It’s a normal day. You’re at work or out walking, and everything is fine but not great, and then you see something – just a small thing, like the way someone stands or an expression someone uses – that makes you suddenly think of a line from a film that really made you laugh. You find yourself smiling at the memory. Suddenly the day is a little bit better. That happens to me a lot with Neil Simon’s comedies.
Neil Simon grew up in New York during the Great Depression and started writing comedies pretty much as soon as he could hold a pen. Escaping into the cinematic worlds of Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy originally inspired him, but his scripts are all about quick-fire dialogue, with a sense of timing that builds and builds until every moment is funny. He started out writing for television, with such programmes as The Phil Silvers Show, and then began to write theatrical plays which were huge hits. He quickly became one of the most popular writers in the world.
His plays often made it to the screen, and Simon wrote a number of these screenplays himself. They represented aspects of everyday emotional problems that most people recognised, occupying a niche that you might put, say, the films of Judd Apatow in nowadays. The critical world might not always have been blown away by what seemed to be light comedy, but it really did make a lot of people laugh, and that’s far from easy.
Here’s a look at three of Simon’s screenplays that all have similar settings:
Barefoot In The Park (1967)
A huge theatrical hit of 1963, this romantic comedy features one of cinema’s most adorable newly-wed couples. Paul and Corie Bratter (played by Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, who work really well together here) are moving into an apartment on the sixth floor of a New York building, and soon find out they don’t share the same opinions about life, work and redecorating.
Not a lot happens. They meet the Bohemian neighbour who lives in the attic, and set him up with Corie’s straitlaced mother (Charles Boyer and Mildred Natwick, respectively). They all share a night out at a restaurant that illustrates Corie’s desire to embrace new experiences, and Paul’s ‘stuffed shirt’ approach to spicy food and wild nights out. They argue; will they make up?
Well, it’s not about the plot so much as the dialogue, which is so good. Some jokes are repeated and get funnier every time, while others are thrown away in a style that only people in smart-talking comic movies can manage, bringing to mind earlier Screwball comedies such as My Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby.
But Barefoot In The Park retains more realism than those great films of the 1930s. True, Redford and Fonda are hardly anybody’s average couple, but we believe in them precisely because nothing huge happens. We’ve all had small battles with our loved ones that stretch on for days and started over something as ridiculous as cupboard space. We recognise the failed nights out and the negotiations, and also the difficult but rewarding process of making up again. Out of all the characters, we might love Paul and Corie, but it’s Corie’s mother we identify with, watching from a distance with a kind eye, and getting to feel quietly pleased when the kids make up.
The Odd Couple (1968)
Here’s why I love Neil Simon – just two years after writing Barefoot In The Park for the stage, and making us invest in that young marriage, he wrote this play about divorce.
Except it’s not really about divorce so much as about friendship; friendship as defined by Len Wein: “A true friend is someone who is there for you when he’d rather be anywhere else”. Uptight Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) is getting a divorce. At his lowest ebb, he moves in with his slobbish friend Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau), and immediately begins to irritate him with his endless cooking, cleaning, crying, and leaving of little notes. It’s all a bit too much like being married again for Oscar. Things are bound to reach a crisis point.
The Odd Couple is all about Lemmon and Matthau. They are brilliant. Just the way they look at each other would be enough, but the everyday dry humour of Simon’s writing is a gift to them, and they both take full advantage of it. This is the next stage on from Barefoot In The Park, and these characters are older but not much wiser. They’re so identifiable that Simon came back to them; thirty years later, in 1998, he wrote and also produced The Odd Couple II, still starring Lemmon and Matthau in fine form, making for one of the longest gaps between an original film and a sequel.
The Goodbye Girl (1977)
This one has an interesting story behind it. The Goodbye Girl didn’t start off as a play, but was a screenplay about an unlikely movie star that was apparently based on Dustin Hoffman’s strange rise to popularity after The Graduate. It was meant to star Robert De Niro, but when De Niro dropped out, the entire script was rewritten and Simon came up with the idea of setting the action around Paula (played by Marsha Mason), a dancer with a young daughter who has to take on an unlikely room-mate in the form of actor Elliot (Richard Dreyfuss) after her boyfriend leaves in her the lurch to become a movie star.
Okay, so we’ve got an apartment and a mismatched couple. If you didn’t know it was written by Neil Simon you could work it out in the first five minutes. But this time around there’s also that daughter, caught in the crossfire, and she brings an uncomfortable element of reality to the whole thing for me. Adults may talk fast and act funny in the face of abandonment, but to the daughter it’s a tragedy.
But there are enough great moments to make you forget the discomfort, and Dreyfuss is a perfect Simon leading man. Elliot is flawed, clever, selfish and lovable, and he likes the sound of his own voice too much, giving him loads of great lines. He doesn’t know quite how to deal with Paula, who is quite a bitter character. They’re very different people, so of course they’ll fall in love. If there’s one thing that Neil Simon scripts teach us, it’s that opposites attract.
The Goodbye Girl was a huge hit at the time. Dreyfuss became, at the age of thirty, the youngest man to win an Oscar for his performance (a record that Adrien Brody broke in 2002 when he won for The Pianist at the age of 29). You don’t hear about it so much now, though, and I wonder if it’s the film that’s dated the most out of the three mentioned here, even though it’s the newest. Or perhaps it’s that daughter character, getting in the way of making us feel good without having to worry about what happens next.
Usually, when we watch people sharing an apartment on screen, the weirdness of at least one of them is heavily accentuated (Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill, Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female, or Christopher Ecclestone in Shallow Grave, on a sliding scale of scariness). But I think I prefer the everyday adventures that Neil Simon’s characters face: running out of cornflakes, fixing a leak in the closet, or arranging who gets to use the kitchen. From these events come a really recognisable and warm form of humour.
When we remember a Neil Simon line and we smile, we’re smiling in the way we would when we remember something from real life. We smile because, whether it’s on the screen or in our own lives, these things really do happen every day. But it takes a writer as good as Simon to capture them perfectly.
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