Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE ODD COUPLE (1968)

Neil Simon’s original Broadway play debuted in 1965, and the film version of The Odd Couple made its appearance three years later, with Walter Matthau reprising his role from the stage production and Jack Lemmon taking over from Art Carney. Simon wrote the screenplay for the adaptation, with Gene Saks directing, and the result is a very successful picture that shows its theatrical roots without feeling too claustrophobic. Like most truly great comedies, The Odd Couple understands that emotional honesty and even suffering are inherent components of humor; we laugh at Oscar and Felix because their plight is so human, because we recognize their failures in ourselves and know that we, too, are not always easy to live with.

Lemmon plays the tightly wound Felix, who moves in with his slovenly, divorced pal Oscar (Matthau) after his wife ends their marriage. Initially suicidal over the loss of his family and identity, Felix soon directs his compulsive attention at Oscar and the domestic arrangements of their shared apartment. The constant cooking, cleaning, and nagging make Oscar wish he hadn’t stopped Felix from killing himself, especially after Felix wrecks Oscar’s date plans with two young English women (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley) who live in their building.

Lemmon and Matthau share a remarkable rapport that sells the audience on their characters’ relationship, and therein lies the picture’s enduring appeal. We have to like both Felix and Oscar even as we shudder at the thought of living with either one of them, and we have to believe that these two men care deeply about each other no matter how much their habits and personalities clash. The movie offers us a brilliant study of the nature of men’s relationships with one another, a complicated subject given that men are generally unwilling to talk about such things. The rest of the poker group, played by John Fiedler, Herb Edelman, David Sheiner, and Larry Haines, play variations of the masculine types that fall somewhere between Felix and Oscar; their collective relationship revolves around a shared activity but transcends that when they feel that Felix is in trouble and needs their help.

Much of the angst that the men suffer in the film comes from their uncomfortable position as pioneers of a new sexual era, one in which wives decamp and take the kids with them, not because of one huge misstep but a series of small ones. We never see Frances Ungar or Blanche Madison, but their absence is constantly felt; Felix and Oscar both struggle to come to terms with their failures as husbands and their lingering feelings for their wives. Their relationship with each other gives them a chance to rehearse and try to correct the flaws that led to their divorces, although we learn that change really doesn’t come easily. Both men have such deeply ingrained traits, such ludicrous habits, that we have to laugh at them, but we also pity them because we see how these flaws have undermined their lives. Even Oscar recognizes the need for change. “You mean you’re not going to make any effort to change,” he asks Felix. “This is the person you’re going to be until the day you die?” Felix, the more fatalistic of the two, merely replies, “We are what we are.” Lemmon’s delivery of the line is funny, but its significance strikes home. Our faults may cost us the things we most value, but it’s still almost impossible to let them go.

Be sure to appreciate Monica Evans and Carole Shelley as the giggly Pigeon sisters; they would pay tribute to their roles in The Odd Couple by voicing a pair of equally silly geese in Disney’s The AristoCats in 1970. The Odd Couple earned two Oscar nominations, one for Adapted Screenplay and one for Film Editing; it would be the first of four career nominations for Neil Simon. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau appear together in quite a few films, including The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Front Page (1974), and Grumpy Old Men (1993). Gene Saks also directed Barefoot in the Park (1967), Cactus Flower (1969), and Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986). For comparison to Lemmon and Matthau, check out the television series version of The Odd Couple starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

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