In 1972, 20 years after Charlie Chaplin was forced into exile, the man who helped invent Hollywood came to a garden party in Los Angeles. Everyone was there
“We all felt he was … the definitive artist of the 20th century. He helped create the medium that would change the world.” — CAROL MATTHAU
“Smile, though your heart is aching …” — CHARLES CHAPLIN, “SMILE”
Hollywood’s elite began calling Carol Matthau, trying to wrangle invitations to the garden party welcoming Charlie Chaplin back to America. Carol had worked with Oona, Chaplin’s adored wife of 30 years, on the invitation list—a mix of Old and New Hollywood.
It was going to be a fabulous party.
The character Charlie Chaplin had created long ago, the Little Tramp, had been the beloved face of Depression-era America before Chaplin was ignominiously chased out of Hollywood in 1952 for violating the Mann Act, accused of “indecency” over an affair he’d had with a 22-year-old actress named Joan Barry. Now, after a 20-year exile from the country where he had made his fame and his fortune—and had helped launch an industry—the 83-year-old legend was thinking of coming back to America. Not to live—there was too much blood under the bridge for that—but, perhaps, to forgive.
The former silent-screen actor nearly changed his mind on the plane coming over. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. How would he be received? Would policemen be waiting for him at the gate? It was too late to turn back. Two of Oona’s closest friends, Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper in New York and Carol Marcus Matthau in Los Angeles, were throwing parties to welcome him back, and at the Matthaus’ Pacific Palisades home he would be seeing his old Hollywood pals.
Chaplin’s return came about through the efforts of producer Bert Schneider. By 1972, Schneider had produced three era-defining movies — Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, and Five Easy Pieces. Schneider and his partner, Mo Rothman, made a pilgrimage to Vevey, Switzerland, to convince Chaplin to let them re-release his pictures in America. Like the Little Tramp himself, many of Chaplin’s films were too long in exile. Schneider also arranged with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Chaplin to receive an honorary Oscar, to coincide with the re-release of his films.
Candice Bergen, then making her name as a photojournalist as well as an actress, was living with Schneider at the time, and he arranged for Life to hire her to shoot Chaplin’s return. “I don’t want to have photographers buzzing around him,” he’d told Life, “and I would like just one photographer, and I would like it to be Candice Bergen.” Although Bergen didn’t feel she was accomplished enough at the time, Life agreed to hire her.
Candice met the Chaplins when they arrived in New York from Vevey and photographed them for Life’s cover under a banner reading, Hello Charlie, for a gala honoring Chaplin. The event was spectacular. From his vantage point in Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall, seated in an upper-tier box with Oona beside him, Chaplin could gaze down at the 2,836 guests gathered for the Film Society’s tribute, where two of his films, The Idle Class and The Kid, were screened.
Chaplin was genuinely moved, and he said to the gathered crowd, “I feel as if I were the object of a complete renaissance—as if I were being reborn.”
Gloria did her part to welcome Charlie and Oona back to America, with a dinner party held in his honor. Chaplin was wearing black-tie and was seated between his hostess and the elegant New York socialite Amanda Burden, his eyes sparkling with the attention paid to him. But even a glorious evening at Lincoln Center did not fully allay Chaplin’s fears about returning to America. When he walked into the dining room at ‘21’ the next day, he was met by spontaneous applause. After the meal, someone called out, “They all love you, Charlie.”
“Yes, but they loved Kennedy too,” he replied.
Candice accompanied the Chaplins on their flight from New York to L.A. She could see that he “wasn’t in any way confident that it would be a warm reception. He’d been fêted at Lincoln Center very warmly … but L.A. was the scene of the crime, as it were, and he was very nervous about going there.… He worried that he could have been jailed if he’d come back, not unlike Roman Polanski.... It was so traumatic for him.”
Two disasters had forced Chaplin out of Hollywood. The most public was his being charged with violating the Mann Act. Chaplin was acquitted in the ensuing trial, and then Barry turned around and brought a paternity suit against him.
Despite a blood test proving he was not the father of Barry’s child, Chaplin lost the lawsuit. But more ominously, he’d fallen afoul of the McCarthy witch hunts. The two people behind the humiliating charges against Chaplin had been Hedda Hopper, working hand in glove with Joan Barry, and F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover.
In the l940s, Chaplin had made speeches backing Russia, America’s wartime ally in the Second World War, so he quickly became a target of right-wing, anti-Communist hate groups, such as the John Birch Society.
Hedda Hopper “despised Charlie Chaplin, and in Hollywood those ladies who [wore] hats at their desks [were] not to be trifled with,” Carol Matthau later wrote in her lively and candid 1992 memoir, Among the Porcupines. “Louella Parsons … was known to be a drunk. But not Hedda Hopper. She managed, somehow, to organize a group of haters and arrange that incredible shipboard act of the U.S. State Department.”
Chaplin and Oona had set sail on the Queen Elizabeth in September of 1952 for a brief holiday in Europe: Charlie’s re-entry permit had been suddenly canceled. They were told that “Charlie could not re-enter this country without appearing before a government board of inquiry, ‘to answer charges of a political nature and of moral turpitude.’” He refused, and spent the next 20 years living in Vevey, Switzerland, in exile.
But to know how Carol Matthau’s welcome-home party came to be, nearly 50 years ago, you have to know something about the friendship among three extraordinary women: Carol, Oona, and Gloria.
Besides their striking beauty, the three friends had something else in common: They had grown up in New York City, and they had all been abandoned, one way or another, by their fathers. At the age of eight, Carol went from a foster home on the Lower East Side to an 18-room apartment on Park Avenue, when her mother married a Bendix Aviation Corporation executive named Charles Marcus, who adopted her. Oona’s father, the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill, divorced her mother, the writer Agnes Boulton, when Oona was just two years old. And Gloria’s alcoholic father died when she was just a baby, making her the subject of the most infamous custody case in America.
Carol recalled how all three of them were wallflowers, with their noses always buried in books. She would meet Oona every day after school (she attended Dalton, while Oona was a Brearley student) and stroll down to the Marcus-family apartment, at 420 Park Avenue, where they would spend endless hours talking about writers. Carol sensed and responded to a great sadness in both of her friends, though she would remain closest to Oona.
Carol Marcus Matthau has been described by one of her many admirers as “a very white skinned, blue-eyed Dresden doll.” Many believe she was the inspiration for her close friend Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Before meeting Matthau, whom she would eventually marry, she had had several conquests: an unhappy marriage—and re-marriage!—to playwright William Saroyan, a love affair with the writer James Agee, and a would-be affair with the English theater critic Ken Tynan. The latter was interrupted in the Palace Hotel in Madrid when a lawyer sent by Tynan’s then wife, Elaine Dundy, burst into the room. Carol cabled Gloria: “The pain in Spain comes mainly from Elaine.” Her Dresden-doll appearance belied a quick and beguiling wit.
Matthau, who died in 2000, had entered America’s bloodstream playing sly, lovable cranks in dozens of leading roles—mostly comedic—after his breakthrough as Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Simon once described Matthau as “the greatest instinctive actor I’ve ever seen.” Craggy, charismatic, with his tall man’s slouch, Matthau could be wildly funny (Elaine May’s A New Leaf) or surprisingly menacing (Charade, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn). His endearing, curmudgeonly persona was perfectly suited for two of his last films with his friend Jack Lemmon, Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men.
He and Carol made a kind of odd couple themselves—he was a down-to-earth product of New York’s Lower East Side and a legendary gambler; she was an ethereal, eccentric original, also born on the Lower East Side but mostly a product of Park Avenue. They adored each other.
Oona O’Neill was an 18-year-old, freshly minted high-school graduate and fledgling actress when she married 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin on June 16, 1943, in Santa Barbara—Chaplin’s fourth and most enduring marriage.
“Oona O’Neill was born with a broken heart,” Carol later wrote, “but when she met Charlie Chaplin, her life really began. He was everything she never had and didn’t dare hope for.” She saw that Oona and Chaplin “had both known lovelessness—aloneness, deep despair, and desolation—in their youngest years … ”
After graduating from New York’s premier girls’ school, Brearley, Oona became a prominent young socialite, dating J. D. Salinger and Orson Welles. She decided to head west to Hollywood, where she made a brief attempt at an acting career. Oona met Chaplin when she was recommended for a part in one of his films. O’Neill, her father—who was the same age as Chaplin—was so angry about the marriage that he disinherited his daughter.
But Carol was all for the marriage, later writing that Chaplin “fell in love with Oona as a young boy would fall in love for the first time. That had never happened to him before.… She was the two girls that he always sought—the waif and the princess.”
As with Oona, one of Gloria Vanderbilt’s four marriages was to a much older man: the conductor Leopold Stokowski, 42 years her senior. She’d survived the mawkish, sensational headlines of her childhood custody fight, as well as the tragic suicide of one of her children, to become an artist, writer, and a designer of fashion jeans. Just stitching her name on the back of blue jeans brought her unimaginable success in the l980s.
Charlie Matthau, Carol and Walter’s son, was named for the great silent-screen star, who was, along with the actor Richard Widmark, also his godfather. He became a director. (His credits include a poignant adaptation of Capote’s novella The Grass Harp, and Freaky Deaky, a comedic crime thriller based on Elmore Leonard’s novel.) Charlie Matthau was nine years old when Chaplin returned to America, but he remembers the momentous occasion.
Even as a boy, he was not surprised when his mother planned with Oona a grand garden party for the returning exiles: “My mother and Oona were friends from high school and kind of grew up together, and then Oona married Charlie, and then Carol married Walter, and, in due course, a party was formed.”
