“I always feel more like a writer when I'm writing a play because of the tradition of the theater ... there is no tradition of the screenwriter, unless he is also the director, which makes him an auteur. So I really feel that I'm writing for posterity with plays, which have been around since the Greek times.”
– Neil Simon
Was there ever a more perfect curmudgeonly comic foil in the movies than Walter Matthau? A fair question and one best answered with an unequivocal ‘no’. In his enviable career, Matthau made an art from being typecast as the embittered and cantankerous slob, often playing older than his actual years. Alas, that impression stuck – the line blurred between the man and his characterizations; largely, a contradiction of his genuine self. Fair enough, Matthau could be difficult on occasion. His rows with co-star Barbra Streisand on the set of Hello Dolly! (1969), as example, are legendary. Yet, those who knew the man best have attested to his openness as an actor with no ‘star’ pretense about his weathered façade. Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (1975) ideally casts Matthau in the mold of the ultimate killjoy, Willie Clark; a befuddled and belittling old time Vaudevillian who has yet to realize the good ole days are behind him. He isn’t the headliner he used to be, nor can he afford to be choosy with impunity about the parts he takes. Alas, it will take a stroke – and not necessarily of genius – to make Willie Clark see the light.
When it premiered on Broadway, Neil Simon’s play about two aged hams reunited for a ‘comeback’ TV special, though reconciled by fate, was an immediate sensation. Simon, who began life in modest working class surroundings, would carve his own niche in playwriting history by drawing upon his impressions of these struggles from life; his self-effacing criticisms about human stupidity roaring to the surface in many of his best efforts, including his first, Come Blow Your Horn. This early success would mark a turning point in Simon’s chosen profession, the moment when, as Simon himself would later explain, “…the theater and I discovered each other.” Simon would follow up this debut with a string of uninterrupted hits, including 1963’s Barefoot in the Park and 1965’s The Odd Couple; the latter earning him a Tony Award – his first of three wins (and 17 nominations). Forging a professional alliance with producer, Emanuel Azenberg in 1972, Simon once again displayed an uncanny verve for situation comedy with The Sunshine Boys.
Interestingly, the infectiousness of Simon’s bittersweet ironies would find even greater success in the movies; perhaps, because unlike so many transplanted Broadway to Hollywood hybrids, Simon was directly involved in rewriting his scenarios for the needs of the screen; blessed with an intuitive understanding, not only of the necessity to ‘open up’ his stories for the more expansive canvass of motion pictures, but equally imbued with an implicit knowledge of exactly ‘how’ and ‘where’ the tinkering could be applied to add girth and dimension to his modest narratives without delaying or deflating their emotional impact. The augmentations made to satisfy the cinema are slight, but pulled off with such finesse one could easily suspect Simon’s first love was, in fact, the movies. It is not. Simon’s stagecraft is usually limited to one or two sets; his ingeniously scripted interplay between actors – predicated on split-second precision timing – proving the integral ingredient to make everything click. Movies demand more, however, and many a brilliant playwright’s prose have suffered because of it.
Yet, with Walter Matthau and George Burns (Al Lewis) as his feuding fellows, The Sunshine Boys emerges as one of Neil Simon’s most stirring movies. It has since secured its rightful place as a barb-laden and rancorous screen comedy. Burns would, in fact, win the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award while Matthau lost his nomination as Best Actor to Jack Nicholson for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Neil Simon was, of course, inspired from life to pen this tale of a venerable Vaudeville team, caught angst-ridden and angry, though mostly unawares of their lingering and genuine ‘affections’ for each other, brought on by an unlikely reunion in their emeritus years. Simon based his ‘Lewis and Clark’ on two Vaudeville teams; Smith and Dale, from whom he practically pilfered a warhorse ‘doctor’ comedy sketch for the play and movie’s penultimate TV comeback, and, Gallagher and Shean, whose mutual contemptuousness served as the undercurrent for Lewis and Clark’s enduring and endearingly verbalized grudge match.
Walter Matthau, playing at least twenty years older than his 55 years, is a jubilantly obtuse grouch (precursory shades of his aged grumbler in 1993’s Grumpy Old Men). The onus of Willie Clark’s disgust for Al Lewis rests with the fact Al knew when to throw in the towel and fold up the act, while Willie has been fighting his slow sad fade into obscurity ever since the dissolution of their partnership. When Willie tells his nephew, that ‘as an act, nobody could touch Al, but as a human being, nobody wanted to’ he really is revealing far more about his own secret admiration for this man he cannot help but love, in spite of his aged prejudices and insecurities. With his viewpoint, that life is both ironic and tragic, Simon’s great gift herein is to give us Willie Clark, not as he might have been in his prime, boastful and brilliant, but as a terrifically oversensitive and anxious washout; the implication being Willie’s life stopped in 1953, the year Lewis and Clark split up. The only way Willie can move ahead now is to reenter the ring with this fellow artist he erroneously blames for ruining both his career and his life.
