Monday 29 January 2007

The Sunshine Boys (1975) Herbert Ross

George Burns won the Best Supporting Oscar for this film, he doesn't even appear for over half an hour and by that time the most stunning thing is that we'll notice that anyone else but Walter Matthau is even in the movie. Matthau plays an old vaudevillian, Willie Clark, and he's almost the definition of memorable. It's hard to tell how much of his act is senility and how much is sheer cantankerous bloodymindedness, but whatever Ben, his nephew and agent, and anyone else he ever meets do is wrong, even if it's right. He'll find a way to make it wrong somehow. Matthau was always a great grumpy old man but he's a peach here. When Burns turns up, as Matthau's partner Al Lewis (not Grandpa Munster), it's hard to see how he could even compete, but he does.

The two of them haven't talked in eleven years and apparently hate each other. They were two halves of the same act on stage for 47 years and for 11,000 performances, the Sunshine Boys of the title, Lewis and Clark, but there's serious bad blood between them that boils down to Lewis retiring on the Ed Sullivan Show before Clark was ready. Now through Ben's agency, the two of them are going to appear together on television once more, on an ABC special that will work through the history of comedy and use them to depict vaudeville.

It's this bad blood that makes the film, because everyone else, from Howard Hesseman to F Murray Abraham to buxom nurse Lee Meredith, really doesn't matter. Only Ben, played by Richard Benjamin, even gets significant screen time, and he doesn't really matter either. It's all the Sunshine Boys, Matthau and Burns, and how well they play off each other or whoever else happens to be there. They both have incredible dialogue, courtesy of playwright Neil Simon who adapted this from his own play, but they're the ones who deliver it. Walter Matthau was the young'un, at only 55 years of age, and it shows sometimes when he's trying to be old and failing a little. Burns was 80 and spry. No wonder he went on for another twenty years.

1 comment:

benning said...

It's a classic; it truly is!