First, there was the guest list—93 people for lunch—a majority of the names having been provided by Oona Chaplin. It was the most coveted invitation to a Hollywood event in memory.
“When the invitations went out,” Carol recalled, “absolutely everyone I’d ever heard of began to telephone us about the party and how they had to come, because they were very dear friends of the Chaplins’. A lot of this was nonsense, because I knew all their friends.”
Carol had a hard time turning down entreating callers, so she asked Walter to do it. He gave them the bad news with such charm and sweetness that “most of those people had more fun during that conversation with Walter than they could have had at the party.”
Carol knew the party could be canceled at any moment, as Chaplin’s moods “were always changing, and every once-in-a-while he’d remember how terrible Hollywood had been to him and he threatened not to come to California at all. I didn’t really feel sure he was coming until he boarded the plane.” Nonetheless, she ordered the Porthault tablecloths, the Baccarat crystal, the best wines, and the most beautiful flowers for the occasion.
Charlie Matthau recalled, “He had so many happy years here before the government went crazy on him. I remember, at the time, my parents talking about how America doesn’t know how to treat its artists, and now I have more of an appreciation of just how right they were. I haven’t seen the Billie Holiday movie, but I hear it’s about the same thing.”
As they drove through Los Angeles, Chaplin felt sure he should not have come. “Oh, well,” he sighed, “it wasn’t so bad. After all, I met Oona there.” Driving through the now unfamiliar city, he muttered, “It’s nothing but banks, banks, banks.”
Chaplin never really got over his broken heart at being so unceremoniously ousted from Hollywood. Like Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, who emerged in 1974 from the Philippine jungle after 29 years, one of the last Japanese soldiers to surrender his sword, Chaplin saw America’s war with him as not over, even if it was. He still seemed uncertain how Hollywood would receive him.
Candice saw that, for Chaplin, being in Vevey “was like being in a penal colony, on an island, Devil’s Island.… He obviously had been quite a tiger in his heyday and very full of snap and vigor, but he was just child-like, and it was just so striking.” She noticed his delight when he was served a mai tai, “sipping it with a straw with both hands around the glass like a little kid.”
The luncheon was held on a balmy Sunday afternoon in April, the day before Chaplin was to receive his honorary Oscar. Candice recalled that “anyone who was anyone in the industry was there, and Carol Matthau was blessed, because the weather was sublime, and they have a fantastic house on a cliff in the Palisades that looks over the ocean … ”
Charlie Matthau remembered the Chaplins arriving by car. “My nanny, who was smarter than any of us, filmed all of this on Super 8. From the back of our house you could see the ocean and dozens of sailboats. Chaplin made a joke with my dad, saying, “Now that really must have cost you a fortune.”
Carol later wrote, “Charlie kissed and hugged everybody, though actually he remembered no one except the one person he wanted to see more than anybody else. And that happened to be Martha Raye.” The wide-mouthed comedic actress arrived in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce, and as soon as she saw Chaplin, she ran over and jumped into his lap. “He was genuinely happy to be with someone he recognized and particularly Martha, whom he had adored since she played the woman he’d tried repeatedly to kill in Monsieur Verdoux.”
But Chaplin also recognized and loved seeing the director Lewis Milestone, Danny Kaye, Frances Goldwyn, and Groucho Marx. (Charlie Matthau remembers Groucho saying to him, “So you’re in fifth grade?,” and replying, “No, I’m not, Groucho,” to which Groucho answered, “I know you’re not Groucho, but are you in fifth grade?”) Chaplin was disappointed that Sam Goldwyn was too ill to accompany his wife, Frances, to the party, because the film mogul had been one of the few people to speak up for Chaplin during his troubles.
Chaplin dined at a special table inside the house to protect him from the sea breeze. (He’d once been told by a gypsy that he would die of pneumonia, so he avoided drafts and dressed in extra layers of clothes, no matter the temperature.) He then moved to a small table on the flagstone terrace, wrapped in a cloth coat, looking frail and thin.
Chaplin was delighted to see another familiar face: the pianist and wit Oscar Levant, now a virtual recluse in Beverly Hills. Emerging briefly from his own self-imposed exile on North Roxbury Drive, Levant was one of the few guests Chaplin greeted with genuine warmth, and his presence became an event in itself. The silent-screen legend and the legendary talker briefly reminisced.
The party guests milled about on the lawn, dotted with pink, white, and blue hyacinths. Charlie remembers noticing that Chaplin “was having a great time, and there was a lot of expression in his eyes. I realize he must have been thinking about how he had lived here for so many years, and then been forced to leave.... I knew that it was an emotional big deal for him, as it seemed to be for everybody else. For me, I just knew that my parents were having a big party for this very important man.”
The following day, April 10, 1972, Chaplin was presented with an honorary Oscar at the 44th Academy Awards event. Security was extremely high at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, as the anti-war movement was still raging, and across the street were picketers. Charlie and Oona were ushered through an underground garage, deemed safer than the artists’ entrance.
They watched the Oscar show on a TV in their dressing room, excitedly pointing out friends they spotted in the huge audience. Chaplin was relieved. He had been afraid nobody would come.
The Academy screened a 13½-minute montage of highlights from Chaplin’s films, lovingly assembled by Peter Bogdanovich. (It was also a big night for the 31-year-old filmmaker, who had received a best-director nomination for The Last Picture Show, which would win two Oscars, for best supporting actress and actor, for Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson.)
When Chaplin finally appeared onstage, he was met with the longest standing ovation in the history of the Academy Awards—12 minutes. Chaplin was moved almost to the point of tears. He blew a kiss and thanked “the sweet people” who lauded him.
Was all forgiven, on both sides, or was it too little, too late?
The Chaplins returned to their home in Vevey, and Charlie died five years later, in 1977, at the age of 88. “I remember the Christmas Day that Charlie died,” Carol wrote. “Oona always referred to his death as ‘the long good-bye.’ He had been sick for so very long.”
Oona was inconsolable. For all the bloodletting that had preceded it—a squalid paternity suit, the humiliation of the Mann Act trial, and the fierce opposition of Eugene O’Neill to his daughter’s marriage—theirs had been a tender and loving relationship. “Being around them,” Candice Bergen had observed, “the institution of marriage seemed less obsolete.”
Nonetheless, Carol Matthau—who died in 2003—thought that “his exile destroyed him. He would rant on and on, for years to come, about what he would have said to the House Un-American Activities Committee.” What he didn’t have the chance to do in life, though, Chaplin did through his art. In 1957, five years after leaving America, Charlie wrote, directed, and starred in A King in New York, a political satire of the McCarthy era, shot in London.
Chaplin plays King Shahdov of Estrovia, a penniless monarch who runs afoul of HUAC but eventually turns a fire hose on the full committee. The film was not shown in America until 1972, the year of Charlie Chaplin’s brief but triumphant return.
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EXCLUSIVE: Filmmaker Charlie Matthau has already submerged himself in another type of Freaky Deaky world, specifically his 2012 feature adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel. Well, Matthau is headed back to another type of Freaky Deaky sphere, specifically author T.D. Riznor’s Freaky Deaky High from Wishing Well Press.
While completed unrelated to Leonard’s novel which dealt with a pair of ’60s bomb-making radicals turned capitalists, Freaky Deaky High is set in the fly-over state middle-class town of Bedford. Each books deals with a different student, at the same high school, Franklin Delano High, and the paranormal occurrences in their life. Matthau acquired all of Riznor’s novels in the Freaky Deaky series — Killer Ride, Student Boy, Photo Bomb and the upcoming to be published The Locker. The plan is to mount a TV series of which Riznor has already finished the pilot script based on Killer Ride. The project is being billed as a Black Mirror but set at the same high school, with each episode in regards to its protag running the social gamut of freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, rich kid, poor kid, model, cast-out, tech-head and more. Episodes won’t end with “guy gets girl”. If that happens, the girl is not of this world, possibly dead, and the guy is living a simulation.
Episode One, Killer Ride, follows a teenage girl whose Tesla-like car, which can drive itself, falls in love with her. The car gets possessive, drives 200 mph and complicates her love life.
Riznor’s upcoming Locker follows a jealous boyfriend who locks his girlfriend’s math tutor in a locker after he tries to kiss her. Later when they open the locker, the body is missing.
Matthau is currently in post on his latest directorial The Book of Leah starring Armand Assante. He is also producing the German Feature film Dylan Papermoon which is currently filming in Bamberg Germany, and the TV series 1920, The Year of the Six Presidents, based on the book by David Pietrusza and Mexican High, based on the novel by Lisa Monroy. Matthau is also directing and co-writing a World War Two thriller called Bodyguard of Lies with Denise O’Dell (The Promise), and a feature based on the the novel Huge by James Feurst.
Matthau is also producing The Invitation and The Sugar Shack with Judd Rubin and overseeing a young adult publishing label with former Dimension Films executive Michael Zoumas. They will publish four books in 2020 with an eye toward turning them into TV Series. Matthau is repped by Zero Gravity.
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Charlie Matthau has directed successful feature films in various genres and has also directed several network television projects. In addition to the critically acclaimed The Grass Harp, he has also directed Doin’ Time on Planet, Her Minor Thing, Baby-O, Freaky Deaky, and is in post-production on The Book of Leah which stars Armand Assante. A graduate of USC Film School, he has also produced and written several films. He has won several awards for directing including Best Director of the Year from The Academy of Family Films, and the AFI Platinum Circle award. He is currently developing Bodyguard of Lies, a World War Two thriller, and several other film and television projects including the limited series 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents based on the book by top historian David Pietrusza.