On the flipside of this equation is George Burns’ Al Lewis; self-deprecating and marginally senile; his varying moments of clarity unobstructed by the devouring acrimony that continues to haunt and impugn Willie’s ability to ‘find himself’. We don’t meet Burns’ loveably laid back counterpoint to this mighty belligerent for almost twenty minutes; the gap not altogether successfully filled by Richard Benjamin, as Willie’s perpetually frazzled nephew/agent – Ben. In more recent times, Benjamin has had nothing but good things to say about his costars; Matthau, whom he leaned on as an exceedingly gracious and giving actor with both his time and advice, and Burns, who proved the soul of professionalism. On the first day’s run through the script, Benjamin noted that while he and Matthau ran through their scripted lines, Burns was seemingly caught in a bewildered daydream, blankly staring out the window. However, when it came time for Burns to begin his recitation, he responded to Benjamin’s cue without so much as batting an eye or turning his head. As their reading continued, both Benjamin and Matthau were astonished to realize not only had Burns come totally prepared, but he had memorized virtually the entire screenplay, never once flubbing a line or referring to his copy on the table.
The Sunshine Boys is undeniably the beneficiary of such thought-numbing expertise; the cast treating Simon’s prose with the reverence of the Bible; enjoying the genuineness of their camaraderie, but also relishing the opportunity to be as charming as their alter egos prove riotously irritating to each other. We begin with Willie Clark, hurriedly rushing past Broadway’s bronzed statue of George M. Cohan, a pigeon perched to poop atop its head; Simon’s wry sense of humor, about the perishability of time and its deadly impact on even the most galvanized of reputations, already at work. When a passerby inquires what he is up to, Clark sternly admonishes, “What does it look like? I’m working!” Indeed, Willie is very late for an audition; a commercial spot for Frumpies potato chips, directed Mr. Walsh (Howard Hesseman). Walsh and Clark have met before. It wasn’t joy galore then, nor is Walsh about to tolerate Willie’s nonplussed delays now. However, Clark isn’t about to let a little thing like rejection get in the way of his ‘future’ career opportunities – such as they are; telephoning Ben at three o’clock in the morning (because his clock stopped at 10pm) to inquire whether or not he has secured the audition. Willie lives in a world of his own design; or rather, a vacuum for which the clock effectively stopped ticking back in 1953, the year Willie and his old partner, Al Lewis called it quits.
Willie’s apartment is riddled in memories, also a lot of emotional debris and collected junk from that bygone era best left in mothballs. The formaldehyde is heavy, but so is Willie’s heart – masking his more fragile concerns about being the one left behind; his grumbling, a shield of faux disgust for Al that keeps him alive. Hence, when Ben arrives to explain ABC has elected to do an hour long tribute to the greatest comedy acts of their generation, of which Lewis and Clark are considered one of the cornerstones, Willie vehemently resists to partake of this opportunity – unless, of course, Ben can secure Al’s blessing on the reunion first. Armed with a frenetic energy to bringing these two one-time titans back to the forefront of the public’s consciousness, Ben drives to New Jersey to interview Al. He finds the retiree a bald, seemingly drifting little garden gnome of a man, pleasantly curled up in a recliner on the sun porch of his daughter, Mrs. Doris Green’s (Carol Arthur) home. Is Al truly doddering or merely faking it to flummox the younger generation? Ben can’t really tell. Afterward, he returns to the Friars Club to inform his uncle the stage has been set for their long overdue comeback and reunion. Willie panics, throwing up a few riotous roadblocks as an ebullient Ben telephones Al, lying to him how excited Willie is to do the show.
Regrettably, Al and Willie’s first meeting to rehearse in his apartment is a modest disaster as apprehensive cordiality steadily gives way to dyed in the wool animosities. Ben bows out just before the deluge, leaving the old hams to flesh out their reminiscences and their disdain for one another. Willie blames Al’s ostensible vindictiveness for breaking up their act at the height of its popularity as the cause of all his woes. But the way Al sees it he ended their alliance on a high-water mark as beloved entertainers. To have gone on would have spoiled a good thing and ruined their reputations in the industry. After artistic differences occur over the reading of a single line of dialogue from their time-honored ‘doctor’ skit, and Al pokes Willie in the chest with his finger, the gloves really come off. Willie pulls a kitchen knife on his old partner, the men limping in tandem around a moth-eaten old couch until Al insists Willie telephone his daughter to have him picked up and driven back to New Jersey. How could these two have ever worked together for so long when the mere sight of one another now is enough to incite such vial resentment?
The last act of The Sunshine Boys is a rather poignant reminder of just how wrong two people can be about each other. After learning of their disastrous fallout, Ben rushes to New Jersey to plead with Al to reconsider doing the show. Doris intervenes. But she is unable to dissuade her dad from his commitment. The show, as they still say, must go on! Alas, when locked in their dressing room together, Willie’s temper quickly escalates and gets the better of him. He dumps a makeup jar all over Al, practically unintentionally. As it is much too late to cancel their appearance, Al and Willie go on and do their old doctor’s skit in front of a live audience. It all comes across rather cleverly, until Al inadvertently begins to poke Willie in the chest with his finger. Deviating from the script, Willie takes the opportunity to tell Al what he really thinks of him on live television before storming off the set, shouting allegations of physical abuse. However, pursued by Ben in the stairwell, Willie’s tirade suddenly gets the better of him. He is felled by a very serious heart attack and rushed to hospital. Narrowly surviving the ordeal, Willie continues to make himself a nuisance, insulting the hospital staff and his private nurse.
