[25 March 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Of all of the versions of, and variations on Neil Simon’s classic, The Odd Couple, from its original production on Broadway, to the celebrated television series starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, from the countless worldwide small theater productions to the always popular revival runs, the 1968 film version is, arguably, the best representation of the titular twosome.
Walter Matthau is the quintessential Oscar Madison, a cigar-chomping, poker-playing guys’ guy, a man who never met a mop and feels he’s better for it. He plays it with an understated nonchalance and a hang dog expression that makes Oscar imminently relatable, and it’s interesting to note that this was the role that took him from little known character actor to full-fledged leading man.
Jack Lemmon is the perfect Felix Unger because he can play the part of an over-the-top persnickety neatnik, but he also brings a brilliant subtlety to Felix’s interactions with Oscar. Lemmon could convey more with a half-turn of his head than most actors can express with pages of dialogue. Of course, he did wonders with Simon’s material, as did Matthau.
The film begins, quite differently from the play, with Felix suicidal because his wife of 12 years has kicked him out. He plans to jump out of a ninth-floor hotel room, but throws his back out trying to open the window. Lemmon’s physicality in this scene, followed by a dejected collapse as Felix realizes he’s failure in even this, is superbly hilarious. When Felix finally appears at Oscar’s weekly poker game, all the guys try to cheer him while also humorously attempting to prevent his further suicide attempts.
In a gesture of friendship and solidarity, Oscar offers his spare room to Felix, and that’s when the trouble begins. Oscar’s slovenly manners and sloppy environment, as well as his carefree approach to life, disturb Felix’s need for neatness and order. Likewise, Felix’s neurotic cleanliness and straight-laced demeanor infuriate Oscar in his pursuit of life’s little joys.
Oscar gets the worst of it, because it’s all occurring in his apartment: The weekly poker party begins to resemble a ladies’ luncheon, the playing cards smell of disinfectant, Felix trails Oscar picking up after him before he’s finished dropping things and the kitchen eventually becomes a battleground because these two are so, well, at odds.
The incompatibility becomes sharply, painfully and amusingly obvious when Oscar arranges a double date with the Pigeon sisters from upstairs. He wittily flirts with the ladies and all seems to be going well until he leaves Felix alone with them while he fixes some drinks. Felix can think of nothing but his wife and children, so that’s what he discusses. Oscar returns to find all three in tears over their failed marriages and the date, along with his plan for its outcome, is ruined.
“Everything you do irritates me,” explains Oscar after the date when he and Felix are fighting. “And when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me.” Though Matthau to some extent was playing straight man to Lemmon’s overwrought histrionics and absurd idiosyncrasies as Felix, he nevertheless has some of the film’s best lines. Complaining about Felix leaving little notes on his pillow, he says, “…‘We’re out of corn flakes. F.U.’ It took me three hours to figure out ‘F.U.’ was ‘Felix Unger!’’ Threatening to throw Felix out he shouts, “It’s all over Felix, the whole marriage. We’re getting an annulment!”
A film like this, with quick, classic comedy, brilliant writing, magnificent performances, and a timeless quality doesn’t need any additions to make it worth owning, but the Centennial Collection DVD has them anyway. Among the bonus materials on this set, the audio commentary on disc one, by Matthau’s and Lemmon’s sons Charlie and Chris, is a highlight as both men reminisce warmly and easily about their fathers as men and as actors.
However, most of the special features, which are the main reason to own the Centennial Collection over earlier DVD releases, are on disc two. First, a 17-minute featurette called In the Beginning…, gives an overview of the film’s genesis and development, its story and script and the hiring of key crew and casting of the leads. It includes interviews with Chris Lemmon, Charlie Matthau, talk show host Larry King (a close friend of Neil Simon’s), actor Brad Garrett (who portrayed Oscar in a recent Broadway revival of the play), director Gene Saks, former Paramount studio head Robert Evans, and actors David Sheiner (“Roy”) and Carole Shelley(“Gwendolyn Pigeon”).
Though it’s supposed to delve into various development details, In the Beginning… is essentially an extended plaudit of the talents of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. That’s all well and good because their performances truly do deserve the highest commendations, but a bit more information on other aspects of the production would have been welcome.
Next is a nearly 20-minute reflection piece, Inside The Odd Couple in which casting, crew, rehearsals, characters and performances are discussed and dissected by Evans, Saks, Sheiner and others. It is better than In the Beginning, because it provides more specific details, but it, too, is a bit fawning in its praise. Not that the film doesn’t deserve every single utterance of that praise, but something about the way it’s presented here makes it seem somehow obsequious.
Memories from the Set is exactly what it says. There is some talk of plotting and certain memorable scenes, but primarily, Saks and Sheiner share anecdotes about the actors, and it’s a nice window into the way that Matthau and Lemmon worked. Matthau and Lemmon gives a similar inside look with more memories from Chris Lemmon, Charlie Matthau, Shelley, Sheiner, King, and Evans. Some of these are repeated from the film commentary, but this feature still provides interesting insights into the working relationship between two great actors.
A final featurette,The Odd Couple: A Classic, is a very short piece in which Carole Shelley, Chris Lemmon, Sheiner, King, Garrett, Saks and Evans all praise the film further. It’s not very interesting as extras go, and one wonders why it even exists here when these comments could have been—and in some cases, were—included elsewhere in the bonus features.
In addition to the featurettes, disc two has the original theatrical trailer and two photo galleries, one of shots from the movie itself and one of production shots from the set. The set also includes a booklet that summarizes facts about the film and its origins, the awards it won and the various spin-off projects it spawned. The booklet also mentions several things not noted in the DVD special features, such as the fact that The Odd Couple composer, Neil Hefti, also wrote the theme for Barefoot in the Park and that the theme for The Odd Couple has lyrics written by acclaimed songwriter Sammy Cahn, which appear on the soundtrack recording although they are never heard in the film title sequence.
The Odd Couple has made its way into our every day experience, as a concept and an almost clichéd phrase, as well as a masterpiece of comic writing. More than 40 years after its release, the film remains the prime example of the story. The Centennial Collection DVD is an excellent presentation of this comedic classic.