What are some of your earliest and most fond memories growing up with encouraging parents in such a creative atmosphere?
I was blessed to be raised by older and more mature parents. My father was 42 when I was born and he did not become really famous until I was about 4 years old. I think I benefited greatly from being raised by folks who were not overly consumed with their careers, or their success. My father enjoyed being a film star, but he also could see through the baloney of Hollywood.
What was it like to have Charlie Chaplin as your godfather? What was he like?
Charlie was very quiet and sensitive, and modest considering he was the greatest movie star in the world for many years, and practically invented motion pictures.
As a shy child what was the most difficult thing about being in front of the camera? How exactly did your father make acting more fun for you?
I never really enjoyed acting as I don’t enjoy being vulnerable and open emotionally. But when I acted with my father, he taught me that acting is listening. That helped me not be focused upon myself but instead be in the moment, and hopefully be more natural.
You have said he taught you that acting is about listening. Can you elaborate a little more on that? Do you think in today’s world people tend to listen less than they should in most circumstances?
What?… I absolutely do. When you are talking you are not learning.
How has being shy changed for you now as an adult vs as a child? Do you still sometimes struggle with that shyness?
I am still naturally shy, but as one gets older and gets life experience, you realize that engaging with others is not so scary and very little of what we do or say will matter in 100 years or even 100 minutes.
How did it feel to have the chance to work with your father and Carol Burnett on The Marriage Fool?
It was a joy. I am in awe of their talent, their chemistry and of what beautiful human beings they are, or in the case of my father, were.
How was it to work with Crispin Glover on Freaky Deaky? What is he like as an individual?
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Crispin since we both attended The Mirman School for Gifted Children in Bel Air California. We were both there for many years and even acted in the school play together. He is extremely smart, uncynical, collaborative and funny. I wish I could work with him on every project.
Who have been some of your favorite actors to have worked with so far? Have any been more challenging than the others?
There have been so many. Getting to work with my father and Jack Lemmon, Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Joe Don Baker, Charlie Durning and all those wonderful actors on Grass Harp was a priceless experience I will always treasure. I’m glad the film turned out so well so that I did not embarrass them or waste their time. I recently worked with Armand Assante, and he is a world class talent and gentleman.
What do you think it takes create a piece of work that everyone involved in can be proud of?
It takes a good script, creating a safe, collaborative and fun environment, and a lot of luck.
Are you still planning to bring about The 1920 Election television series? Can you tell us a little more about that?
The election of 1920, the first modern election, is surprisingly similar to 2020. The main issues were isolationism, anti-intellectualism, terrorism, immigration, a presidential sex scandal, women’s rights, and the manipulation of new media to sway voters. In 1920, it was radio and in 2020 it is social media like Facebook. It was also the year we had our first woman president, Mrs Woodrow Wilson who ran the country for a year and a half when her husband had a stroke.
I understand The Book of Leah is almost finished as well. Why did you decide to work on that particular film at this time?
I was blessed to be hired to direct the film by its Producer and Writer Leslie Neilan. She wrote a beautiful story about a young woman’s coming of age that is extraordinarily sensitive and intelligent. Usually, the assignments that I get offered as a director are not of a high standard, but this was truly a gift and I am grateful to have had the opportunity. I got to work with amazing actors like Armand, Brianna Chomer, Kate Linder, Melanie Neilan, Morgan Lindholm, Gigi Freedman, Ornella Thelmudottir, Ty Olowin, Jimmy Van Patten and Freddie Cole, who is a jazz legend. I could listen to that man sing all day.
I also got to work with many nice crew people including the producers Ken Achity, Alan Gibson, Ellison Miller, Mark and Arlene Fromer and, for the 5th time, with my favorite DP and mentor John Connor.
Do you still work with the Maria Gruber Foundation? Can you tell us more about what it is they do there?
The Maria Gruber Foundation was started by my friend Simona Fusco. I was Simona’s first boyfriend and I’ve been bragging about it ever since. She named it after her beautiful mother who passed away from cancer but whose beautiful spirit lives on in Simona and her daughter Amber. Our government really needs to spend more on cancer research, because it kills a lot of its citizens.
Do you think it is important that those in a position to help others who are in need do so whatever way they can?
I sure do. Otherwise, really, what is the point of it all? I know certain people have really helped me through the years, and I’d be a disaster without them.
What projects do you hope to bring into existence in the years ahead?
My favorite project is Bodyguard of Lies which is the most amazing true story you have never heard of. It is about Juan Pujol, a failed chicken farmer who saved at least 14 million lives in the Second World War. You know, a good chicken farmer will do that for you.
Is there anything you’d like to say before you go?
Just that it is a pleasure to re-connect with you after several years. Thank you for remembering me and for your kindness and graciousness.
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EXCLUSIVE: Filmmaker Charlie Matthau is close to finishing the independent feature The Book of Leah starring Armand Assante, which tells the story of a teenage rape victim who rebuilds herself as a karate fighter and seeks revenge on her attacker.
Brianna Joy Chomer plays Leah Gold, who after sneaking into a night club with her friends, is sexually assaulted in 1980s Chicago. The police do not take her case seriously, trying to blame Leah for being a minor, and the way she dressed. Her high-class family, embarrassed by the incident, sends Leah to a girls school, where she ultimately meets her uncle, played by four-time Golden Globe nominee Assante, who is a Holocaust survivor.
More than another female Karate Kid film, there are layers in The Book of Leah which echo a lot of what we’ve read lately about sexual assault; how alleged victims like Christine Blasey Ford and Patti Davis remained quiet about their incidents for several decades for many reasons. The Book of Leah puts a spotlight on the injustice that rape victim weather; the disbelief some face by those in authority after pointing a finger at their attackers.
In the film, Assante’s Adam Siegel forms a strong bond with Leah and builds her into a karate champ. Also starring in the pic is jazz singer and pianist Freddy Cole in his first feature role as a musical mentor to Leah, Kate Linder as Leah’s mother, Ty Olwin as the love interest, and Melanie Neilan as Leah’s friend.
Based on a true story, The Book of Leah was written by Leslie Neilan and Alan Roth. Neilan also produces with Kenneth Atchity. Matthau’s directorial credits include such pics as the 2012 feature take of Elmore Leonard’s Freaky Deaky starring Christian Slater, Billy Burke and Crispin Glover as well as 1995’s The Grass Harp based on the Truman Capote novel in which Matthau directed his Oscar-winning father Walter Matthau, Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. The Grass Harp won best English Language Film at the 1996 Palm Springs Film Festival.
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Charlie Matthau is developing a six-part television series on the 1920 presidential election and hopes to have it air during the home stretch of the 2020 election, Variety has learned exclusively.
“I was struck at how similar the 1920 election was and how it contained so many parallels to the current political environment,” Matthau told Variety.
Matthau, son of the late Walter Matthau, has optioned David Pietrusza’s book “1920: The Year of the Six Presidents” through his Matthau Company. He noted that the series would run concurrently with the 100-year anniversary of the 1920 election.
“1920 is considered the first modern election and one of the most dramatic,” Matthau said. “Six once and future presidents — Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt — jockeyed for the White House. Amazing characters, amazing roles for actors.”
Harding, a Republican Senator from Ohio, defeated Democratic Governor James M. Cox of Ohio in the election, which took place two years after the end of World War I and two months after the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Harding’s running mate was Coolidge, who succeeded Harding after the latter died in 1923. Cox’s running mate was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Wilson had been seeking a third term but could not win the nomination due to the rise of isolationism. Teddy Roosevelt had been a frontrunner for the Republican nomination but died in 1919. Hoover also sought the Republican nomination.
During the election, Republicans outspent Democrats by 4 to 1, as voters witnessed the first extensive newsreel coverage. Pietruzsa’s book contends that America had become an urban nation as automobiles, mass production, chain stores, and easy credit transformed the economy with voters dealing with the Red Scare, jailed dissidents, and Prohibition, which had begun in 1920.
“In 1920, the big issues were terrorism, woman’s rights as they voted for the first time, anti-immigrant hysteria, isolationism, manipulation of a new form of media called radio to swing the election, and a President who was elected by appealing to ‘small town America,’ ‘normalcy’ and ‘anti-intellectualism’ but who surrounded himself with crooked cronies and a 17-year-old mistress,” Matthau said.
Matthau closed the TV rights deal with Pietrusza’s reps on July 13 and is at the early stages of seeking actors and a director. He admits that he’s been inspired by the success with his friend Jay Roach and his HBO political series political dramas “Recount” (2008), “Game Change” (2012) and “All the Way” (2016). Matthau and Roach both graduated in the 1986 USC School of Cinema-Television.
Matthau’s directing credits include “Freaky Deaky,” based upon Elmore Leonard’s book and which starred Christian Slater and Crispin Glover; and “The Grass Harp,” with a cast that included his father, Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemmon, Mary Steenburgen, Nell Carter, and Edward Furlong. He made his feature directorial debut at age 24 with the comedy “Doin Time on Planet Earth” and is in post-production on “The Book of Leah,” starring Armand Assante.
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EXCLUSIVE: Charlie Matthau and Denise O’Dell have optioned rights to Juste De Nin’s Spanish-language graphic novel Garbo: The Spy Who Fooled Hitler, which is set to become the latest directorial vehicle for Matthau.