It’s over. Even Ben knows it now. Willie will never work again. The best he can hope for is an actor’s retirement home to convalesce for the rest of his days. Al comes to visit Willie in his apartment. Despite the catastrophic results of their last meeting, this time Al’s presence has the opposite effect on Willie, perhaps too tired and far too sick to argue with the man he has considered his arch-nemesis for far too long. Al tells Willie he intends to move into the same retirement home because Doris has recently become pregnant and will need the extra room in her house to raise the child. Yet, there is something about Al’s tenderness in these final moments that suggests, quite possibly, he is leaving the safety and comfort of his New Jersey surroundings to be near the one man he once regarded as his only true friend. As Al and Willie begin to shore up their relationship with recollections from the past, the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the breadth of Willie’s soon to be vacated apartment, the walls covered in B&W stills from another, presumably more sweet and familiar, epoch when there was a more even – if spirited – cadence to his own life.
From the outset, The Sunshine Boys attests to Neil Simon’s strengths as a superior observationist of humanity at large; able to ply and pluck the motivations of some truly imperfect, though fundamentally descent characters, built upon the precepts of the time-honored situation-comedy. Simon reveals more than an ounce of life truths lurking just beneath the laughter; or rather, his inimitable genius provides sincere chuckles through the veil of a few tears. Willie’s near death experience is, in fact, the audiences’ wakeup call. Life is imperfectly realized; mankind, more flawed still. What matters, at least to Simon, is not what came before this gestalt, but rather, how his characters react are brought together in their mutual resolve after something terrific has occurred. Like practically all Simon’s masterworks, The Sunshine Boys relies heavily on his playwright’s ability to erect a superstructure of plausible scenarios around character-driven moments of introspection. This is Al and Willie’s story – period – tinged with Simon’s zeal for stichomythic dialogue, crackling with clever waggishness, yet somehow retaining more than a kernel of believability to ingratiate these unlovable hams to the audience as regular Joes, in spite of themselves.
The zingers still work, but the emotional core of their loaded barbs is neither phony nor shallow. Simon avoids the vacuity of materialistic pursuits. Fame and fortune are not on either Al or Willie’s itineraries. Neither is doing the comeback special for monetary gain, or presumably, to jumpstart their careers. If anything, the pair is drawn to the tantalizing prospect of a reunion merely to see if what they remember as having at the zenith of their careers as their particular brand of magic has, in fact, weathered the storm of life. As such, The Sunshine Boys is a test of faith in themselves and each other; evolving into a brilliant existentialist ode to the virtues and vices of unbreakable friendship. It isn’t perfect and neither are Al and Willie’s reconciliations as the camera pulls back and the scene gradually fades to black.
One can never be entirely divorced from the past. And anyway, Willie never truly hated Al. He was, in fact, bitterly disappointed with Al’s decision to quit the act and has held this against him all these many years – that is all. With his heart attack, Willie’s stubborn resolve gives way to a sort of genuine acquiescence. He can still remember the good ole days, perhaps with a lingering modicum of regret, but now, is very much able to let go of the illusion that what once was might be so yet again. Neil Simon is not about giving us the clichéd and/or traditionalized ‘happily ever after’. Instead, a more plausible outcome is on tap; Simon’s mature farewell to two adoringly defective personalities met with a finely honed sense of proportionate drama, high comedy and pure farce. The fairytale is over; the nightmare that followed it too. Now, this is where real life – however much is left for these aged grousers – begins.
The Warner Archive (WAC) bats another vintage catalog title out of the park with The Sunshine Boys on Blu-ray. The film was photographed mostly under natural lighting conditions in Manhattan, New Jersey and on sound stages back in Hollywood by cinematographer, David M. Walsh, a personal favorite of director, Herb Ross. WAC has given the utmost consideration to restoring and remastering the film from a newly sourced interpositive. Herein, we get an exquisitely textured, subtly nuanced image with fully saturated colors to show off the intricacies of Albert Brenner’s production design and Marvin March’s set decoration in resplendent 1080p razor-sharp clarity. Indigenous grain has been lovingly preserved without digitized manipulations. Contrast is bang on perfect. You are going to love this disc, even more for the way it sounds with a very crisp DTS 2.0 mono track. Extras have been ported over from Warner’s old DVD; including a not terribly comprehensive or prepossessing audio commentary by Richard Benjamin. There’s also a screen test of Walter Matthau and Jack Benny. Benny, who had all but signed to do the part eventually occupied by George Burns, was too ill to continue. The audio portion from this test is missing – a pity – since it appears Matthau and Benny are having a whale of a time together. We get a few other junkets, a test of Phil Silver in the Matthau part, plus the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)