Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Sunday, December 23, 2012
Ups And Downs
If you’re watching a film released by Columbia Pictures in the late 70s that comes with the sunburst logo I’d say the odds are pretty good that it was written by Neil Simon. Probably even better that it was produced by Ray Stark. Maybe they’re both the same thing. I was reminded of this recently when one night for the first time I watched 1967’s BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (released by Paramount) of course based on Neil Simon’s play and starring Jane Fonda. I was looking through some boxes close at hand for something else to watch when I noticed my DVD of CALIFORNIA SUITE. Immediately I was intrigued since it also comes from a Simon play and features Fonda. Why do I own a DVD of CALIFORNIA SUITE, you may ask? In all honesty I’m really not sure. My guess is that I saw it cheap somewhere and picked it up, figuring I’d want to write about it one day. That’s how my brain works. Well, you can’t say I don’t sometimes act on these impulses.
Released in December 1978 (same day as SUPERMAN), CALIFORNIA SUITE was based on Simon’s Broadway hit, a sort of followup to the successful PLAZA SUITE of several years earlier. In the case of that adaptation the film version replicated the structure of the three act show and kept things mostly confined to the titular suite with Walter Matthau going the Peter Sellers route by playing the lead role in each part. While the four act stage version of CALIFORNIA also had actors playing multiple roles the film mixed things up not only by having different people (including Matthau) in the various sections all playing guests of the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel, it is clearly trying to make itself more cinematic not only by intercutting the four stories throughout but by also opening things up beyond the hotel rooms that everything is supposedly centered around. Like any anthology movie of this sort certain parts work better than others but, actually, even the weaker sections of CALIFORNIA SUITE aren’t entirely without interest within the body of Neil Simon’s career. I’m not sure that the entire film works—to be frank, I’m not even sure if half of the film works—but a portion of what is here may be some of the best material he’s ever had in a film. Some of it is borderline hysterical. Some of it maybe isn’t so great at all. Like any number of films that contain the Columbia sunburst logo I suppose it’s pleasant enough to have on in the background as a 70s flashback, a feeling that’s only amplified by the light jazz score by Claude Bolling (performed by ‘the California Suites’) that appears throughout so the experience of watching it is certainly never a chore. For the most part.
The film tells the stories of four sets of guests at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “Visitors From New York”: No-nonsense Hannah (Jane Fonda) has just flown in to confront her ex-husband Bill (Alan Alda), now a successful screenwriter as well as content transplant to L.A., about their daughter who wants nothing more than to get away from her mom. “Visitors From London”: Academy Award nominee Diana Barrie (Maggie Smith) has arrived with husband Sidney Cochran (Michael Caine) for the ceremony. Up for a role in a light comedy no one considers her anything more than a dark horse but when things turn out exactly as expected certain tensions both of them have been holding back discussing finally come out during the early morning hours after they return to their room. “Visitors From Philadelphia”: Marvin Michaels (Walter Matthau) has flown in for his nephew’s bar mitzfah, totally unprepared for the prostitute his brother leaves in his room late that night and when he wakes up in the morning has to figure out what to do about the unconscious girl just as his wife Millie (Elaine May) is arriving. “Visitors From Chicago”: Drs. Chauncey Gump (Richard Pryor) and Willis Panama (Bill Cosby) along with wives Lola (Gloria Gifford) and Bettina (Sheila Frazier) are on a vacation together which has quickly escalated from bad to worse leading to all tensions between the couples coming to a boil when they meet at the hotel tennis court for a long-awaited doubles match.