The film will be produced under the name Bodyguard of Lies, and tells the incredible true story of Juan Pujol Garcia, a failed Spanish chicken farmer who, incredibly, became one of the greatest, if not the most successful, spies of World War II, whose deceptive work saved what is estimated at about 14 million lives. Reuben Sack, Justin Parker, Bradley McManus and Matthau are writing the screenplay, with plans to film on location in Lisbon, Madrid and London. It will be a co-production between O’Dell’s Babieka Films and The Matthau Company.
At the recent Cannes Film Festival where they were seeking further financing for the project, Matthau told me he was seeking a comedic actor for the title role, someone like a young Peter Sellers. It’s a wild role to be sure: Pujol deliberately became a double agent against Nazi Germany during the war and moved to England to carry out a number of fictional spying jobs for the Nazis, going by his British code name Garbo and German code name Alaric Arabel.
Initially he attempted to become a spy for the Americans and Brits, but neither was impressed by this chicken farmer. Nevertheless, he created an altar-ego as a pro Nazi Spanish Government official and weaseled his way into becoming a German agent instructed to travel to Britain to recruit other agents. Instead, he set up his bogus operations in Lisbon where he created numerous false reports and invented sub-agents that could later be blamed for false information. He finally won the trust of the Allies when they noticed the Germans were spending considerable time and money to hunt down a fictional convoy. He spent the rest of the war creating and expanding his fictional network and fooling the Germans every step of the way.
As it turned out, the Nazi regime wound up funding 27 completely non-existent “agents.” Among his triumphs was having a key role in the success of Operation Fortitude, which was designed to mislead the Germans about the planned invasion of Normandy on D-Day 1944.
Matthau, son of Oscar-winning actor Walter Matthau, has previously directed the well-received indie The Grass Harp, with other directorial credits including Doin’ Time On Planet Earth, 2012’s Freaky Deaky, and The Book of Leah starring Armand Assante which is currently in postproduction. Early in his career he directed a couple of TV films, The Marriage Fool and Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love which both starred his father.
O’Dell has worked on more than 30 films in various producing capacities including for Ridley Scott on Kingdom of Heaven, The Counselor, and Exodus: Of Gods and Kings as well as most recently on the 2017 Christian Bale starrer The Promise on which she was an executive producer.
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This year’s market titles at the Venice Film Festival includes high-budget and low-budget features, television series and VR projects.
Screen runs down five of the projects you should keep your eye on over the course of the next week.
Of A Different Nature
From fledgling Norwegian production outfit Klar Film AS comes TV project Of A Different Nature, an 8x52 supernatural mystery series.
The Norway-set story follows a troubled scientist seeking a cure for his Tourette’s. Revisiting his hometown after 20 years away, he is informed of a nearby mine where a series of unexplained deaths have taken place. Upon entering the mine, his Tourette’s instantly disappears, and he begins an investigation into the mine’s mysterious properties.
Klar Film AS co-founders Mamdooh Afdile and Tone Andersen, co-writers on the project, have previously worked in television documentaries, including Afdile’s Genies And Madness and Andersen’s When The Boys Return.
The project, in the TV series section of the Venice market, is budgeted at €5.5m and is seeking co-producers and broadcasters in Venice.
Israeli-Ethiopian filmmaker Alamork Marsha brings her feature debut to the Venice Market as the film seeks completion finance following its shoot in Summer 2016.
The project was the winner of the Sam Spiegel International Film Lab pitching event at Jerusalem Film Festival in 2014. It returned to Jerusalem this year to participate in the Pitch Point strand, winning the Wouter Barendrecht Lia Van Leer Award, and also competed in the Works in Progress strand of the 2017 Sarajevo Film Festival.
The film is based on the filmmaker’s own experiences growing up in war-torn Addis Ababa and being airlifted to Israel in 1991 as part of the country’s Operation Solomon to protect 14,325 Jewish Ethiopians.
Producers Naomi Levari and Saar Yogev of Tel Aviv-based Black Sheep Productions were selected by Screen as one of eight production companies on the rise in Israel.
French distributor and production outfit Haut et Court is embarking on its first virtual reality project with Passenger, a short, 360-degree VR experience. Filmed in first-person style and in English language, the Paris-set story follows four friends on a night out.
Director Romain Chassaing’s previous work includes the award-winning music video for French pop band Naïve New Beaters’s single Heal Tomorrow.
The project is being made with Paris-based content studio Solab Pictures and has backing from broadcaster CNC. Currently in pre-production, €118,000 has been raised of the proposed €338,000 budget and the team are seeking international partners in Venice.
Passenger is one of 10 virtual reality films participating in this year’s Venice Gap-Financing Market.
Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh (The Missing Picture) embarks on his first virtual reality project with Amrita, a co-production between France, Cambodia, Netherlands and Germany. Produced by Catherine Dussart of CDP, the project also counts Films Distribution among its supporters.
Based on an original script, the VR experience will chronicle the struggles between the forces of life and death and will shoot at the site of Angkor in Cambodia, which was the historical location of the capital city of the Khmer Empire.
The film has a budget of €660,000 and the team are seeking investors, co-producers and distributors to complete finance in Venice.
Bodyguard Of Lies
Son of US actor Walter Matthau, Charles Matthau directs this true story about the only man to ever win the German Iron Cross and an MBE (Member of the British Empire), which he received for his espionage exploits in the Second World War.
Denise O’Dell producers the project (her credits include Ridley Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven) through Spanish outfit Babieka Films, in co-production with Huge Productions from the US. The project has a budget of €12m, with €8.4m raised to-date. In Venice, the team will be looking to close finance as well as find a sales agent and an Italian distributor.
Read more here.
Projects include virtual reality, web, and TV series
ROME – The Venice Film Festivalʼs Gap-Financing Market, which helps indie European and international producers secure the final portion of financing for their projects, has announced the 47 feature films, documentaries, TV series, and virtual-reality projects that have made the cut
They comprise 25 feature films and documentaries, many of which have been making the rounds of co-production forums on the festival circuit. What distinguishes the Venice market is that submissions must have at least 70% of financing in place, meaning that these projects have a better chance of actually reaching completion.
Last year the Venice Film Market — which besides the gap-financing component, also includes the Final Cut in Venice platform for films in post from countries with struggling film industries and a book rightsʼ mart — was re-branded as Venice Production Bridge.
The idea is that Venice, which cannot compete with Toronto in terms of bona-fide market heft, is pioneering an informal new-concept market dedicated to original works-in-progress and open to web content, TV series, and virtual-reality titles in final stages. These include works spawned by the Lidoʼs Biennale College initiative dedicated to development and production of micro-budget feature films from around the world, and now also virtual-reality shorts for the first time this year.
The gap-financing market, which is the core of the Production Bridge, will be setting up curated one-to-one meetings between the teams from the selected projects and potential investors, including producers, financiers, bankers, distributors, sales agents, TV commissioners and streaming platform execs. The 74th edition of the Venice Film Festival will run Aug. 3 to Sept. 9. The Venice Gap-Financing Market will run Sept. 1 to 3. The Venice Production Bridge will run Aug. 31 to Sept. 5.
COMPLETE LIST OF SELECTED VENICE GAP-FINANCING MARKET PROJECTS
FICTION FILMS AND DOCUMENTARIES
“Bisbee ‘17” by Robert Greene (United States), 4th Row Films
VIRTUAL REALITY & INTERACTIVE, WEB SERIES AND TV SERIES PROJECTS
VIRTUAL REALITY PROJECTS
TV SERIES AND WEB SERIES
BIENNALE COLLEGE VIRTUAL REALITY PROJECTS
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“Hollywood royalty is easy to recognize. The son of the late great Walter Matthau, Charles was named after his father’s friend Charlie Chaplin. Actor and film/tv director, he’s not a novice to the plus and minuses of the entertainment industry. Sophisticated and generous, he comes off more as a wealthy Ivy League graduate who teaches film somewhere to open eyed teens. Alas, he is just another Los Angelino making his way through the industry. We like his Bruce Wayne style demeanor and ability to be taken seriously.”
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Handsome and talented director, writer and producer Charlie Matthau has never traded on his famous last name to make it in the tough world of entertainment. I recently had the opportunity to travel from Hollywood to Iowa for the Independent Film Festival, and Matthau enthralled audiences with his amazing stories of making films, acting in some, producing and growing up the son of the legendary actor Walter Matthau.
Charlie’s style of films stands out in this business because he is a maverick who believes films should have genuine meaning, humanity, heart and yet be humorous as well. I caught up with the talented man for an exclusive interview.
Q-Charlie, you grew up in the business. Was that a plus or a minus for you to strike out and become an actor, director and producer?
A-“I was very blessed to have loving parents who not only encouraged me, but allowed me to observe and participate in the business from a young age. In addition to the formal training I had at USC film school, I was lucky enough to watch many different directors work with my father and that was quite educational. I have wanted to direct since I got my first Super 8 movie camera because I love storytelling. I’ve done a little work as an actor when requested by friends, but it is not something I seek out, as I think whatever talent I have lies behind the camera.”
Q-Which part of the business do you prefer?
A-“Directing. My favorite part of the directing process is the editing, because it suits my personality. I like fixing my mistakes and trying out different ideas without the pressure of 80 crew members staring at you and knowing that every minute is expensive. I also love working with actors, especially when they’re not there! My least favorite part is the money raising and all of the business stuff, which goes over my head and is kind of a bore.”
Q-“Baby O” was a huge hit at the Iowa Film Festival. Your next directorial project is “Freaky Deaky.” Tell us about that.
