because he meets Cybill Shepherd, is never going to be happy, and he’s going to leave a trail of human devastation behind him. Grodin was slightly surprised at the number of men who told him they identified deeply — and uncritically — with the character, which suggests he and May succeeded in balancing the portrayal so that people with the same character flaws as Grodin would see him as entirely reasonable. I wonder if those guys found it funny? Fiona likened it to a comedy version of THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY.

Still, Simon did give it that title. He must’ve known what he was doing. He must.

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Jeannie Berlin gets a lot of the best laughs, though it’s teamwork all the way. Fiona loved her inability to behave like a dream girl. A lot of her behaviour WOULD work with some men — getting her boobs out on the freeway, for instance, which Grodin reacts to with hilarious, infantile panic. An exactly similar moment occurs in May’s previous A NEW LEAF, in which Walter Matthau emits a plaintive “No, don’t let them out!” and runs away. Maybe the reason Isabelle Adjani’s boob flash in ISHTAR seems to upset so many people — really, so many of the bad reviews focus on this moment — is because Dustin Hoffman doesn’t deliver a clear and exaggerated comic reaction to justify it. It becomes sexposition.

Berlin’s last scene is HORRIFIC and DISTRESSING! And then she disappears from the picture and we’re supposed to root for Grodin on his quest to get the girl. While this last fifth — the traditional three act/four part structure doesn’t seem to apply here — has some good laughs but is governed by a gnawing uncertainty and tension (Where is this GOING?) — it’s as if the bigger dramatic problem was not “boy gets girl” but “boy gets rid of previous girl” and with Berlin out of the way a strange calm descends, as Grodin’s character impresses by his rather astonishing determination. Romantic comedy sociopath.

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Words with a “K” are funny

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2012 by dcairns

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The advice of a character in Neil Simon’s THE SUNSHINE BOYS may be genuine showbiz lore — it certainly seems to have informed Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script for THE APARTMENT, which I showed to some of my students as a Christmas treat.

Jack Lemmon is C.C. “Buddy” Baxter, the “x” forming our first K sound. He works for Consolidated Insurance and his boss is Mr Sheldrake (Wilder’s lucky name, dropped into several scripts). In their first conversation, Sheldrake mentions both the Kentucky Derby (another Wilder favourite*) Where it tips over into the blatant is with Shirley MacLaine’s character, Fran Kubelik. Two Ks is definitely humorous.

One of Lemmon’s oppressors is Mr Kirkeby, which looks sensible written down but sounds kind or funny spoken aloud. Another is Eichelberger, which is comical either way. Kubelik’s brother-in-law is Carl Matuschka, and Hope Holiday is Margie MacDougall, wife of the unseen jockey Mickey MacDougall.

The film uses other kinds of alliteration, rhymes, assonance and echolalia. Objects travel through the film, changing their purpose and meaning with each appearance, taking their cue from the apartment door key which circulates from doormat to in tray, sometimes switching places with the key to the Executive Washroom (a place of hallowed splendour, as we know from WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?) — a champagne bottle, a hand mirror, a gramophone record.

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In one scene, Lemmon twirls a piece of spaghetti (which should really be dry and rigid after a week stuck to his tennis racket) and Wilder dissolves to a New Year party where Shirley is toying with a string of pearls as streamers whorl downwards — a double echo. And a meme of drunkenly inaccurate raised fingers (“Three,” says MacLaine, holding up four fingers) is transmitted from scene to scene and person to person like the “Type O” blood in SOME LIKE IT HOT. Wilder probably never achieved a script as tightly constructed as this before or since — he’s using a kind of farce structure to tell a story that’s mainly serious, and a bitter and cynical attitude to disguise a story that’s ultimately sweet at the centre.

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*In one anecdote, Wilder pitches a life of Nijinsky to the bosses at Paramount. “What kind of story is this? A ballet dancer who goes crazy and thinks he’s a racehorse?” “Yeah, but in my version there’s a happy ending — he wins the Kentucky Derby.”)

PS — a Christmas limerick!

Euphoria #17: It’s showtime, folks.

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2008 by dcairns

Fiona’s got a nasty ‘flu’, so I’m attempting to restore her spirits with another of those movie scenes that infuses you with optimism, like steam inhalation for the soul. 

Pure frug-ing euphoria from Bob Fosse’s SWEET CHARITY, his remake of Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, book by Neil Simon. A modest floor-show in the Fellini, visible for just a few seconds, is here inflated into a gigantic number with Suzanne Charney (and Ben Vereen!) This is the second euphoric clip in two days where a woman makes remarkable shapes with her body. S.C. is utterly incredible. Women want to be her. Men want to be on her. 

Neil Simon and Bob Fosse were great friends and contemporaries: Fosse was only two days older than Simon. He used to say, “During those two days when I was on this earth and you weren’t… I had more girls than you will have in the entire rest of your life.”

Another writer friend was Paddy Chayefsky (NETWORK, ALTERED STATES). When Fosse was about to go in for open-heart surgery he asked Paddy to sign his will as a witness. Chayefksy asked to read it.

‘Well, that’s not really nec-‘

‘I don’t sign anything I don’t read,’ snapped Chayefsky.

He scanned the document, then: ‘Well, this all seems — I say “SEEMS”, mind you — to be in order. But I don’t see my name anywhere.’

‘Well, that’s true. I mean, you know I love you like a brother and everything, Paddy, but you’re not actually a beneficiary.’

Chayefsky throws the will back at his sick friend. ‘Screw you then — LIVE!’

Hospital hallucination, take 1

Fosse’s surgery is gorily recreated in ALL THAT JAZZ, his penultimate film. He gives himself the best lines in that one. To first wife: ‘If I don’t make it, I’m sorry for all the things I did to you.’ To new girlfriend: ‘And if I DO make it, I’m sorry for all the things I’m GONNA do to YOU.’

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Style note: Fosse cuts rather a lot for a choreographer/director. His editing is very stylish and rhythmic, but sometimes it takes over from the dancers, makes it impossible for us to follow the WHOLE SCENE. True, it’s a cinematic effect instead of a theatrical one, but when the dancing is this good, sometimes simplicity might be better? My main reason for fretting over this is the horrible state of filmed dance in the mainstream media today.

In CHICAGO we get a modern director imitating Fosse’s approach, but with many more cuts, the MTV tradition. The dance becomes totally incoherent, and what people remember is the editing: “Wasn’t the editing great?” Well, no. It wasn’t.

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I still love Fosse though. Like a lot of theatre directors, he embraced the unique qualities of film with insane enthusiasm. His films are all about montage, juxtaposition, cross-cutting different kinds of fictional reality, performance and life clashing head-on.

If I ran a series of clips of Cinema That Makes You Want to Gnaw Your Own Brain Off, Fosse’s skin-crawling work with Eric Roberts in STAR 80 would have to be Clip One. Amazing stuff.

Footnote: just watched this again and don’t find it at all over-edited. Maybe there’s too much cutting in other sequences, but not here.