It is ironic that Neil Simon, who died today at 91, got his inspiration to become a comedy writer from the movies into which he constantly escaped to forget the circumstances of his poor depression-era childhood. Even though he grew up in Washington Heights, much closer to Broadway than Hollywood, it was always the movies of the likes of Chaplin , Keaton and others that stuck with him and led to one of the most sterling careers ever for a writer. Yet by far his greatest success and appreciation came as one of the most successful playwrights of all time, a record of accomplishment that included a whopping 17 Tony nominations and three wins, a Pulitizer Prize for drama, and even as the rare playwright to have a theatre named after him. “I always feel more like a writer when I’m writing a play because of the tradition of the theater … there is no tradition of the screenwriter, unless he is also the director, which makes him an auteur. So I really feel that I’m writing for posterity with plays, which have been around since the Greek times,” he once said about his career trajectory.
This probably explains why In his prime his works were often staples in the Tony Best Play category, but in movies he never got nearly that kind of recognition despite
over 25 screenplays , most based on his own plays, that brought the Neil Simon magic to the masses. Yet he never won an Oscar, or even an Honorary Oscar (was his name ever even brought up?) which he so deserved, and overall he received just four Oscar nominations for writing including for three play adaptations (California Suite, The Odd Couple , The Sunshine Boys), and one original , The Goodbye Girl which , perhaps because it was written for the screen received his greatest acclaim from Hollywood by being the only Simon title ever to be nominated for Best Picture. Ironically it lost the 1977 Best Picture Oscar to another comedy, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Oscar voters appeared to be in the rare mood to laugh that year, but comedy, right from the beginning, has most often been easily overlooked at the Academy Awards, if not at the boxoffice where just this weekend a comedy, Crazy Rich Asians continues to make a killing, The new “Popular Movie” Oscar might have been the ticket for Simon but it’s coming too late for him. In its first year 1927-28 the Academy invented a comedy directing category (where Charlie Chaplin was nominated and lost) but abandoned it the next year, never to return to the idea of a separate category for the art and science of comedy again in the 90 years since then. Simon was always at a disadvantage when it came to Oscars, but he shouldn’t have been. Comedy is hard. He made it look easy. Sadly the only Oscar we associate with Neil Simon is the one who lived with Felix.
For my money one of the best comedy scripts of all time was 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid which Simon wrote from a story by Bruce Jay Friedman. It wasn’t even nominated, even though supporting stars Eddie Albert and Jeannie Berlin got noms. What a shame. It was brilliant, and still holds up 46 years later, particularly the scene where honeymooning Charles Grodin tries to tell new bride (Berlin) over a lobster dinner that he is leaving her . That one should have been Simon’s Oscar if you ask me. Astonishingly, when you consider his status, in 2000 it (#91) was one of only two Simon films to even make the AFI Top 100 Funniest Movies in American Cinema (The Odd Couple was the other one at #17). On the 2015 released Writers Guild list of 101 Funniest Screenplays only Odd Couple at #41 rates. It is time for a reassessment , folks. He just didn’t get the same level of industry and critical respect as others when it came to movies, but he should have. He was more mainstream, but made the considerable craft involved in comedy writing invisible, when so many of the movies on these lists are also more pointedly directed by their writers , something Simon, a writers writer if ever there was one, never did. It doubtless hurt him in the critical sphere.
It certainly wasn’t unusual for Simon’s movies to catch Oscar’s eye for the actors and the plum screen roles he wrote for them . The long list of nominees, in addition to
the Heartbreak Kid pair, include Mildred Natwick, Maureen Stapleton, Quinn Cummings, Walter Matthau, James Coco, Joan Hackett, and three times for ex-wife Marsha Mason. Actors who won Oscars in Simon movies were Richard Dreyfuss , best actor for The Goodbye Girl; Maggie Smith (bitingly funny as an Oscar loser), supporting actress for California Suite; and George Burns, supporting actor for The Sunshine Boys, a role originally earmarked for Jack Benny who died before he got the chance to do it.
Simon parts were golden. He particularly had a fruitful relationship with Matthau in screen projects like Plaza Suite, California Suite, I Ought To Be In Pictures, The Sunshine Boys, and of course The Odd Couple with
Jack Lemmon , another Simon beneficiary in movies like The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, and The Out Of Towners. It might be that 1968’s The Odd Couple is the most beloved of Simon movie adaptations . and for that matter television adaptations since it was just as successful when it became a TV series twice (which Simon didn’t write). However, the ill-advised reunion of Matthau and Lemmon in the long-gestating 1998 sequel The Odd Couple II just seemed out of place and out of time in the 30 year gap it took to come to fruition. It was Simon’s last screenplay , and almost the final film for both Lemmon and Matthau who did the senior thing better together in non-Simon projects like Grumpy Old Men and the underrated Out To Sea.
But back to the good stuff , of which there was so much. Another personal favorite of mine is 1967’s Barefoot In The Park , a great comedy about a young marriage that was perfectly cast with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford (who originated the part in the Broadway smash). That is another one that still holds up brilliantly and joyously, an example of Simon in his prime. Original movie inventions like Murder By Death and The Cheap Detective worked nicely, but I think his more autobiographical works like Chapter Two, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Biloxi Blues worked best on stage, even if their film versions had their moments , and the latter two blessed with the talents of Matthew Broderick at his best.
Simon’s first play, written over many years and drafts, was 1961’s Come Blow Your Horn , also with some autobiographical aspects (the parents in particular) and in 1963
it became the first Simon play to get the Hollywood treatment. However it was Norman Lear , not Simon , who wrote the screenplay , reportedly the impetus for Simon taking control of the next film adaptations of his plays. He wasn’t fond of it, but I have to say watching Frank Sinatra in one of his most entertaining 60’s big studio comedy swinging bachelor roles is still a guilty pleasure of mine. Simon minus Simon is still watchable, but it clearly didn’t have the touch of his later genius.
Neil Simon’s brand of comedy will be missed. His run as a playwright and comedic wizard goes without saying, a legacy without peer. His long run in the movies as a pure writer only , and not an auteur ( again, he never directed) as he said , was unique and gave what was once a rich and successful major studio brand something to shout about. Hopefully others lost in the movies in their youth like he once was, take some inspiration from a master of the trade and carry on the tradition of what great, and lasting, comedy writing can be in the hands of a master.