A-“I have wanted to bring ‘Freaky Deaky’ to the screen for many years. Elmore Leonard is my favorite living author and ‘Freaky Deaky’ is his best book. It is not only my favorite Elmore book, but it is Elmore’s also. I thought I would never have the opportunity to tell the story because in 1994, right after ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ‘Freaky Deaky’ was optioned by the great Quentin Tarantino. Fortunately, he went on to make another of Elmore’s books (‘Rum Punch’) into a film and ‘Freaky Deaky’ became available. I am honored and humbled to be working with such great material and hope to make something akin to ‘Get Shorty’ meets ‘Pineapple Express’.”
Q-You and I both guest star in “Queen of the Lot.” What do you think of the film?
A-“‘Queen of the Lot’ represents another triumph for one of our most talented and underrated directors, Henry Jaglom. I greatly admire the way Henry is able to coalesce his life and imagination into moving and insightful films that are truly timeless.”
Q-Your father is the legendary Walter Matthau. Did he ever give you advice on the business?
A-“My father gave me two pieces of advice, and I was too dumb to listen to either one of them. One was to attend medical school. The other was to start a newsstand and marry a very husky woman who could carry me home in cold weather after a tough night of work.”
Q-Tell us about your production company!
A-“Matthau Media is currently beginning pre-production on ‘Freaky Deaky,’ completing post-production on the musical ‘Baby-O’ and we are developing some great projects–some of which are taken from best-selling and cutting-edge novels. After making a film of Truman Capote’s ‘The Grass Harp’, turning books into films is something I have a knack for.”
Charlie Matthau is a man to keep your eye on in Hollywood. He’s becoming one of the most successful and sought-after movie makers in the business.
Charlie Matthau began his career in 1973, appearing alongside his father Walter Matthau in such films as Charley Varrick, The Bad News Bears, and House Calls. Charlie made his directorial debut in the film Doin Time on Planet Earth. He also directed The Grass Harp, Her Minor Thing, Baby-O, and most recently Freaky Deaky, as well as several network movies of the week. A man of multiple talents, over the course his career he has worked as an actor, director, producer, and writer. He currently runs The Matthau Company.
What were you like as a child? Did you always have a love for things…creative?
I always loved storytelling.
What was it like growing up Matthau so to speak?
I was very lucky because I had very loving parents. they were a little older when they had me, and thus more mature.
What was your father like as an individual?
The best dad you can imagine. My best friend. We did everything together!
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Elmore Leonard is not unfamiliar with his writings being turned into movies and television series. After all, his are the stories behind 1995′s “Get Shorty”, 1997′s “Jackie Brown”, and the FX Network series “Justified” with Timothy Olyphant (my personal favorite), so when I saw his name on the cover of this heist-laden movie, I was all kinds of excited. And I wasn’t let down.
“Freaky Deaky” is set in 1974 Detroit and crime is at an all-time high. Almost-former bomb specialist Chris Mankowski (Billy Burke) has been called to the home of a local crime lord named Booker (Page Kennedy) who has unwittingly sat on a bomb strapped under a chair. Mankowski is so jaded by the crime that he barely flinches when the bomb detonates as he’s outside with Narcotics officer Jerry Baker (Roger Bart). Mankowski is forced to look at the case- and others as well- when he meets Greta Wyatt (Sabina Gadeki), who wants him to look into the explosion death of local heir Mark Ricks (Andy Dick), as she fear his brother Woody (Cripin Glover) will be next. Mankowski takes the case and soon finds himself on the trail of demolition enthusiasts Robin Abbott (Breanne Racano) and Skip Gibbs (Christian Slater at his all-time creepiness). He also has to deal with would-be conman and Woody’s bodyguard Donnell Lewis (Michael Jai White), who is looking to better his own situation as much as he can and by any means necessary. Mankowski is forced to watch his own back while reying to keep Woody safe, all while investigating Mark’s death.
This is a quirky story, on that Elmore Leonard has said was one of his favourites that he’s written, and while the story tends to jump from one group to the other a lot and seemed to get a little convoluted, it had a pretty even flow to it. Each actor seemed to go out of their way to overact the hell out of the stereotype they were playing (especially Slater- wow!) and it added to the campiness of the film as a whole. My personal favourite was still Michael Jai White- he was so utterly fantastic as the opportunistic body guard to Glover’s eccentric Woody. And had nothing whatsoever that not only is he Spawn, but he is also Black Dynamite, which you could hear in some of his deliveries.
“Freaky Deaky” is now available on DVD.
Variety: ‘Freaky Deaky’ nabbed by eOne
Entertainment One has acquired North American rights to director Charlie Matthau’s “Freaky Deaky.” The company made the announcement Wednesday at Cannes.
Matthau also penned the screenplay, which is based on Elmore Leonard’s 1988 novel of the same name.
The film stars Crispin Glover, Billy Burke, Michael Jai White, Christian Slater, Andy Dick, Breanne Racano and Sabina Gadecki.
Matthau and Judd Rubin produced the project. Exec producers are George Eyde, Louis Eyde, Nathaniel Eyde, Robert Cantrell, Steven Berez, Donald Zuckerman, and Lee Greenberg.
“Freaky Deaky” had its world premiere earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Story is starts on a cop’s first day on the sex crimes unit of the Detroit Police Department in which he falls for the first person to report an assault to him, and is suspended for investigating a rich and powerful man.
Matthau previously directed “The Grass Harp” and is in pre-production on his next feature “The Sugar Shack.”
The deal was negotiated by Sejin Croninger for eOne with Ben Weiss at Paradigm’s Motion Picture Finance Group.
The Tribeca Film Festival will not be short on any films offering sombre, sober drama but if you’re hitting the fest and looking for something a little off the beaten path, then “Freaky Deaky” might just be the answer. We’re happy to unveil three clips from the film based on the book by Elmore Leonard that offers a twisty, funny crime tale.
The story picks up with Chris Mankowski (Billy Burke) whose first day on the sex crimes unit of the Detroit Police Department does not go well. Not only does he fall for the first person to report an assault to him, he’s suspended for investigating the rich, powerful and completely drunk Woody Ricks (Crispin Glover). Chris takes matters into his own hands, only to discover there are all kinds of people trying to get something — money, revenge, or both — from Woody. From Woody’s former Black Panther nursemaid Donnell (Michael Jai White) who’s trying to work his way into the will, to Woody’s own yuppie brother Mark (Andy Dick), to sexy and dangerous ’60s-radical-turned-romance-novelist Robin Abbot (Breanne Racanno), who blames Woody for snitching on her and her partner (Christian Slater). Chris will have to navigate a mine field to get justice outside the law.
The scenes below first show off an underground showdown with Chris Mankowski that doesn’t go as planned, a quick look at Mark who seems to be in a scheme (or getting schemed) by Robin and finally, a totally out-to-lunch Woody who is attempting to draft his will. If it seems a bit over the top, that’s because it is, as the film apparently is not too far away from the tone of “Black Dynamite,” embracing and sending up genre conventions all at the same time.
Click here to see the clips.
NY1 Video: The grimy backstreets of 1970s Los Angeles come to life in “Freaky Deaky,” a new black comedy that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and NY1′s Michelle Park spoke with its stars Michael Jai White, Crispin Glover, Andy Dick and Breanne Racano.
Click here to see the video.
So often we think of Hollywood kids in unflattering terms: troubled, entitled, squandered potential. This past weekend, however, I was charmed by an interaction between the children of two of Hollywood’s greats.
The scene was the Tribeca Film Festival screening of a fun film titled Freaky Deaky, which is an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel and directed, written and produced by Charles Matthau. Yes, the son of Walter Matthau. Freaky Deaky takes place in 1974 and stars Christian Slater, Crispin Glover, Michael Jai White, Andy Dick and Billy Burke of Twilight in the story of a cop who’s drawn into a wild, funny tale of extortion with literally explosive consequences. It is also an homage to ’70s-style filmmaking. At one point Matthau’s camera catches a glimpse of a movie theater in the background. Paying tribute to his dad, Charles shows Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon starring in The Front Page on the theater’s marquee. It is a touching homage.
During the Q&A after the screening a hand flew up to ask the question, “Why was Walter Matthau’s name in first position ahead of Jack Lemmon’s?” The question was asked by none other than Chris Lemmon, son of Jack, in pure, loving jest, just as their dads may have teased each other. It was so nice to see Chris coming out to support Charles Matthau; turns out they are working on a film together. This got me reflecting on just how great a duo Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were. They made 10 films together, all worth seeing: The Front Page, The Odd Couple, The Odd Couple II, Out to Sea, Grumpy Old Men, Grumpier Old Men, The Fortune Cookie, Buddy Buddy, JFK, and The Grass Harp, which was actually directed by Charles.
Incidentally, I had the privilege of working with and getting to know Jack Lemmon on Glengarry Glen Ross. He was a first-class gentleman. I’d like to think Chris and Charlie are still making their fathers proud.
Elmore Leonard’s novels are fuelled by dialogue. Punchy, quick-witted words fired off in a way to give you the lowdown on character AND drive you through the story. But film versions? Now that’s a tricky one. For every Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Rum Punch (filmed as Jackie Brown) there’s a Be Cool, Killshot, and Stick … and the list of negatives outweighs the positives.
Fortunately, Freaky Deaky is no crime against filmmaking. It’s a good, solid, fun movie with a handful of standout performances and, having read the book, I can confirm it stays faithful to Elmore’s words and wisdom.
