I’m no Walter Matthau fan. His on-screen grumpiness has always left me feeling grumpy myself. For that reason, Matthau vehicles have never been a priority of mine. In fact, I’ve only seen five of the films being shown on Matthau Day.
Of those, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe (1964), about the consequences of our species’ nuclear folly, is by far the best. Matthau has a supporting role – not a terribly sympathetic one – as Fail-Safe belongs to Henry Fonda, who delivers one of his most effective performances as an American president attempting to prevent a US plane from nuking Moscow.
Fail-Safe has unfortunately been overshadowed by Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, released in the US that same year. Now, Dr. Strangelove may be groovier, but Lumet’s film is a much more disturbing and to-the-point attack on human madness and stupidity than Kubrick’s.
At the other end of the cinematic spectrum, Arthur Hiller’s New York-set Plaza Suite (1971) and Herbert Ross’ Los Angeles-set California Suite (1978), both written by Neil Simon (the former based on his own play), are purely escapist fare.
In Plaza Suite, Matthau plays opposite three highly capable actresses: Maureen Stapleton, Lee Grant, and Barbara Harris. Elaine May – whose Ishtar was shown on TCM on Warren Beatty Day – is his co-star in the episodic California Suite.
Written directly for the screen, California Suite features several characters spending time in the Los Angeles area. Of those, Maggie Smith’s Academy Award-nominated actress Diana (Oscar arrivals were shot at the ’78 ceremony) and Michael Caine as her gay husband Sidney shine brightest. (Though Elaine May is no slouch, either.)
Smith won a thoroughly deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar for what happens to be one of the greatest screen performances of the ’70s: “Screw the Oscars. Screw the Academy Awards. Screw me, Sidney. Please. Please.”
Billy Wilder screwed things up royally in The Fortune Cookie (1966), a heavy-handed, abrasive comedy that was nevertheless a major box office hit. In fact, The Fortune Cookie was so successful it led to several Walter Matthau-Jack Lemmon pairings, including Gene Saks’ The Odd Couple (1968), another Matthau Day entry written by Neil Simon.
The Fortune Cookie also led to Matthau’s stardom after years playing villains and other supporting roles of varying degrees of obnoxiousness.
The chief interest in the minor Martin Ritt effort Casey’s Shadow (1977), about a boy and his racing horse, is the presence of veteran Warner Bros. and Broadway player Alexis Smith, while the highly successful baseball flick The Bad News Bears (1976) confirmed Tatum O’Neal’s child stardom – which would fully dissipate once she became a teenager. (Jackie Earle Haley, nominated for an Oscar for his Nosferatuish child molester in Little Children, plays a child ball player in The Bad News Bears.)
George Burns became a major movie star at the age of 79 following his Oscar-winning comedic turn in the Neil Simon-Herbert Ross collaboration The Sunshine Boys (1975). Walter Matthau plays his match in this ode to old vaudevillians and their kind.
Much like Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street, Burns got his lucky break because of another player’s misfortune: Jack Benny died before he could take on the role.
George Burns, Walter Matthau in Herbert Ross’ The Sunshine Boys, based on Neil Simon’s play
Schedule and synopses from the TCM website:
3:00 AM The Indian Fighter (1955)
A trail guide has to bring two crooked traders to justice to save his wagon train from Indian attack. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Elsa Martinelli, Walter Matthau. Director: Andre de Toth. Color. 88 min.
4:45 AM Onionhead (1958)
An irresponsible student enlists in the Navy expecting to sit out World War II. Cast: Andy Griffith, Felicia Farr, Walter Matthau. Director: Norman Taurog. Black and white. 111 min.
6:45 AM Fail-Safe (1964)
A failure in the U.S. defense system threatens to start World War III. Cast: Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman. Director: Sidney Lumet. Black and white. 112 min.
8:45 AM Ensign Pulver (1964)
A young officer on a World War II supply ship battles his captain to keep the men happy. Cast: Robert Walker, Jr., Burl Ives, Walter Matthau. Director: Joshua Logan. Color. 104 min.
10:45 AM The Sunshine Boys (1975)
A feuding comedy team reunites for a television comeback. Cast: Walter Matthau, George Burns, Richard Benjamin. Director: Herbert Ross. Color. 111 min.
12:45 PM The Fortune Cookie (1966)
A crooked lawyer trumps up an insurance case for a cameraman injured at a pro football game. Cast: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Cliff Osmond. Director: Billy Wilder. Black and white. 126 min.
3:00 PM Casey’s Shadow (1978)
A young boy from a racing family tries to turn his pet horse into a champion. Cast: Walter Matthau, Alexis Smith, Robert Webber. Director: Martin Ritt. Color. 117 min.
5:00 PM The Bad News Bears (1976)
The coach of a losing little league team brings in a female pitcher. Cast: Walter Matthau, Tatum O’Neal, Chris Barnes. Director: Michael Ritchie. Color. 102 min.
7:00 PM The Odd Couple (1968)
A divorced neat freak moves in with his sloppy best friend. Cast: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Herb Edelman. Director: Gene Saks. Color. 105 min.
9:00 PM Plaza Suite (1971)
A New York hotel room is the setting for three stories of romantic squabbles. Cast: Walter Matthau, Maureen Stapleton, Lee Grant. Director: Arthur Hiller. Color. 114 min.
11:00 PM California Suite (1978)
Four sets of guests at a posh hotel face personal crises. Cast: Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda. Director: Herbert Ross. Color. 102 mins
1:00 AM Movers and Shakers (1985)
A Hollywood studio head promises a dying friend to turn a notorious sex manual into a movie. Cast: Walter Matthau, Charles Grodin, Tyne Daly. Director: William Asher. Color. 80 min.