by Bill Gibron:
There was a time, a little less than four decades ago, when Neil Simon was the literary benchmark of both Broadway and the Silver Screen. After a successful stint as a TV scribe on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, the soon to be phenomenon went on to create such Great White Way staples as Barefoot in the Park, Sweet Charity, Plaza Suite, and The Prisoner of Second Avenue. In 1966, he had four shows running at once and it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling.
After adapting his Come Blow Your Horn and Park for the big screen, Simon was given the complicated task of translating his mega-hit The Odd Couple as a movie. While the studios would accept Oscar- and Tony-winner Walter Matthau as Oscar, Art Carney’s cinematic clout as Felix was questioned. Luckily, director Gene Saks hired friend and Fortune Cookie co-star Jack Lemmon as the notorious neat freak. The rest, as they say, is motion picture history.
When critics discuss chemistry, that onscreen magic that occurs between perfectly paired actors, the electricity exemplified by Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon is a textbook illustration of same. As the second of 10 eventual team-ups between the two stars, Simon’s swaggering look at ‘divorce, henpecked hubby style’ is both dated and delightful. There is no denying the witty repartee between Oscar and his finicky buddy Felix, and Simon sure knows how to move a narrative along without necessarily resorting to excessive exposition. At the same time, we are stuck in a mindset where men are still practicing chauvinists and poker is as close to non-erotic male bonding as you are going to get.
It’s important to note that, after hugely successful runs in the ’70s and ’80s, Simon has become something of a disappearing act. At 81, he’s no longer a vital part of the Broadway lexicon, and his plays aren’t being tapped for revivals or reinvention. It’s not so much a retirement as a rest for an individual responsible for many of the seminal works of stage and screen. Taken on the boards or as part of a movie matinee, The Odd Couple proves Neil Simon’s one time status as the most important, prolific, and produced writer in the world.
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