Archive for Neil Simon

Gold off Naples

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2021 by dcairns

In DR STRANGELOVE, Peter Sellers is getting at least some of his vocal inflections from Kubrick when he plays Merkin Muffley, and in TOM THUMB he’s doing George Pal. The third in the trinity of directorial impersonations is AFTER THE FOX, where he reportedly patterned his performance as Italian master criminal Aldo “the Fox” Vanucci on Vittorio De Sica, who he’d already acted alongside in THE MILLIONAIRESS.

It makes sense, when cast as an Italian, to have an actual Italian as model, especially if that Italian is going to be close at hand. And especially since your character masquerades as a great Italian film director. But the movie’s self-referencing doesn’t end there. Vanucci plans to smuggle stolen gold into Italy under cover of a fake film shoot — a film about smuggling gold into Italy — so he enlists real movie star Victor Mature, playing fictional movie star Tony Powell (but with a clip of Mature in Jacques Tourneur’s EASY LIVING to illustrate his career). Mature, who had been semi-retired from the screen, evidently found the experience as invigorating as his character does. It’s quite an early case of an actor sending themselves up with vicious glee, and Mature is not only a good sport but a proficient farceur.

Oh, the title of the fake movie (below) is a broad reference to an earlier, real De Sica film.

And here’s De Sica as himself, directing a movie. Rather excellent gag where a fake sandstorm is produced for the scene, and when the storm dies down, all the equipment has been stolen. This fake movie the real director is making stars another real director, John Huston, but confusingly/hilariously, he’s not played by John Huston. Maybe they’d assumed that Huston, like De Sica a serious gambler, would need the money and agree to play himself playing Moses. Bizarrely, he eventually did play a different Lawgiver in BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.

And is it a reference to Italian movie dubbing when Akim Tamiroff (whose presence in caper movies seemed to be de rigeur — OCEAN’S ELEVEN, TOPKAPI) is lip-synched by Maria Grazia Buccella? It’s quite funny, anyway.

Neil Simon, who scripted, reckoned that the film was only fair, and that there was more funny stuff on a cutting room floor in Rome somewhere (including Sellers disguised as a Beatle). But, going into it with low expectations — I’d seen it once, years ago, and hadn’t laughed much, and we watched the other De Sica-Sellers collaboration, WOMAN TIMES SEVEN, and didn’t laugh at all — we actually found it very enjoyable indeed. It doesn’t really have a second act, just a bunch of stuff, but it has one of the best closing lines in history.

OK, maybe not top ten best end lines, but top hundred. I like it because it destroys the reality of what we’ve been watching, it FORCES THE FILM TO STOP.

AFTER THE FOX stars Pearly Gates; Samson; Goodnight; Det. Milton Arbogast; ‘Uncle’ Joe Grandi; Pope Alexander III; Nero Wolfe; Lucrezia Borgia; Professor Henry Harrington; Kreacher; Baron Fabrizio Donati; Sgt. ‘Muscles’ Dunn; Capannelle; and Fran Garland (archive footage).

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.

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!