Archive for Walter Matthau

Buyer’s Remorse

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


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.


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.


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.

omg gramps u r totes mbrsng me : )

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2013 by dcairns


Wilder on Wilder — filmmaker Matthew Wilder joins the fray with an impassioned, possibly insane defense of Billy Wilder’s despised last picture show, BUDDY BUDDY — a film maudit to end them all. He makes a good case…

As a kid who became aware of cinema in the late seventies, then moved into adolescence in the eighties, I had an experience of the Old Masters of Classical Cinema that I suspect is shared by many Gen-X people now shading –or careening—into middle age. We got the “late style” first; then the heyday second; then the juvenilia last of all. Which is to say, many an X kid’s first pungent taste of Alfred Hitchcock was FRENZY (coupled, of course, with its well-behaved cousin PSYCHO on the late show). Then came VERTIGO and THE WRONG MAN and NOTORIOUS; and much later—as one ticked off filmographies in a more academic fashion—came UNDER CAPRICORN and YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

For X cinephiles, sometimes catching these dementia-praecox classics first run, sometimes on an also-ran VHS tape (still a novelty in our puberty), we encountered the Grandmasters in Benjamin Button fashion. How exciting to see George Cukor mature from LOVE AMONG THE RUINS and THE BLUE BIRD into THE WOMEN and HOLIDAY! Imagine that that guy who made SEVEN WOMEN would go on to do THE SEARCHERS! And who would think that the hot mess who squirted out SKIDOO would go on to craft such elegant films noirs!


I may have a different emotional take on this than other once-green youths who got the dregs before the red red wine. Perhaps because of a chemical combination of critical hosannas for these architects of the Golden Age + the late, fubsy works themselves, I have always had a special affection for these shambling late films—so much so that I feel that affection steers me out of the realm of any form of objectivity altogether. Could one really, with a straight face, and wanting to appear of sound mind and body, say that one passionately loves Rossellini’s MESSIAH more than OPEN CITY? But I do, I absolutely do. The reasons are, I think, so personal and anecdotal, I would have to reverse-engineer a whole boring memoir to explain them. But let’s sum it up like this: even in forgetful ruins, dusted in dandruff you had to brush off their shoulders, the Grandmasters brought the touch of another, better world into the era of Atari consoles and Flashdance sweatshirts. Profoundly out of step with a high-tech Reaganite America, their work felt—and feels—like artifacts of a long-lost alien civilization.

There is late work, in the seventies and eighties, of these old masters, that feels elegiac, exquisite—the last sigh of a show horse that once flaunted its glory at noontime. Bunuel’s THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, Huston’s THE DEAD, Visconti’s CONVERSATION PIECE and THE INNOCENT, Preminger’s THE HUMAN FACTOR. Then there are those works where the antiquated sensibility of the maker clangs against the surface of the modern world in ways that are partly noble and stirring, partly uncomfortable-making.

And then there is BUDDY BUDDY.


To my knowledge, there has been no real defense mounted in a serious way—hell, in an unserious way!—of Wilder’s final 1981 feature. It is generally viewed as either giggle-worthy or grim, a signal that Grandpa needs to get with reality and hand over the car keys at last. The only kind word I have ever heard on BUDDY BUDDY came from longtime blue-chip auteurist and Wilder detractor Dave Kehr, who stood next to the police tape and wryly grinned, like a cop out of James Ellroy: “Well—it’s funnier than most of his recent movies.” BUDDY BUDDY was part of a pile-up of Christmas 1981 movies that signaled the end, no, really, the real end, of the seventies: oddities like the film adaptation of Dennis Potter’s PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, the seventy-one-minute Andy Kaufman sci-fi quirkfest HEARTBEEPS, the bizarrely morose Alan Pakula/Gordon Willis banking-apocalypse thriller ROLLOVER, a macabre film version of WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? with Richard Dreyfuss and John Cassavetes, and above all, Warren Beatty’s bank-breaking salute to left-wing deludedness REDS, all hit the multiplex like pumpkins flung off a highway overpass. None received as little love as BUDDY BUDDY.

A final reckoning for the Lemmon/Matthau/Wilder trinity, BUDDY BUDDY collides suicidal schnook Lemmon with hardcase button man Matthau, who is screwing in his silencer about to clip his target when a despairing Lemmon literally lands on his head. (If your skull is pinging with memories of Jerry Lewis’ failed hanging attempt at the beginning of CRACKING UP a k a SMORGASBORD, you’ve come to the right place: these pictures are incestuous cousins.) Of course, beta Lemmon moves from literally falling atop Matthau to falling all over him with an effulgence of puppylike good spirits; Matthau wants nothing more than to finish his deadly job. And if you guessed that stammering schlemiel Lemmon has to help pokerface bulldog Matthau close the deal, you may have seen one or two American adaptations of French farces!

BUDDY BUDDY would make a brilliant double bill with another 1981 comedy that played to crickets, John Schlesinger’s HONKY TONK FREEWAY. Both films are built on the quicksand of borrowed glory: HONKY TONK is a kind of spritzing lapel flower based on Altman’s NASHVILLE (but broader), and BUDDY harks back to many happier days for the three craggy comedians. But in its way, BUDDY BUDDY is unique. Shot in widescreen in brilliant Bel Air sunshine, with an insinuating Lalo Schiffrin score proffering sinister mock elegance, BUDDY BUDDY comes on strong with the confidence of a movie made by a thirty-year-old. In that, it resembles a more financially successful ’81 comedy by a chap of a certain age—Mel Brooks’ HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART ONE. The difference is that Mel embraced humor addressing the body parts of the middle regions. Billy’s humor is more behavioral and, how you say…cultural? Only whose culture is it, anyway?


