The screenwriting career of playwright Neil Simon fascinates me not because of the quality of his work but the critical & popular context they exist in during his heyday and today.
From roughly 1967 to 1983, a film written by Neil Simon was one of the safest guarantees of a hit in mainstream Hollywood; a very rare case of the screenwriter being the main selling point. Simon’s peerless ability for comic one-liners and amusing, relatable characters not only made him popular but critically respected. He got 4 seperate Oscar nominations for his screenplays but multiple actors won Oscars in his films.
And yet today, Simon’s film work has severely diminished in reputation. For example in 1977 Simon’s ‘The Goodbye Girl’ was competing as a Best Picture Oscar nominee against someone not entirely dissimilar in style – Woody Allen for ‘Annie Hall’. And yet while Annie Hall is considered a modern classic whose reputation has grown over the years, The Goodbye Girl is largely forgotten.
Perhaps what seemed amusing and biting in Simon’s work back in the day is now perceived as safe and brittle; certainly few would disagree that he an excessive tendency to rely on one-liners instead of genuine dialogue.
The best way to assess Simon’s work is of course to look back in his films and one such example is the 1978 film ‘California Suite’, directed by Herbert Ross.
Visitors From New York – About a divorced couple meeting up for the first time in years due to a runaway daughter, this all the hallmarks of Simon at his worst; endless one-liners instead of actual dialogue and based on the simplistic contrast between uptight New York lifestyle and the relaxed California lifestyle. But it works, thanks largely to the excellent performances of Jane Fonda and Alan Alda who make it much more substantial than it should be.
Visitors From London – About a married couple visiting for the Oscars ceremony, this is the best of the segments, mainly because (by Simon’s standards) it’s deftly characterised as it’s only at the end we understand what makes the marriage tick. As the wife, Maggie Smith got the Oscar in real life (she doesn’t in the film) but Michael Caine – atypically playing a softly-spoken upper-class type – gives the more impressive performance.
Visitors From Philadelphia – A comic tale about a husband trying to cover up a one-night stand from his wife, the pairing of Walter Matthau and Simon worked wonders in many films. But not here. The slapstick is weakly written and staged by director Herbert Ross and Matthau tries to make up for this with some desperate overacting where he sometimes sounds like Pee-Wee Herman. Elaine May is always a pleasure on-screen but even she can’t save this.
Visitors From Chicago – This story about two married couples and friends bicker relentlessly, leading not to only verbal fights but various physical disasters, is a total misfire. Even at only 25 minutes or so it is over-stretched. The main problem is that there is no context about the constant resentment and niggling between the two husbands; if they can’t stand each other why are they on holiday together? Director Ross’ lack of skill with staging physical humour doesn’t help. Even at the time of release this was seen as the clear weakest segment and the appearance of the now-pariah Bill Cosby in one of the main roles makes it even more uncomfortable to watch.
Overall, California Suite is a good example of Simon’s strengths and weaknesses. At his best, he’s a sharp and funny writer who can create memorable characterisations of a particular milieu. But he also had significant limitations and these are probably why his film work have not lasted the test of time that a contemporary like Woody Allen’s has.