I’m not sure why, but somehow it feels like the DVD should come with an alternate version that replicates when it first aired on (I’m going to guess) the ABC Sunday Night at the Movies. It’s tempting to say that CALIFORNIA SUITE plays like a fairly effortless-seeming job by all involved with director Herbert Ross whipping this all together in his workmanlike sort of way that he seemed to pull off for a good amount of his career. The expected bouncy, airy feeling is maintained by all that light jazz with David Hockney paintings over the opening credits adding class but the strain shows in CALIFORNIA SUITE, almost sooner than expected. The film bounces back and forth through the various stories, planting itself down in long stretches for the meat of each of them with the ‘serious’ acts kept mostly in the first half and the ‘funny’ ones in the latter. Maybe it pulls off the conceit about as well as it could—the two alternatives would be to do the whole thing as a straight anthology piece or just bounce all around throughout with no particular emphasis at any time (basically how Woody Allen’s recent TO ROME WITH LOVE handled this) but to do it that way would possibly rob the individual stories of dramatic momentum which wouldn’t have been a problem on stage. CALIFORNIA SUITE tries to keep a semblance of the roots of the piece but also seems determined to keep from coming off as too stagebound, maybe in the wrong ways.
When we settle down with ‘Visitors From New York’ early on for a long stretch not only is there a certain jarring effect in terms of the pacing there’s the feel that however much of the dialogue may have been maintained it’s almost trying too hard to feel not like a play, continually changing the settings from the hotel room to the car to the restaurant to walking back to the car to the beach (I guess an excuse to show off Fonda in a bikini) to Bill’s house. The overall effect is almost too cutty, too jumpy, unwilling to breathe and not really helped that the drama being played here comes as a little too grating with the great emphasis placed on these two unpleasant people so early on almost winds up dragging the whole movie down before the end of the first half-hour. Alda’s screenwriter has become one of those Tony Roberts characters who change completely when they move to L.A. and Fonda’s ex presumably as bitter as she always was made all the worse by how unwilling he is to fight with her. In the material is an interesting example of the New York-Los Angeles dichotomy that Simon explored at other times like in I OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES—back when the two places probably seemed much further away from each other than they do now in the days when it was a big deal what the movie shown on a flight was going to be or before people actually knew what guacamole was—but moving out of the hotel to other locations in such rapid fashion helps insure that it never achieves any real rhythm, just coming off as bitter and not in a good way. Maybe Simon was all too close to these types of people and it seems notable that “Visitors From London” doesn’t feel at all like characters from the Neil Simon universe which may be why it all seems that much more fresh and mature in a way that is a little surprising now. Even if it is just his stab at writing an English drawing room comedy in some kind of Noel Coward vein he still maintains the perfect balance between the barbs and the more serious declarations both characters make throughout while apparently drinking all the alcohol in California with every single line flat-out flowing helped immeasurably by two actors that are perfect for each other. As a result, it’s the only part of the movie that contains any real emotion. The story does move out of the room down into the hotel bar and briefly towards the award ceremony but it’s more willing to keep the characters isolated from everyone in their suite and the flow is simply better. Possessing an almost unexpected level of maturity, the piece seems to know that there’s no way to tie a box on this conflict that would be neat and easy, simply willing to find a way for both of them to be content for the time being and it lets the two characters linger even when their story has finished.
One correct choice that the film does make is to separate the drama and comedy just enough so the biggest laughs are paid off after the buildup of the first hour, probably the best way to avoid distracting tonal shifts. “Visitors From Philadelphia” is the slightest story of the bunch and plays a little like the most neutered version of a 70s sex farce imaginable but the over the top reactions from Matthau played against the dry befuddlement of May wind up making me laugh out loud much more than I probably want to admit no matter how many times I watch it. Placed alongside how all this works surprisingly well the Pryor-Cosby section of “Visitors From Chicago” instead just comes off as loud and unpleasant. Pauline Kael accused the hijinks of the two bickering African-American married couples as playing somewhat racist, as if to say that they don’t belong in such a tony environment, something Cosby objected to (incidentally, is this film the biggest hit Cosby ever appeared in?) saying he and Pryor had as much right to do a Laurel and Hardy bit as anybody. Which they do, but for the most part it all still plays as crassly unfunny in a particularly sour way, coming off as more mean-spirited than anything.
