The plot–a legendary Vaudeville team, Lewis and Clark, are reunited to do one of their famous sketches on a major network TV special. They have not spoken in eleven years.
This film is sterling. I saw it on the big screen with my mom. At the time, she was mostly excited to see her beloved George Burns, who had essentially been in retirement since Gracie had died in 1964, with the exception of appearances on the Tonight Show and the like. The scene where you first encounter him–bald and slow–I might be remembering this wrong but I think it was initially a little upsetting for her. It didn’t feel like acting–definitely for 10 year old me, seeing a movie about two old men, I had no idea he was acting.
It occurs to me now; that was likely the intended effect of that “reveal.” It wasn’t just my mom–no one had seen George Burns in years, and now here he is, up on the big screen (and all screens were genuinely big back then), and he’s so…. frail. It’s a challenge to put yourself into a cultural context–for example, I remember my dad explaining to me that in Psycho, people were shocked and shaken when Janet Leigh was killed, especially so early in the film. He had to tell me what a huge star she was, and that people went to a movie to see this beloved movie star, and no one saw it coming. For me of course, the shower scene was iconic, so I did not have this context.
(Oh, my mom just called and I read this aloud to her. My memory of her reaction to first seeing George Burns onscreen sounded about right to her. I read this next part to her as well….)
I’ve never enjoyed Richard Benjamin onscreen–my mom can’t stand him either. When my mom can’t stand someone and I’ve known that my whole life, I have to be watchful of that influence. So in this viewing I checked, freshly, my opinion. Nope, I’m still not crazy about him. I am too aware of his performance, for one thing. But he served a purpose I think, at the time. Relatively handsome but still a Jewish nebbishy-type, yet strong enough to go toe-to-toe with Matthau, which is quite an achievement.
But it is the performances of these two old men that knocked me off my feet. From the moment we meet Willy Clark (Walter Matthau), I am in hysterics. And this is subtle stuff–I mean, the character is subtle like a fox, but the performance is incredibly well-thought and nuanced.
There was this moment during the sketch rehearsal–we’ve seen Willy move through different expressions throughout the film–we’ve seen him quite animated, angry, provocative–and now we’re watching this caricature doctor with a wacky accent. But there is a moment when he breaks from the doctor and he goes back to the Willy from the earliest scenes in the movie–this doddering, annoying, passive-aggressive man. I’d almost forgotten about him, but this is truly who the character is day-to-day; what we’ve seen is a stirred up version that doesn’t show up much. This was a moment of acting as fine as acting comes.
(For those who do know the film, or the play, it is this aspect of his character–the guy who quietly and obtusely enrages everyone around him–that is identical to Burns’ Al Lewis. They are as different as Oscar and Felix.)
George Burns is just as meticulous, as engaging. Restrained. Vicious.
This is Neil Simon at his best. His films have not all held up well. And amazingly, he is nearly gone from the current pantheon of film–kept alive mainly in community theater. But the comic genius of these two characters and their interplay is perfection. And what a joy it must have been for him to have written the Doctor Sketch–hearkening back to his days writing for Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows, which was already a fast-forward; an evolution from true Vaudeville. This must have been like composing music for Simon. My goodness, this film still works.
The sketch itself is fascinating. For me, it demonstrated the perfection but landed a little flat–and I wonder if that is the intention. Like, we are peering into the past at what comedy brilliance once was; perfectly preserved/recreated, and we are recognizing its brilliance, but on its own it is not making me laugh. I am curious what others have to say about it. The makeup in this scene, by the way, is exquisite. Screen makeup designed to look like television makeup intended to emulate stage makeup that is both outdated and also needs to compensate for their age. I’m dizzy writing that.
But why I even decided to bring this to the Basket in the first place–what a timepiece! New York City Jews, 1975. How many times have we mentioned coffee with meals? Richard Benjamin’s character had “a chicken salad sandwich and coffee” for lunch. Phyllis Diller and Steve Allen, both appearing as themselves, were cool and hip. OMG the set of Willy’s apartment–gives Peggy’s mom a run for her money.
“Yes, with an against-it!”
“The Old Actors Home; the first booking you get me in ten years.”
“Who do you THINK it is… it’s Eleanor Roosevelt!”