It’s the kind of film that looks like it was a blast to make, and director Charles Matthau, cinematographer John J Connor and the editing team appear to be a playful bunch. The film has chapter headings, just like a book, and these then scroll back to reveal the scene. There’s some nice ultra low-angle shots and clever tracking sequences, and a throwaway scene in a phone box, through which you can see a cinema promoting a screening of The Front Page, a 1974 film starring Walter Matthau (the director’s dad).
The reason for the 1974 film reference? Well, Freaky Deaky is set In Detroit in 1974, where the collars are wide, the trousers are flared, and as the gumshoe-loving soundtrack will attest, there’s either a saxophone player on every fire escape or a guy with a guitar and a wah-wah pedal on the street corner.
Writing the short version of an Elmore Leonard film/novel is like nailing jello to the wall. But this might help set you on the right lines … Bomb Squad cop gets reassigned to Sex Crimes Unit, meets hot actress who claims she’s been assaulted by wealthy-powerful freaky guy, whose assistant is a cool, scheming, devious piece of work. Throw in a couple of radicals – one a hot temptress and one an acid casualty/stunt co-coordinator – keen to take revenge on the same freaky guy and his brother, and finish it off with the fact that everyone here seems very at home with explosives and guns.
Billy Burke is suitably disheveled as Chris Mankowski, the cop trying to do the right thing, but his thunder is stolen by Michael Jai White as Donelle Lewis, the schemer who’s just trying to get his hands on the big money. Jai White’s performance is comedy gold, full of ticks and twitches, and world-weary exasperation. Freaky Deaky’s women are hot, as befits femme fatales and damsels in distress. Breanne Racano (Robin Abbot) is all sexy looks and feline charm, while Sabina Gadecki (Greta Wyatt) is wide-eyed puppy-dog innocence and heart-melting smiles.
The film’s two biggest stars, Christian Slater and Glover, get the kooky, crazy-guy roles and both are good value for it, particularly Glover whose Woody Ricks is played like a man always answering the question you asked four questions before – and then answering the question you know you hadn’t asked.
Occasionally, Freaky Deaky steers too close to pastiche: a tracking shot along a police department corridor could almost have come from Airplane! and this distracts you from the action, and the film’s own sense of humor. And sometimes it’s just not quite fast-paced enough or as funny as it thinks it is. However, there’s so much to enjoy and so many clever touches to admire that it’s almost certain to leave you with a smile playing around your lips or a wiseass putdown on your mind.
Charlie Matthau and Crispin Glover talk about adapting an Elmore Leonard novel for the big screen.
Click here to see the video.
As he gears up for Sunday’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere of his adaption of Elmore Leonard’s Freaky Deaky, director Charlie Matthau has set his next film. It will be The Sugar Shack, a farcicial comedy written by Kevin Fleming and Rob Janas. The storyline follows the most popular male stripper in Racine, Wisconsin as he fends off a young rival while saving the town from a corrupt politician.
The film will shoot in September. The story, described by Matthau as a cross between The Full Monty and The Hangover, was inspired by female acquaintances of Second City alumni Fleming and Janas, who were known to make frequent trips to the Racine establishment. It remains one of the only uncensored male venues in the world.
Matthau will produce Judd Rubin and Donald Zuckerman. Nathaniel Eyde, George Eyde, Lou Eyde and Robert Cantrell of Eyde Studios will be exec producers with Steven Berez of Final Cut Productions, and Lee Greenberg and Mark Frommer. This is the same team that financed and produced Freaky Deaky, which stars Christian Slater, Crispin Glover, Michael Jai White, Billy Burke and Andy Dick.
Read more at Deadline.com
Charles Matthau — son of late acting legend Walter, and the writer/director of new Elmore Leonard adaptation “Freaky Deaky,” which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday — says growing up in Paul Newman’s house had its drawbacks. Matthau told us at the Vanity Fair/ Tribeca party that his parents moved to LA when he was 3 and bought “The Hustler” star’s home. “It was a rough neighborhood,” he joked. “Every night the doorbell would ring at 2 or 3 a.m., with girls asking, ‘Is Paul home?’ Finally my mother moved us to Pacific Palisades.” He says “Freaky Deaky” — starring Christian Slater, Crispin Glover and Andy Dick — is “an homage to ’70s filmmaking.”
Read more at NYPost.com
Vanity Fair marked the start of the 11th Tribeca Film Festival (April 19th to 29th) over cocktails on the portico of the State Supreme Courthouse. VF has perfected the party as art form. The grand stairs of the Centre Street courthouse were sewn with a bobbing field of tiny blue and white lights. At the entrance you’re equipped with a flute of champagne that never runs dry. Hors d’oeuvres by master chef Thomas Keller were so exquisite you couldn’t identify them. And it was wall-to-wall bold face names from the worlds of entertainment, government, fashion, finance — and just bold-facedness. By special arrangement, VF honcho Graydon Carter even provided a heavenly balmy evening.
At first blush, a hallmark of this year’s annual shindig was the invasion of a new race of women: amazonian, mostly blonde, towering several heads above everyone else. The men for their part seem to have shrunk, or maybe just expanded frontward. Michael Douglas was on hand, vulpine, in fighting trim, lookin’ healthy. I chatted with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who’s been involved with the Tribeca fest since its inception and lauded its revitalizing effect on once-devastated downtown New York.
Graydon Carter held court at the far end near the bar and, I think, recognized me. Warm hug from the always-genial Michael Barker, co-chief of Sony Picture Classics, who rhapsodized about his latest acquisition, the new Michael Haneke film Amour. How much poorer Americans would be without Barker to bring us such masterpieces as Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Nearby Katie Couric rocked her smile and one of those backless jobs that makes you wonder what’s worn underneath. Fran Leibowitz looked enigmatic in a man’s suit. No one consulted their Android.
I overheard a dude lavishly praising Linda Wells for her recent stint on CBS Sunday Morning. “It was about the 10th anniversary of Botox,” she said in answer to my question. She “works in magazines,” Wells also told me (rather modestly put, I thought, after Googling her).This business about the anniversary of Botox got me thinking about the priorities of our culture. I mean, escalating violence in Syria; U.S. troops posing with body parts of Afghan bombers – and we’re marking the anniversary of Botox? I was also reminded of disturbing fest film Sexy Baby about American women’s obsession with beauty. Never mind Occupy Wall Street — in certain circles the top priority is labioplasties.
I spotted Martin Amis standing alone with his trademarked expression of… existential angst? Maybe he was worrying about violence in Syria and Afghan body parts. I refrained from approaching him, wanting no reprise of our encounter at the East Hampton Library benefit. Salmon Rushdie also repped the scribbling contingent, looking a bit dated out. Maybe he needed one of the blonde amazons.
As a former dancer, I couldn’t help noticing the choreography of the party. There are the fixed points and the movers. The movers are a needy bunch, or just antsy like guests at a bar mitzvah. Those who stay put are either too important to seek out others (who will come to them), misanthropic, or wasted. One fixed point turned out to be the delightful Charles Matthau (yes, son of), who may have been just shy. His new film Freaky Deaky is based on the novel by Elmore Leonard and due to play the fest this Sunday. Though it’s an adaptation of a mainstream author, Matthau sees it as “a true indie film.” Another fixed pointer, I’m sad to say, pulled an act of stunning incivility. It messes up my head when folks with impeccable left wing creds aren’t nicer, especially as Republicans can actually be charming.
Perhaps the party’s extra festive vibe was fed by big expectations for this year’s fest. The early press screenings I attended offered two topflight films: the Israeli Yossi by Eytan Fox; and Your Sister’s Sister from Sundance alum Lynn Shelton (more about these gems later). The fest is smaller now, which is to the good. It’s more selective, while still offering a smorgasbord of global cinema, homegrown indies, and documentaries. No one is saying, as in the past, that Tribeca lacks an identity. Jump in and sample what’s on tap. You will at least hit something interesting. After perusing lists by industry insiders of fave films, I was struck that there was hardly any overlap!
With the laid-back intricacy of his plotting and the submerged longing of his characters, adapting Elmore Leonard to the screen is always tricky. Directors like Tarantino and Soderbergh used the books as staging grounds for their own personal films; Charlie Matthau’s film changes the setting of one of the author’s best known novels — from eighties Detroit to seventies L.A. — but does justice otherwise to the breezily sprawling, deceptively dense thriller about onetime radicals now wrapped up in an elaborate game of explosives, extortion, and revenge. It’s both charming and grisly.
Read more at Vulture.com
Charles Matthau, son of the legendary Walter Matthau, talks about the challenges of adapting Elmore Leonard’s acclaimed novel, Freaky Deaky. It’s groovy, baby.
TRIBECA: Tell us a little about FREAKY DEAKY. How do you describe the movie in your own words?
CHARLES MATTHAU: A fun, sexy romp through Elmore Leonard’s Detroit, circa 1974.
TRIBECA: It is widely reported that FREAKY DEAKY is one of Elmore Leonard’s favorite novels that he has written. What were the challenges of adapting FREAKY DEAKY for the screen?
CHARLES MATTHAU: The last time I adapted a noted writer’s work to the screen was Truman Capote’s THE GRASS HARP, which was set in 1930s Alabama and could not be more different in tone and pace than FREAKY DEAKY. With FREAKY DEAKY, I had the additional pressure of Elmore being very much alive and with us, and I was hopeful to not disappoint him. This particular story requires a heightened reality, yet shouldn’t come off as too cartoonish. I also wanted the film to feel like it was made around 1974, reflect some of the writer and filmmaker’s quirks, and not come off as too polished or predictable.
