Neil Simon 04 July 1927-26 August 2018

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The great Neil Simon has died. The lights on Broadway will dim but our hearts will always beat lighter, thanks to his wit, his genius, his love of the human condition.

I love living. I have some problems with my life, but living is the best thing they’ve come up with so far.

Suicide in Buffalo is redundant.

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Barefoot in the Park (1967)

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Make him feel important. If you do that, you’ll have a happy and wonderful marriage – like two out of every ten couples.  Newlyweds Corie (Jane Fonda), a free spirit, and Paul Bratter (Robert Redford), an uptight lawyer, move into a sixth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village. She’s up for anything, he’s a stuffed shirt. The stairs are hell to climb and the apartment is tiny, with barely a utility or a functioning appliance. Corie tries to find a companion for mother, Ethel (Mildred Natwick), who is now alone, and sets up Ethel with Greek neighbor Victor (Charles Boyer). Inappropriate behavior on a double date at a restaurant across the river causes conflict as well as a major hangover, and the young couple considers divorce as Corie realises they are utterly mismatched and then she finds out her mother is missing … I feel like we’ve died and gone to heaven – only we had to climb up.  Neil Simon adapted his own play and Redford returned to the role he had made his own on Broadway. Natwick also reprises her role as his mother-in-law and she has some rare lines about marriage. Re-teamed with his co-star Fonda, from The Chase, Redford makes light of the banter that is the staple of this marital romcom, which is mostly confined to the disastrously small apartment in which the relationship seems to unravel as the heating fails, the phone dies, and the philandering Victor uses the bedroom as a shortcut to his upstairs apartment. The biggest part of the plot is the running joke about the stairs but this is bright, breezy if slight entertainment, sustained by wit and charm, with fantastic star performances fuelling the whole show. Directed by Gene Saks.

The Odd Couple (1968)

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Don’t point that finger at me unless you intend to use it. Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) is suicidal over his divorce and checks into a cheap hotel to off himself. Then his back gives out, he has second thoughts and he calls his friend Oscar the sportswriter (Walter Matthau) in the middle of their regular poker game. Oscar figures he can save Felix from himself and invites him to move in. Felix’s neat obsession drives slobby Oscar crazy and he arranges a double date with the English Pigeon sisters from another apartment upstairs but Felix cries about his divorce and it sends the empathetic ladies home and Oscar over the edge. Mike Nichols’ staging is replicated here to the extent that you feel you’re watching a lot of this on the other side of the proscenium. However that doesn’t detract from the strength of the performances, grounded in Neil Simon’s mordant wit:  who sends a suicide telegram?  How two mismatched men get over their divorced status and then enter a virtual marriage themselves and find out what it is that made their wives leave them is the whole show. There’s terrific support from Herb (TV’s Big John, Little John) Edelman as Murray the cop and John Fiedler as Vinnie, who get a taste for Felix’s delicious sandwiches even if the stench of disinfectant from the playing cards forces them out. With a notable score by Neal Hefti (how could you forget that theme), a screenplay by Simon himself and a rather theatrical directing job by Gene Saks, this is a good but not great comedy, but marks the first of four collaborations between the writer and Lemmon, that Everyman of Seventies cinema.

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

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Ask an actor a question you get his credits. A confection so tonally sublime it’s ridiculous. Neil Simon wrote a screenplay about Dustin Hoffman’s early days starring Robert De Niro and directed by Mike Nichols. De Niro was all wrong – comedy not quite being his thing – and Nichols quit and Simon went back to the drawing board and came up with this and a far more simpatico cast several months later with a new director, Herbert Ross. Paula (Marsha Mason, ie Mrs Simon) is the former Broadway dancer who finds out her married lover has abandoned her and daughter Lucy (the brilliantly smart-assed Quinn Cummings) to do a movie in Italy (with Bertolucci!) and without her knowledge has sublet his apartment where they live to a colleague straight in from Chicago. Actor Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss) is self-conscious, neurotic and driven and fussy and moves in to Lucy’s bedroom as Paula realises she has nowhere else and won’t move out and needs someone to pay the rent. Elliot is preparing to give his off-off-off-off-Off Broadway Richard III for director Mark (Paul Benedict) who wants him to play it as ‘the queen who wants to be King.’ Elliot succumbs. As Paula tries to get fit and lose flab to return to the stage, Elliot’s camp-as-a-caravan site Richard flops terribly and her sympathy for him becomes something else. Their living arrangements are suddenly rendered more complicated … The humour, the performances and the text are tightrope-worthy:  Paula could be a shrew in the wrong hands (Simon famously declared he hated actresses…); Elliot could be plain irritating (Dreyfuss is simply perfect in an Oscar-winning role); and the screamingly funny queer reading of Richard III just couldn’t be done nowadays (unless a woman were playing it….) because the millennials/snowflakes/whatever identity politics you’re having yourselves would be crucifying everyone concerned. And Quinn Cummings, who later became a part of the wonderful TV show Family, is simply brilliant as the snarky daughter whose man crush is taken away from her. All of the performances were recognised in this perfectly handled backstage comedy but these are roles that couldn’t even be conceived nowadays. The Seventies. Love them. Love this.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975)

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Normally I have issues with Jack Lemmon playing serious – he’s such a superb comedian I get nervous when he’s doing pathos. However this Neil Simon adaptation skirts those potential problems – the writing is just so good every time you fear the worst he goes for the laugh and boy does it work. Even if Lemmon doesn’t – he’s the exec made jobless in a purge and just loses it – wife Anne Bancroft is incredibly pragmatic and understanding even when he stops shaving and washing and getting dressed and going out.  He stays in except when he’s picking fights with neighbours in the apartment block during the summer heat wave. By the time he’s going to a shrink and his wife returns to the workplace his brother Gene Saks (can you really see HIM as Jack’s brother?! Me neither!) wants to get involved and their childhood issues are resurrected while their older sisters sob. There’s a brilliant payoff to a mugging at Central Park – by Sylvester Stallone! And it’s wrapped up very well when Anne starts to go off the rails as SHE is fired. NYC looks great. Look sharp for F. Murray Abraham and M. Emmet Walsh. Directed by Melvin Frank.

Sweet Charity (1969)

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Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) was an enormously popular Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film in which his real-life wife Giulietta Masina played a naive Roman hooker with a heart of gold who keeps falling for the wrong men. Neil Simon took the material and adapted it into a Broadway show which became Bob Fosse’s directing debut, a smashing musical romp through NYC from the perspective of the exuberant kooky taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine, played by Shirley MacLaine in an extraordinary performance. The songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields are unforgettable and staged in graphic, distinctive style – Hey, Big Spender, Rhythm of Life (Sammy Davis Jr!) and MacLaine’s signature song, If They Could See Me Now, to name but a few. Songs to die for! And most homes had this soundtrack album in the Seventies. If you can get past some unfortunate shot choices in the opening sequence by Robert Surtees – dissolves and zooms, very Sixties! – you can earn some balm for your troubled soul.  Screenplay by one of my very favourite people, Peter Stone, with costumes by Edith Head and a great supporting cast in Chita Rivera and Stubby Kaye and John McMartin but Shirley’s the whole show!