Friday, November 06, 2015

Spreading a Little Sunshine

Ben Clark (Richard Benjamin): I'm getting chest pains. You give me chest pains!

Willy Clark (Walter Matthau): It's my fault you get excited?

Ben Clark: Yes! I only get chest pains on Wednesdays!

Willy Clark: So come Tuesdays.

If there is a moment that sums up "The Sunshine Boys" — which made its debut on this date in 1975 — for me, it would be late in the movie, when Walter Matthau's character was recuperating from a heart attack.

His nephew Ben (played by Richard Benjamin) was visiting him on a Wednesday, as he usually did, and he suggested to his uncle that he should move into a retirement home across the river in New Jersey.

Matthau's character wanted to know if his nephew would continue to visit him at the retirement home, and his nephew assured him that he would. Why would he think otherwise? Ben asked.

"Well, you know," Matthau said, his eyes glistening, "people don't go out to New Jersey unless they have to."

Those few words revealed so much about Willy Clark; the audience finally understood that he was driven by a fear of abandonment that was rooted in experience. As half of a successful Vaudeville act, he had experienced the abandonment of his long–time partner (played by the one and only George Burns).

Through much of the movie, Willy was a tough guy, but at the very end the audience saw just how squishy soft, how vulnerable he really was.

It was a poignant moment for that character.

For the most part, I suppose poignance is not what audiences were after in 1975. Furthermore, I presume that those audiences expected — and rightfully so — that a movie starring Walter Matthau and George Burns was bound to have a lot of laughs.

And "The Sunshine Boys" certainly had plenty of laughs. But poignance is what gave the comedy its true meaning.

"The Sunshine Boys" was recognized then and is known today as a comedy, one of the best ever, the story of former Vaudeville partners teaming up again for one night only.

And there was never anyone better for a comedy than George Burns.

There are so many moments in "The Sunshine Boys" that showcased Burns' talent, but my personal favorite has always been the scene where Matthau's nephew (and agent) went to visit Burns to try to persuade him to reunite with Willy in a one–time–only performance of some of their greatest Vaudeville routines.

Burns' character was living with his daughter, son–in–law and grandchildren. When Ben arrived and began making his pitch, Burns interrupted him.

"How old are you?" he asked.

Ben replied, "I'm 34. Why?" Turned out Burns wanted to tell him why he and Matthau split up.

"He called me a son of a bitch bastard," Burns said, then quickly looked around the room. "The kids aren't home from school yet, are they?"

Assured that they were not, he went on to explain that he had been called that simply because he didn't want to do the show anymore.

Well, they got over their personal issues and got together to do their act again.

And Matthau's previous trauma with Burns poking him in the chest with "the finger" appeared to be playing out again. Yep, everything seemed to be going according to Matthau's fears ... er, expectations.

Of course, there were some good things about their routine — like blonde bombshell Lee Meredith, more eye candy than actress who began her big–screen career as a mostly silent office bimbo in "The Producers" seven years earlier and ended it as a Vaudeville bimbo in "The Sunshine Boys."

I don't know what Meredith has been doing with herself for the last 40 years, but being in a movie with George Burns and Walter Matthau would be the highlight of most people's careers.

Surprise! Meredith didn't get an Oscar nomination for her performance.

Of course, that really isn't unusual for comedies — even though some of the greatest performances I have ever seen were in comedies.

Nevertheless, Matthau was nominated for Best Actor — but lost to Jack Nicholson for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Burns was nominated for Best Supporting Actor — and won. Neil Simon also received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Albert Brenner and Marvin March received a nomination for Best Art Direction.

Four Oscar nominations and one win. Not bad for a comedy.