It is hard to describe to a reader in our twitfeed era the sensation of seeing a picture in 1981 in which Lemmon and Matthau’s path is obstructed by a couple of dirty hippies in a hospital who birth a baby, and, after the kid is born, burst into song: “Happy birthday…Little Elvis!” (The looks across the theatre on “Little Elvis” spanned the generations.) For topical gags, there is a quackpot sex doctor whose typically Californian mumbo-jumbo seduces Lemmon’s wife, the statuesque, goosey Paula Prentiss. He tells a hotel conference of premature ejaculators to think about the names of the Seven Dwarfs, and he is played, with cocaine-hangover shades and a salon tan by a perfectly cast (and in-on-the-joke) Klaus Kinski. (A flyover attempt at doing some Youtube research on the subject yields the notion that Kinski, while a pain in Billy’s ass and vice versa, did not make any attempts on his life during shooting.)

Lemmon’s Victor Clooney—who is not victorious and does not resemble Clooney—is a TV censor who brags to Matthau’s Trebucco that he pinched a would-be clever writer who hatched a Spanish character named Senor Cojones. To launch Wilder’s kind of dated gibes at far-out sex therapy and wheat-germ-era California culture, you have to be quite a Senor Cojones yourself: the gags here inevitably play to “Springtime for Hitler” stares, as when faux milkman Trebucco blows away one of his victims, and Wilder cuts to the façade of Matthau’s milk truck: “Drink Milk. Live Longer.” BUDDY BUDDY brought a storied career to an ignominious close—so much so that Quentin Tarantino now cites it as the reason directors shouldn’t go on working into their old age. Billy got no more shots after that. Later, when Cameron Crowe met Wilder at an awards function, he asked with typical cheer, “So, what’s next for you, Billy?” “What’s next for me? Death!” was the candid, and accurate, response.


It’s not hard to see why BUDDY BUDDY was greeted with grimaces, but the picture is not so bad it’s good, it’s so weird it’s beautiful. Wilder has the poise, conjures the assurance, knows the rhythm of a joke. It’s just that the material he’s serving on a silver platter only tastes like food on a distant planet. His similarly derided—and genuinely great—1964 comedy KISS ME STUPID also felt detached, the product of a bubble, but its premise was a visitor from the sex-forward, decadent big city bumbling into Dogpatch, with comic, then tragic results. The movie looks all the better now because it describes the changing sexual styles of its moment without being “of” its moment. BUDDY BUDDY, on the other hand, is purely otherworldly. Don Rickles used to make jokes about Japanese snipers still hiding in the palm trees in Pasadena. The Billy Wilder of BUDDY BUDDY may as well be one of those snipers—the difference being, Billy climbed up a palm tree at the Beverly Hills Hotel some time in the fifties.


In an era when comedies are group-conceived spitball sessions where a bunch of comics throw out their best shots, and an anonymous committee cobbles together the zingers, you have to admire the brazenness, the naked risk, the cojones of this era of auteur comedies. For instance: every female person I have ever showed Blake Edwards’ 1981 S.O.B. to finds it grim and repellent beyond belief, but you have to hand it to him—it is a perfect rendering of Edwards’ acrid worldview, and it is as full an expression as any of his form of comedy. Spielberg’s 1941 is nothing if not the auteur theory writ large; and other mavericky efforts of the period, from Albert Brooks’ masterly MODERN ROMANCE to Hal Ashby’s dastardly HAMSTER OF HAPPINESS, have the personal signature we now associate with indie drama. None of them is quite so rich and strange as BUDDY BUDDY, though, where the grace of Wilder’s highly formal style—every set-up, every location is more beautiful than anything you’d see in a studio comedy now— and the perfection of the performers clash with gag-writing on the level of the smart-ass remarks at a Dean Martin roast of Doc Severinsen.

Is that such a bad thing, finally? Isn’t the pleasure of late style really “belatedness”—that aspect of the poet’s gift Harold Bloom describes as if it were some form of late-blossoming genetic defect that turns out, in fact, to be a treasure? And can’t we enjoy—or appreciate—aw, at the very least, love—the embarrassing grandpa, the Inappropriate Blurter, the alluder to that which no one remembers (or should), as much as the Serene Old Master, the unhurried one-take voice of wisdom, the repository of a long-dead classicism that shames us all? The mausoleum coldness of late style in movies can be bracing. But the spills, stains and overhang of BUDDY BUDDY prefigure 2013’s now highly commercial forms of “awkward comedy”—not to mention the truly awkward comedy that is the way we live now.

Matthew Wilder

Funny Guy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 17, 2010 by dcairns

Since regular Shadowplayer Mark Medin reminded me of Billy Wilder’s swan song BUDDY BUDDY — a pitiably grating and unfunny farce about a suicidal TV censor and a hitman — I thought I’d share the one funny thing that came out of it. It doesn’t quite make up for the film’s disappointing status, a black mark on Wilder’s otherwise exemplary career, but what can you do? As Wilder’s near namesake William Wyler (“It’s like in painting: Monet, Manet, who cares?”) William Wyler told John Huston after an unsuccessful screening of BEAT THE DEVIL, “It’s the kind of picture that, when you make one, you want to make another picture right away.” Alas, Wilder was denied that opportunity.

Anyhow, Wilder’s filming with Lemmon and Matthau (that team! It ought to be good!) and Matthau has to slide down a laundry chute. A simple stunt, and there’s a crash mat at the bottom to catch him. But the mat is incorrectly positioned, and the poor man clips the base of his spine on a hard metal edge (are you laughing yet?). An ambulance is called, and Lemmon, an emotional man, is sobbing as he cradles his injured friend’s head.

“Can I get you anything?” he sobs. “Are you comfortable?”

And Matthau looks up at him with those big canine eyes —

“I make a reasonable living.”


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