TRIBECA: Can you talk about the decision to change the time period from the 1980s to 1974?
CHARLES MATTHAU: The idea was actually Elmore’s, because the story did not seem to work in the present. And I thought 1988 was kind of a boring year. My first draft of the script was set in the present, but I had to make the antagonists eco-terrorists, because if they were former radicals they would be too old and pathetic. Elmore read the draft and said that the story worked but that it was “just another movie” and that he “wrote Freaky Deaky because of the hippies.”
I told Elmore that I thought 1988 was a boring year and would also prefer a younger cast who might be more likely to engage in homicidal stupidity like Robin and Skip. Elmore called me back a few days later and said, “Let’s set our film in 1974. You’ll have your young cast, a fun year, but also a year in which society was changing in ways more reflective of the characters in the book.”
TRIBECA: FREAKY DEAKY did an exceptional job of evoking the look and the feel of the 70s exploitation genre. What are the difficulties of shooting a period piece on a low budget?
CHARLES MATTHAU: First of all, thank you for the compliment. You need to keep the look consistent throughout the film; otherwise, one contemporary shot can ruin the whole mood. Obviously, this is made much more difficult on a small budget, because even a simple shot like a character walking across the street cannot have signage, architecture, clothing, vehicles, etc. post 1974. We had the benefit of a fine production designer, Tom Southwell, who really stretched his budget and gave us the look we wanted.
FREAKY DEAKY was also the first period piece that I’ve directed where I actually lived through the period. For THE GRASS HARP, I had to do research about Alabama in the 1930s. But Freaky was more fun because I had confidence in my personal memories of the 70s.
TRIBECA: From inception to print, can you give us a sense of your timeline? How long have you been working on this project?
CHARLES MATTHAU: I’ve been working on it for about six years, from the time I first met Elmore and read the novel. During that time I did make a musical, Baby-O, which is set in the jazz world of Las Vegas. Other than that, however, FREAKY DEAKY was my priority.
TRIBECA: FREAKY DEAKY stars some pretty eccentric actors: Christian Slater, Andy Dick and Crispin Glover, to name a few. Can you tell us about the casting process?
CHARLES MATTHAU: We were very lucky in casting FREAKY DEAKY that we were able to cast based on an actor’s appropriateness for the role, as opposed to their pre-sales value in Kathmandu. I love our cast because they themselves have a freaky, quirky and unpredictable element to them. With Christian Slater, Crispin Glover, Andy Dick and Mr. BLACK DYNAMITE himself, Michael Jai White, the audience doesn’t know what to expect.
TRIBECA: As the writer/director, what was your biggest challenge/lesson learned during the making of FREAKY DEAKY?
CHARLES MATTHAU: If you look at Elmore’s career, he started off writing Westerns, then turned to gritty crime novels, and in his later years has gotten more humorous. FREAKY DEAKY was written about the same time as GET SHORTY and is heavy on the humor. The two plots in Freaky concern an insane moneymaking scheme cooked up by some disturbed acid heads and a former Black Panther trying to smooth talk his way into the will of an alcoholic playboy. Thus, the film depends heavily on character based humor and not on a thriller–like plot. That can be tricky to pull off, but I believe our wonderful actors did just that.
TRIBECA: Do you have some advice for aspiring filmmakers? Is there one particular lesson you have learned?
CHARLES MATTHAU: Billy Wilder told me he used to drive to Paramount every day and on his way to work would pass a flower shop at Crescent Heights and Melrose. Every time he’d see the flower shop on the way home, he’d think about how he’d screwed up that day and how he should have done things. The lesson I took from that was that if directing was like that for a genius like Wilder, you had better enjoy the process and treat everything as a learning experience.
TRIBECA: Good advice! What are you most looking forward to at Tribeca?
CHARLES MATTHAU: Getting the chance to see some new films and meet some new filmmakers.
TRIBECA: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
CHARLES MATTHAU: Woody Allen.
TRIBECA: What’s your favorite New York movie?
CHARLES MATTHAU: THE SUNSHINE BOYS, because it’s the funniest film I’ve ever seen and my favorite performance of my father’s.
TRIBECA: What would your biopic be called?
CHARLES MATTHAU: THE OLD JEW THAT CAME IN FROM THE COLD.
TRIBECA: What makes FREAKY DEAKY a Tribeca must-see?
CHARLES MATTHAU: I think the film is unusual in today’s marketplace, and I hope that it reflects a filmmaker’s vision like the 70s films it emulates. I am always most interested in films that are made with a point of view, even if the director (as may well be the case here) is a schmuck.
So what do you get when you mix Christian Slater, Crispin Glover, Andy Dick and more in a ’70s-set adaptation of a beloved Elmore Leonard novel? Well, you get “Freaky Deaky” which should be one of the more colorful entries at the Tribeca Film Festival later this month.
The story picks up with Chris Mankowski (Billy Burke) whose first day on the sex crimes unit of the Detroit Police Department does not go well. Not only does he fall for the first person to report an assault to him, he’s suspended for investigating the rich, powerful and completely drunk Woody Ricks (Glover). Chris takes matters into his own hands, only to discover there are all kinds of people trying to get something — money, revenge, or both — from Woody. From Woody’s former Black Panther nursemaid Donnell (Michael Jai White) who’s trying to work his way into the will, to Woody’s own yuppie brother (Dick), to sexy and dangerous ’60s-radical-turned-romance-novelist Robin Abbot (Breanne Racanno), who blames Woody for snitching on her and her partner (Slater). Chris will have to navigate a mine field to get justice outside the law.
The film apparently has an out-there tone of something like the faux ’70s exploitation flick “Black Dynamite,” which would certainly explain the larger-than-life styled pics here. Charles Matthau directs the picture that he has been putting together and developing for a while now. The project was first lined up with William H. Macy, Sienna Miller, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser and Craig Robinson in the leads, but they moved on as the movie worked through development.
“Freaky Deaky” premieres on April 22nd at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Andy Dick has been cast alongside Crispin Glover, Christian Slater, Billy Burke and Michael Jai White in Freaky Deaky, director Charles Matthau’s adaptation of an Elmore Leonard book. Variety, which broke the news, doesn’t elaborate on Dick’s role in the comedy, which follows a bunch of ex-hippies as they try to blackmail a Hollywood producer.
But the casting of Dick falls in line with the offbeat casting choices that have been well documented for this still-in-development film. For starters, William H. Macy, Matt Dillon, Craig Robinson and Brendan Fraser previously were on the line for the lead roles in the film, only to be replaced by the likes of Glover and Slater. It’s not necessarily a lateral casting move, though it admittedly made more interesting, sight unseen.
Now the potential of Dick sharing scenes with equally unhinged actors like Glover and Slater makes Deaky damn near close to a must-see film. Leonard’s films have been converted into some entertaining films in the past, from Get Shorty and Out of Sight to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. It’s up to the director to get the most out of the novelist’s twisty, colorful brand of noir and his cast is shaping up to be bizarre in the best way. Let’s hope they help let Freaky Deaky live up to its tantalizing title.
EXCLUSIVE: Crispin Glover is set to round out the cast of writer-director Charlie Matthau’s “Freaky Deaky,” stepping into a role originally eyed for William H. Macy.
Production on the indie adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s crime novel is currently under way in Michigan. Glover will play alcoholic movie mogul Woody Ricks, while Tom Arnold is in negotiations to play his brother, Mark.
Bill Duke, Sabina Gadecki and former blaxploitation actress Gloria Hendry have also joined the ensemble, which, after a major cast shake-up, now includes “Twilight” thesp Billy Burke, Christian Slater, Michael Jai White, Roger Bart and newcomer Breanne Racano.
Duke will play a high-ranking LAPD official, while Hendry will cameo as an LAPD officer who works in the sex crimes division. As for Gadecki, she’ll play an aspiring actress who has an unpleasant sexual encounter with Glover’s character.
Glover recently appeared in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and the MGM comedy “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Thesp is repped by Fortitude and Sanders Armstrong Caserta Management.
Arnold, who drew strong notices for his turn as a pedophile in 2008′s “Gardens of the Night,” is repped by Gersh and KLWG Entertainment.
“Freaky Deaky,” an adaptation of the 1988 novel by acclaimed author Elmore Leonard, has been approved for the state’s film incentives, the Michigan Film Office announced today.
The movie was given the OK for $2.8 million in incentives on an expected $6.9 million in spending in Michigan. That brings the total of money approved in 2011 to $15.8 million for 10 projects.
And it means roughly $9 million is left for 31 pending applications, since the Michigan Film Office is operating under Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed $25-million annual cap for new film incentives.
“Freaky Deaky” will be directed by Charlie Matthau, who helmed 1995’s “The Grass Harp,” which starred his father, legendary actor Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.
It will star William H. Macy.
The novel, which is set in Detroit, is about a cop, some former ’60s radicals skilled in explosives, a former Black Panther and other characters thrown together in Leonard’s gritty, wry style.
Leonard, a Michigan icon, is a favorite of Hollywood. His work has been adapted in films like “Out of Sight,” which filmed extensively here, “Get Shorty” and “Jackie Brown.”
This will be the first adaptation of a Leonard novel to be filmed entirely in Michigan, according to the Michigan Film Office.
At various times, “Freaky Deaky” has been attached to several prominent cinematic figures, including Quentin Tarantino. For several years, it’s been a labor of love for Matthau, who first met Leonard nearly a decade ago when he was in Michigan to act in a movie.
