In the 1970’s, the big three of American comedy were Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Neil Simon. Simon didn’t act and direct like the other two, but made up for it in productivity – during that decade, twelve films were based either on his plays or on his original screenplays, and he was nominated three times for an Oscar (without ever winning). When I was first getting into movies at the end of that decade, I saw a lot of Simon’s films – they were usually TV-friendly and therefore easily accessible, and they usually starred actors I liked, such as Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Of course, judged by the standards of that era (which were pretty damn high) they didn’t seem like particularly important films, but I would frantically mine American cinema for workable clues to adulthood, and it seemed to me I was more likely to turn out like a Neil Simon character than, you know, a Scorsese one. This was a broadly correct prediction, although I’m happy to say I’m probably less neurotic than most of his people (let alone Scorsese’s).
Willie and Al
The Sunshine Boys was one of my favourites, because it intersected with another of my objects of fascination, the textures and structures of classic American showbiz – for example, I liked the idea of being the kind of person who read Variety, and indeed I subscribed to it for many years, for as long as it retained any faint smell of its past folk-lorish self. It depicts Willie Clark and Al Lewis, who were partners for decades in a successful vaudeville act, until they broke up in acrimony; as the play begins, they haven’t spoken for over a decade. Willie’s nephew, an agent, gets them a booking on a TV salute to comedy’s golden age: they can do the show on autopilot, as long as they can stand being in the same room as each other.
The movie was directed by Herbert Ross in 1975, and starred Matthau and George Burns, a now-classic combination. Matthau was actually twenty-four years younger than his co-star, but it didn’t matter a bit, when his portrayal of the aging Willie was so entertainingly broad and stylized. Burns in contrast kept it dry and tight, and ended up winning an Oscar. The play is currently on stage here, at Soulpepper’s theatre in the Distillery District, and I went to see it the other week. It stars Kenneth Welsh and Eric Peterson – no doubt beloved Canadian veterans, but not because of their long association with dumb jokes and slapstick. Peterson seems like too small a personality to embody Willie’s sloppy charisma, and Welsh’s attempt to channel Burns too often comes across as mere inertia. You never really feel either how they could have worked together so effectively, or fallen out so savagely (it’s obvious that Willie’s stated reasons – that Al kept poking him with his finger and spitting on him while pronouncing words starting with “T” – are the tip of an iceberg, but we surely ought to feel the shape of that iceberg more fully).
Also, given the emphasis in the play on comic timing and delivery, the pacing is too slack – I kept registering moments where director Ted Dykstra should have told them not to take a pause (especially ironic in a play which explicitly talks about the timing of jokes. For my money, Jordan Pettle as the nephew gives the best performance in the play: although it’s a much less showy part, everything he says in it sounds natural and unforced (and more nuanced than Richard Benjamin was in the movie).
Still, I enjoyed sitting there and ticking off the lines, as well as waiting to see if everyone in the perilously ancient audience would make it through to the end. The program book gamely argues that “hidden in the hilarity are real fears about aging, being left behind, and being relegated to history…we root for them, even as we laugh at their pride, their blindness and their need to be right.” Well, I suppose that’s right, but not much more than these “real fears” might be detected in the subtext to any depiction of older people. The play undercuts any claims to emotional reality through a rather opportunistic approach to Willie and Al’s frailties, dialing their senility up or down as the context requires (part of the movie’s achievement is in making this coherent – we feel how the two of them rouse each other to function more effectively, even if it’s just for the purpose of doling out abuse). I doubt it’s one of Simon’s most deeply felt works – it’s more about executing a concept than exploring one.
Not what it used to be
Coincidentally, the play has also recently been revived in London’s West End, possibly with a Broadway transfer ahead: that version stars Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths, and supposedly digs a little more deeply into the characters. The reviews for the Soulpepper version were a bit flat – it didn’t seem like a lot of the critics really saw much point to it. Indeed, if Soulpepper did too much of this kind of thing, they might as well just convert the whole place into a dinner theatre. But on the other hand, Neil Simon didn’t attain his status just by being glib and prolific: his body of work encompasses a vast examination of love and discord and anxiety and loss, and since his heyday wasn’t so long ago, it’s tempting to think it can speak to us now. Or at least, to the privileged group of us who can afford theatre tickets, to be blunt about it.
And yet, when I was watching the movie again, a few days after seeing the play, I kept registering how far away it seems. Of course, this particular Simon work was always going for that – the opening credits run over a montage of old vaudeville bits, followed by a nice opening shot of a now desolate marquee; soon after that Matthau and Benjamin walk past the old Ed Sullivan theatre, dirty and derelict in 1975, but nowadays cleaned-up and shining every night as the venue for the Letterman show. It’s progress, of course, but Letterman doesn’t pretend the show has the same heart and kick it used to, and so it goes with New York, and with so much else. The movie of The Sunshine Boys gains from dirt and clutter and the weight of memories and traditions, like waiting every Wednesday for Variety to find out who died, a vigil which by its nature provides a measure of commemoration, even if you can’t remember who the people you’re commemorating actually were. Of course the present isn’t what it used to be, but equally as depressing, neither is the past.