Saturday, September 11, 2010
The Sunshine Boys
The plot is simple: Two old, washed-up, Vaudeville comics who have refused to talk to one another for decades are offered the opportunity to reunite for a TV special... and hilarity ensues. The script is by comedy legend Neil Simon and based on his play, it is directed by Herbert Ross (master director of such films as The Goodbye Girl, Funny Lady, and, um, Footloose), and the two ex-Vaudeville stars are played by Walter Matthau (the greatest character actor in the history of American cinema) and George Burns (quite possibly the greatest comedian who has ever walked the Earth). The first scene reuniting the two stars as they bicker over how to rehearse their famous "Doctor Sketch" might be the best piece of acting, directing, and writing that I've ever seen in any movie. Or maybe it was just because it had George Burns and Walter Matthau, who could've read from the phonebook together and somehow it still would've been the best thing ever captured on film.
The only other major role in the film is played by Richard Benjamin, who I'm not surprised you haven't heard of, but you'll recognize his face. He is one of those guys who was a dependable character actor all through the seventies, but then he moved more behind the scenes as a writer and director as the film industry changed. He still pops up in various roles here and there, usually playing somebody's dad, and he's always funny and charming. But I've never seen him better than he was here as the nephew and agent of the insufferable character played by Matthau. Benjamin wasn't even nominated for a supporting actor Oscar, but he sure deserved one. Then again, no acting award could be better than the opportunity to star in a movie where every scene you have is either with George Burns or Walter Matthau. The Supporting Actor Oscar actually did go to George Burns for this movie, and as well deserved as it may have been, it was probably more for his overall career in show business than for any bravura acting on his part. Walter Matthau received a nomination for Best Actor, and I'm sure he would've won it any year that didn't have Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Also fun are a bunch of small roles by young actors who went on to bigger and better things, like Howard Hesseman, Ron Rifkin, and F. Murray Abraham as a car mechanic.
The DVD has a few neat extras, a look at the making of the film and even some screen tests by Phil Silvers and Jack Benny. Wow. That movie would've been amazing too. They should've just gone ahead and filmed those two in the same roles back to back with the main production. Hell, they should've made dozens of movies based on the script and just interchanged old performers like Red Buttons, Art Carny, Milton Berle, Red Fox, Jack Albertson, Morey Amsterdam... I'll stop now, but trust me I could go on and on about the people who could play either of these roles to perfection. Since it has been a long-running stage play for years, many of these guys probably were in a production at some point. They even remade the film years later featuring Woody Allen and Peter Falk, which sounds wonderful, but for whatever reason it's almost universally reviled. But, anyway, the film we got has George Burns and Walter Matthau, and it is just about as perfect as any film could be. Just go rent it and relive a little bit of Vaudeville. That kind of comedy never stops being funny.