Essentially a look at marriages in various states and the relationships that surround a few of them while in an environment that is essentially artificial, CALIFORNIA SUITE is mostly about trying to connect with the person you’re with and raising the question of how willing we might be to change into the person we’re meant to become as we age, especially when shut off from everyone else in the world other than the one who knows us best. Thing is, the film doesn’t really do all that much cinematically with any of these ideas outside of having the characters leave their hotel rooms on occasion. On a basic cinematic level you can’t really say that the setting ever really becomes a character the way you’d expect a film set around a hotel to be. Since this is a film based on a Neil Simon play I doubt that making it pure cinema was ever any sort of goal but it still doesn’t keep the whole thing from being just ok. Maybe it needed to do more with the setting or add a few other side characters or even maybe have a few of the main players brush past each other in the hallway in an Altmanesque sort of way which would add at least a slightly looser feeling. Placed up against any number of other films based on Neil Simon plays I suspect CALIFORNIA SUITE is exactly what it’s supposed to be. How good that is may depend on how well this sort of thing has aged for you.
Maggie Smith won the Supporting Actress Oscar for this role of someone who doesn’t win an Oscar which is little surprise, giving a performance that is undeniably affecting, both funny and moving in all the best ways. Michael Caine wasn’t even nominated, go figure, but he’s every inch his co-star’s equal tossing off sly one-liners at her followed by the most offhandedly passionate declaration of love without missing a step. Alan Alda and Jane Fonda never really connect but even they have their moments if you look for them—Fonda’s own frustration seems believably live in and I have a fondness for a tiny moment where Alda, seeing her before she notices him, has a brief wave of affection come over his face that she never gets to notice. Walter Matthau and Elaine May are totally believable as a married couple which is little surprise (this is as good a place as any to mention that you really need to see A NEW LEAF if you never have), playing their roles with absolutely expert timing that elevates the slightly thin material as if they’d been expertly honing their scenes together for years even though they never played it on stage. I’ll admit it, seeing Matthau pull panicked faces to cover up his indiscretion can pretty easily send me into hysterics but May’s low-key nature is just as good, particularly when she ‘says nothing for ten seconds’ and silently mouths counting to ten. It seems a little special now to have Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby in the same frame as well as the chance to observe how they attack their roles differently—Pryor seems to go right for the laughs while Cosby emphasizes the straight anger a little too much—it’s an interesting combination but, again, nothing about what they’re playing seems to go together. There’s no subtlety to any of it, just shouting. Almost in the background of it all, Sheila Frazier as Cosby’s wife has some of the best moments of the four of them in trying to project flat sanity while everything around her is crashing down. James Coburn cameos as Diana’s co-star in a scene from her nominated film, Army Archerd appears as himself at the Oscars and Dana Plato plays the daughter Hannah and Bill are fighting over, getting a completely superfluous scene near the end.
Speaking of those moments at the end that are clearly attempting to wrap everything up in a way that they didn’t get to do on the stage it’s hard not to wonder, wait a second, shouldn’t Jane Fonda have left the day before? Oh, never mind. CALIFORNIA SUITE doesn’t really have the sort of verisimilitude where that matters. In addition to Smith’s win at the real Oscars, Simon was nominated for adapted screenplay and the replications of the hotel (largely shot on stage) were nominated in the Art Direction category as well. I can remember Richard Donner in an old issue of Cinefantastique complaining about this when the production design in his own SUPERMAN (SUITE’s opening weekend competition, if you remember) was ignored but, well, that was where the acclaim went to at the time. It was the 70s. People crowded the theaters to see Neil Simon films, including this one, one after the other. That doesn’t happen anymore and there isn’t really a present-day equivalent—Simon’s later iteration of the format LONDON SUITE didn’t last long on the stage and the filmed version wound up being made for NBC in 1996. I doubt the networks would be all that interested now either. Things change, as always. As for the present day, why did I even pull out CALIFORNIA SUITE to watch late that evening? Maybe because that damn Columbia sunburst logo has the ability to hypnotize me, however briefly, into thinking that it’s long ago and things will seem just a little more carefree. I suppose there are worse reasons.