erik lundegaard

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California Suite (1978)

There are four separate stories in California Suite, Neil Simon's 1978 comedy about the comings and goings at a four-star hotel in Los Angeles. Two of them are excellent — full of witty dialogue and strong emotions — while the other two are slapsticky and played for guffaws. California Suite is half of an excellent movie.

Written by:
Neil Simon
(based on his play)

Directed by:
Herbert Ross

Starring:
Jane Fonda
Alan Alda
Maggie Smith
Michael Caine
Walter Matthau
Elaine May
Bill Cosby
Richard Pryor
Herb Edelman
Denise Galik-Furey
Dana Plato
Army Archerd

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Art Direction/Set Direction

Academy Awards:
For playing an actress who loses an Academy Award for best actress, Maggie Smith won an Academy Award for best supporting actress.

Quote:
"Not in front of the hooker."

In the first segment we see whole, Jane Fonda plays Hannah Warren, a divorced mother whose 17 year-old daughter has fled New York to live with her father, a Hollywood screenwriter (Alan Alda). Hannah, uptight and nervous, is determined to bring her daughter home. She's also sharply dismissive of everything L.A. She's like a member of the Algonquin table let loose. "I can't wait to get out of here," she tells her lover, a Washington Post reporter, by phone. "It's like paradise with a lobotomy." When she sees her first husband after nine years apart, she quickly turns her envy at his youthful looks into a wonderful mix of sex and belittlement. "What the hell have you done to yourself, you've turned into a young boy again. I mean it. You look like the sweetest young 14 year-old boy... Or do they call you Billy?...It's just adorable. Forty-four year-old Billy standing there in his cute little sneakers and sweater."

Watching these scenes I thought the following: "God, Neil Simon's good," followed by "God, Jane Fonda's good," followed by "God, Jane Fonda's hot."

Simon's quips fly:

Hannah: You've changed, Billy, you don't get as rattled as you used to.
Bill: Well, they don't have as many rattlers out here.

Or:

Bill: I hear you went in for an operation.
Hannah: A hysterectomy. It's nothing, I have them every year.

Or:

Hannah: I haven't seen your latest film. I hear it grossed very well in backward areas.

Behind the quips there's an emotional battle taking place, whose resolution is satisfying without being false. Equally satisfying is the Maggie Smith/Michael Caine segment. Smith plays Diana Barrie, a well-known British stage actress, nominated for an Academy Award, who's accompanied to the awards by her husband, Sidney Cochrane, an antiques dealer. Now it would be easy to write male jealousy into this scenario — particularly when Caine is introduced as "Sidney Barrie," and pushed aside by autograph seekers and picture takers — but the filmmakers know better. Sidney is the calm one, the cool one, while Diana worries over everything. Their marriage, it turns out, is a front. The fact that he's gay is revealed in almost by-the-way fashion, but there's enough love and fear to keep them together despite his afternoon infidelities. Caine is so good at underplaying his role that one wonders why, in all of the documentaries about homosexuality in film, this one is never mentioned. Perhaps because it doesn't fit historical trends? The 1970s were about the homosexual-as-villain, or so it is believed, where Caine's cool, sweet humanity doesn't belong. A shame. It's a great, complex performance that stands up a quarter-century later.

The final two segments are broadly drawn. Walter Matthau plays Marvin Michaels, in town for his nephew's bar mitzvah, whose swinging brother (Herb Edelman) gives him a prostitute for the evening. The next morning he oversleeps, his wife (Elaine May) arrives, and the prostitute is still passed out on his bed. Antics ensue. Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, meanwhile, played visiting doctors who grow to despise and hurt one another during their disastrous trip. The one fascinating line has more to do with the actors than their characters. Pryor is about to swear ("...shove it up your—") when Cosby harangues him. "Hey hey! You don't use that language in front of the ladies!" As in art, so in life.

—January 4, 2002

© 2002 Erik Lundegaard