I have been madly, deeply in love with the comedic writing of Neil Simon for over 50 years. For some innate reason, his style speaks to my soul. I have always felt like a New Yorker at heart since I was born and raised there during my formative years. At family gatherings, you could see any one of Neil’s many characters at our dinner table. I have read every one of his plays a zillion times. As a theatre teacher, I dreamed of creating and directing his lightning, fast-paced speed of spewing words on stage. I was able to direct two of them during my career. One was THE ODD COUPLE, but the female version. My daughter, Ilisa, was cast in the leading role like Oscar. We always used to laugh and say she was type cast.
I had read his autobiography and “knew” Neil so well that Manny and I could exchange thoughts and opinions about him and his personal life for a good thirty minutes. For one brief, shining second, I was a part of Broadway and the people who inhabit that level of talent. I will never forget that feeling. Whenever I see or read a Neil Simon play, I feel a whooshing sound taking me back to a time long ago. THE ODD COUPLE is one my favorites.
THE ODD COUPLE premiered in 1968. It had previously run on Broadway for over 900 performances. The film is listed in the American Film Institutes’ top 100 films for the year 2000. Rotten Tomatoes lists it as the top 100 comedies of all time. The concept of the play came to Neil when his dear friend Mel Brooks was going through a divorce and moved into an apartment with another man. The character who portrayed Felix Unger was fashioned after Neil’s brother, Danny. Walter Matthau, who brought to life Oscar, played him both on Broadway and in the film. At one point, Neil Simon had four plays performing on the Broadway stage simultaneously. There is even a theatre named after Neil Simon on 52nd Street in NYC. In his lifetime Neil wrote over thirty plays. Now that’s a legacy of the highest level.
THE ODD COUPLE is all about an odd couple. Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) has just been kicked out of his house. His wife, Frances (who we never meet or hear her voice), has had enough. Felix is too much for anyone, and now, he is in the suicidal side to cope with his failure as a husband. Oscar, “divorced, broke, and sloppy,” invites him to live in his huge eight-room apartment until he gets back on his feet. Little does Oscar realize what this entails when it comes to Felix’s over-the-top neat nick lifestyle. It is the slob versus the man who can’t stop obsessing over the cleaning and the cooking. It all comes to a marvelous, hysterical head that involves the Pidgeon sisters (Evelyn and Gwendolyn) and a plate of linguini. Hysterical, satirical, and simply brilliant.
The chemistry between Walter and Jack is pure joy. The two of them work as if they were together their entire lives. The breaths, the running gags, topping each other, the physicality, and the vocal highs and lows are special and phenomenal. The two of them go back and forth with their fiery comebacks. It is like being in an advanced acting class for actors who instinctively know how to deliver and hold back enough on any given line.
There are many priceless scenes in this film. Some of my faves are Oscar asking his poker friends if they want a brown or green sandwich for a snack which is either “very new cheese or very old meat.” He also puts the sandwiches under his armpit as he serves. I laughed my head off when Felix is in a diner clearing his sinuses. No one can imitate that outrageous sound. The blips of Felix trying to commit suicide but ends up merely throwing his arm, his back, and his neck out of whack are filled with pathos, silliness, and honesty. Who does these things? Kudos to the best line…” We are all out of toilet paper. FU. It took me three hours to figure out that FU stands for Felix Unger.” And who can’t forget the saga of the meatloaf, all while waving a ladle around and screaming at 0scar while saying, “we have to eat in the next fifteen seconds, or the dinner is ruined.”
THE ODD COUPLE is deeper than most people give it credit. It touches on how difficult relationships can be, whether it is a man and a woman, two men or two women. It stresses the constant give and take the compromises, and the acceptance of who each person is at their core. We can’t change each other; all we can do is learn to live with quirky, annoying traits or not. TOC demonstrates how hard it is to stay together under the most humorous circumstances. This film also shined a light on friendship between men. It was refreshing to see the guys fraught with worry over Felix’s mental state. What a gift Neil gave audiences.
THE ODD COUPLE is simply irresistible. The pairing of Lemon and Matthau is priceless. It is comedy at its finest that has endured for decades. It demonstrates that a Broadway play can transfer to the screen with the right casting and smart writing. It it clearly one of Neil Simon’s best, allowing audiences to bask somewhere between absurdity and truth. THE ODD COUPLE will tickle your funny bone while exposing heavier relationship themes. It is one of the finest classic comedies. Rest in peace, Neil. You left us a treasure trove to enjoy forever.
THE ODD COUPLE is available to rent on demand.