As you may have heard me announce on yesterday's Clubland Q&A, our peerless film columnist Kathy Shaidle has had a recurrence of her cancer and is having rather a tough time of it this week. Please keep her in your prayers. With our star movie gal hors de combat, I'm honored, as Rush's guest-host and Tucker's guest-host, to step up and guest-host for Kathy, too. This month marks the centenary of Walter Matthau, born to Jewish immigrants on New York's Lower East Side on October 1st 1920 - and a star almost to the end:
"What inspires you?" an Australian journalist asked Walter Matthau at a press conference a couple of years back.
"What kind of ridiculous question is that?" said Matthau. "Everything inspires me. Even you."
He wasn't exaggerating. Interviewers like that Aussies inspired Matthau to respond to questions with whatever ludicrous fantasy took his fancy - like the one about his dad being a Russian Orthodox priest who deserted his family after coming to New York, a tall tale that's become part of the official record and is now routinely cited in several respectable reference books. He understood that, in motion pictures, the film isn't the performance, the star is. So he became Walter Matthau, the endearingly grouchy, cranky, cantankerous, crumpled, etc, etc star who played endearingly grouchy, cranky, etc fellows on the screen.
It was a persona largely created for him by Neil Simon, who met Matthau at a party in the early Sixties. "You ought to be in my next play," said Simon.
"Who are you?" demanded Matthau.
The playwright watched the six-foot-three lugubrious bloodhound with the flat feet and the Sad Sack slouch and the clockwork-toy walk, and decided to do him a good turn: here was a guy who so looked the part if only someone would write it.
So Simon wrote slobbo sports writer Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple with Matthau in mind. After reading the script, Matthau decided he wanted to play the part of the fussbudget neatnik milquetoast Felix Unger. "Walter," said Simon. "Do me a favor. Act on your own time."
There's a third-act scene in the play when Oscar's finally had it with the little notes his annoying flatmate keeps leaving on his pillow. Out of town, Simon kept trying to come up with the right note:
We're all out of cornflakes.
Not funny. Maybe Felix should sign it.
We're all out of cornflakes. Signed, Felix Unger.
Still not right. Maybe just his initials.
We're all out of cornflakes. F.U.
Everyone assumes Simon chose the name Felix Unger just to set up the joke two acts later, but not so: he liked the name, and it wasn't until months later he stumbled on the gag. The first night they put it in, in Boston, Matthau read the note and then sat down to read the newspaper during the laugh. He was able to read the news section during the laugh he got for the joke, and then had time to read the business and sports sections during the laugh he got for reading the newspaper.
Three years later, in 1968, Matthau filmed the play. The scene where he and Jack Lemmon double-date two daffy, giggly English girls – "the cuckoo Pigeon sisters" - is one of the great moments in film comedy. Young Walter was already pushing fifty, but he was one of those actors for whom youth is a waste of time. Even in his first films, The Kentuckian (1955) and A Face in the Crowd (1957), he looks creased and stooped. In 1948, he made his Broadway debut - a 28-year-old playing the elderly bishop in Anne of the Thousand Days. By fifty, he was playing the old-timer in Kotch. When Jack Benny died, Matthau stepped in to take over the role of an elderly vaudevillian in The Sunshine Boys (1975), playing opposite George Burns and doing it so well you never notice that one half of the team is acting three decades older than his age.
Alas, by the Eighties, when he was actually old enough to be old, his career had shriveled away. It took, of all things, the kiddie pic Dennis (1993) to bring him back. He played the little tyke's beleaguered neighbour, and I would rank the shot of Mr Wilson smiling, unaware that Dennis has replaced his broken dentures with Chiclets, as one of the great sight gags in the Matthau oeuvre. He breezed through Dennis, and Grumpy Old Men, and Grumpier Old Men, but he'd earned the right.
By now he and Jack Lemmon were regarded as a team, even though it would be hard to find two actors more dissimilar. I met Lemmon just after he'd shot a forgotten film called Dad with Ted Danson as the son and Lemmon in the title role, as an octogenarian who's given up on life. "But I don't think there's a danger of that happening to me," he told me, "unless something terrible just pulls the cork out of my ass."
I don't know why anyone would want a cork in his ass in the first place, but the phrase (which no one has ever used to me before or since) sums up the Lemmon technique well. A large cork twisted a little further than one would recommend: He was a very anal actor - detailed, painstaking, mannered, fussy, irritating, pandering - the very opposite of Matthau's doleful minimalism. I also had the pleasure of having Jack Lemmon play the piano for me: Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are" - clean and lovely and unaffected. If only he'd acted a bit more like that. Or if only the other half of the act had thought to suggest it.
Lemmon and Matthau reunited one last time. The Odd Couple II (1998) was a dud - Matthau was fine, but Lemmon had become such a twitchy collection of tics and mannerisms it was unclear whether he could do comedy anymore; even the face-lift couldn't slow down his jittery features. In 1946, Matthau had played a poolroom bum in a summer-stock production of George Abbott's Three Men on a Horse. A friend's parents came to see the show and gently explained to young Walter that he didn't have what it takes. "You weren't like a real actor," said his pal's mom. "With everyone else, I could tell they were acting. But you just seemed like a poolroom bum."
Half a century on, with Lemmon you could tell he was acting, and Matthau still seemed like a poolroom bum.
His final film opened a couple of months before he died — Hanging Up, a horrible, shrill chick pic directed by Diane Keaton with absolutely no understanding of the rhythms of comedy. That's one thing Matthau knew. With the right material - as in The Odd Couple in Boston - he could ride the laughter like a silver surfer; with formula pap he could oomph up the lamest of lines into great character comedy; and, if not, he had the stage actor's confidence that bad career moves could always be written out of the record. Jack Lemmon once told me how he'd invited Matthau to a preview of one of his films, Alex and the Gypsy. The audience left in dribbles throughout the movie and, as the credits rolled, Matthau turned to Lemmon and advised, "Get out of it."
~The Mark Steyn Club is now in its fourth season. As we always say, membership in the Club isn't for everybody, but it does support all our content, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time; it's also an audio Book of the Month Club, and a live music club, and a video poetry circle. More details here.
Oh, and if you're really sick of the lockdown and looting and general lethargy of life, we have a fabulous cruise coming up next year, which is just the best way to bust out of this thing.