The lead investors in the project are George and Louis Eyde, noted real estate entrepreneurs from the Lansing area.
“I am thrilled that the Michigan Film Office, and its director Carrie Jones, has chosen Elmore’s ‘Freaky Deaky’ for their incentive program,” said Matthau via e-mail.
Matthau said he and the Eyde family will work to “make ‘Freaky Deaky’ the quintessential Michigan film.”
With his indie adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “Freaky Deaky” set to start production early next year, producer Charlie Matthau has acquired rights to another novel, James Fuerst’s youth-centered “Huge.”
The book follows a precocious 12-year-old boy who aspires to be a Sam Spade-esque detective.
“He wants to be a Bob Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart, and his grandmother buys his services to find out who painted a slur on her retirement home,” said Matthau, describing the story.
“Along the way, he finds romance with a 12-year-old femme fatale. It’s sort of ‘L.A. Confidential’ meets John Hughes,” he added.
As for casting the adaptation, the son of the late Walter Matthau seems, well, hopeful:
“Hopefully, we’ll get someone like Justin Bieber and Chloe Moretz,” he said.
For “Freaky Deaky,” Matthau said he recruited William H.Macy to co-star in the film about a former bomb-squad detective who descends into the seedy underbelly of 1974 Detroit.
Read more atTheWrap.com
CLEAR LAKE – When film director Charlie Matthau talks, it’s hard for observers not to think of his famous father, the late actor Walter Matthau.
When Mark Rydell talks about his work, the subject inevitably turns to his most famous film, “On Golden Pond.”
Matthau, 47, and Rydell, 76, were among directors, actors and actresses in Clear Lake over the weekend for the Iowa Independent Film Festival.
Rydell received the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Matthau’s looks, voice and quick wit were easy reminders of what made his father famous.
Charlie’s film, “Baby O,” which was shown Friday night, is a musical with a jazz theme set in Las Vegas.
Asked about his own background in music, Matthau said, “I know how to play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on the telephone.”
He displayed a business card that has his company name, “The Matthau Company,” and explained it didn’t take him long to think of the name.
He said he had the chance to direct his father, who died in 2000, in a film called “The Grass Harp,” but other than that his favorite Walter Matthau movie was “The Sunshine Boys” with George Burns.
“My father was my best friend. He taught by example,” said Matthau.
Walter Matthau’s father left home when he was 3 and he only saw him a couple of times in his life,” said Charlie.
“He wanted to make sure I had a father – and I did,” he said.
“He taught me not to take things too seriously, to try to find the humor in every situation and to remember that none of what happens is going to matter in 100 years.”
Rydell said he hoped receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award wasn’t a message. “I feel like they’re saying ‘so long,’ ” he said, laughing and moving his hand as if to wave “good-bye.”
He talked about the experience of directing Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in “On Golden Pond.”
“They were both extremely different,” said Rydell. “Henry was always close to the vest. Katherine was all over the place. You had to hold on to her to keep her from taking off,” he said.
He recalled shooting the first scene in the movie. At the completion of the scene, Rydell yelled “cut.”
“They both turned around and stared at me. They were looking for my opinion.
“They were so lost in what they were doing – which is the way it is supposed to be – that they wanted to know how they did.”
Matthau said the key to being a good director is to be a good storyteller.
“You know how when two people tell the same joke – one of them is funny and it seems like it takes forever for the other one to finish; in directing you never want to lose sight of the story you want to tell.”
Rydell said, “You have to be a good daddy. You have to create an environment where people are comfortable. You are looking for them to do their best. You have to put them in a position to do that.”
They both recalled an incident that occurred when Charlie was directing his father.
Early on, Charlie went over and whispered something in his father’s ear.
Walter Matthau shouted, “Bull—-, I’m not going to do that.”
Everyone on the set paused and then laughed. “It really broke the ice,” said Charlie.
Both men said they have enjoyed their stay in Clear Lake.
“It’s like stepping into another place and time,” said Rydell. “Walking on the streets of Clear Lake you really get a sense of Middle America.”
Matthau saw another advantage to Midwest living. “I haven’t been robbed once,” he said.
Legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard began publishing Westerns in the early 50s, and has watched more than a dozen of his books get turned into movies that span the good, the bad, and the ugly. Leonard feels the best–Jackie Brown, Get Shorty and Out of Sight–stuck close to his plots and dialogue. Now, he’s excited that one of his faves, Freaky Deaky, will finally get movie treatment. Leonard’s happy, even though the script by director Charlie Matthau takes major dramatic liberties in changing the time period from late 80s to 1974. Matthau, who’s in Cannes this week with the film’s rep Tom Ortenberg to finalize private financing for a late summer start, said it was Leonard who suggested the time change, which solved a host of problems that haunted past attempts to film the drama about 60s radicals who use their bomb-making skills to become capitalists.
Said Matthau: “We could have left it in 1988, where the characters are kind of old and the period boring. Or we could have contemporized it, made them eco-terrorists, cast out of AARP and made a cross between Easy Rider and Cocoon. Elmore, who read all the other scripts, came up with 1974. It made the cast younger, which made the film an easier sell. And the period was exciting, because it was when these 60s political radicals rejoined society, and there was Patty Hearst and the SLA, and Nixon resigning.”
Said Leonard: “I figured all you would really need is a bunch of older cars. And nobody wants to see a bunch of old fogies.”
Leonard’s happy to lend such practical problem-solving advice to projects as exec producer–he has the same role on the FX series Justified, and is now writing a 60-page Raylon Givens novella that exec producer Graham Yost will likely turn into an episode–but he likes keeping a bit of distance and has been burned enough to hold a love-hate relationship with the film business. On one hand, it’s good pay for a writer whose first movie check was $4000 for 3:10 to Yuma, a haul compared to the 2 cents a word–$90 total–he got when the story was published in a pulp magazine. And while his script work included the Charles Bronson drama Mr. Majestyk, Leonard was so tortured by meddling suits that he swore off ever writing screenplays again.
“I stopped writing scripts in 1993.” he said. “It was just too much work, and there were too many people you had to please. You’d go to an office, and there were always a couple of executives and producers, and they all had something to say. You back to the hotel room, you’re looking at the wall. This was at a time when I needed the money, so I would adapt the scenes according to what they wanted. And the result would be a bad picture, or it wouldn’t be made. No more screenplays for me.”
He hasn’t liked all of the movie adaptations but wouldn’t say exactly which most displeased him. Said Leonard: “There was one book that got done twice and both times badly (The Big Bounce, 52 Pick-Up and 3:10 to Yuma were each turned into multiple films). The movies that worked best stayed fairly close to the books. I’ve seen writers show off in the scripts, even had some come talk to me because they said they wanted to get to know the lead character better. I’d say, everything you need to know is right there on the page. Whenever a movie comes up, I am an eternal optimist who always thinks, ‘well, it’s a good book, it should be easy to adapt.’ There’s nothing you can do when they screw up, except say, ‘oh well,’ and then write another book. That’s the way to do it.”
Leonard, who turns 85 this fall, continues to write every day from 10-6, cranking out his customary three to four pages. He only betrays his age when asked his opinion about the iPad, Kindle, Nook and other devices that are slowly transforming publishing into a paper-less enterprise.
“To me, a book is a book, an electronic device is not, and love of books was the reason I started writing,” Leonard said. “I don’t have a word processor, e-mail, any of that stuff. I write in longhand mostly, then put it on my typewriter as I go along. I don’t have any interest in any of that electronic stuff, but I’m going on 85, and won’t have to worry about it too much longer.”
THE BIG-SCREEN SCENE: With Timothy Olyphant’s first-rate “Justified” series launching this week, producer Graham Yost had blue rubber WWED bracelets sent out to members of the press. The letters stand for “What Would Elmore Do?” as in author Elmore Leonard, on whose work the show is based. Yost says the writers are so enamored of Leonard’s style, WWED is their mantra while penning scripts.
Filmmaker Charlie Matthau is another of Hollywood’s vast legion of Leonard devotees – and the man who aims to bring Leonard’s “Freaky Deaky” before the cameras this summer after a long and winding journey through development hell. He calls “Freaky Deaky” “my passion project – Elmore Leonard’s favorite and best novel. For years, I’ve been tracking it. Quentin Tarantino optioned it after ‘Pulp Fiction,’” Matthau recounts. “He developed a script, but didn’t write it. Then we got very lucky because Quentin decided to do ‘Rum Punch’ instead. That turned into ‘Jackie Brown,’ so he did let the option go on ‘Freaky Deaky.’ Then John Malkovich got hold of it, so again, I thought I would never get it.
But John is involved in so many different projects, a couple of years went by, and the option lapsed.”
Matthau, whose work includes the critically admired “Grass Harp” and “Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love,” was just about ready to camp out on Leonard’s doorstep at that point. “About the time Elmore was about to turn 90, he was hearing from yours truly at least once a month, nagging him for the rights. I think partially to get rid of me, he gave it to me.”
Matthau (son of the late Walter Matthau) has since turned his persevering ways toward financing and has come a long way in that regard, he tells us. Also, he has a lineup of actors who’ve expressed a desire to be involved. Again, that Leonard cachet is a powerful lure in Hollywood. He’d especially like Chris Tucker. “It’s almost like Elmore was channeling him when he wrote this in 1988. If you went to God and said, ‘Create a script for Chris Tucker that is perfect for him,’ this is what He’d come up with.”
Or at least, what Elmore Leonard came up with.
Charlie Matthau’s eponymous production banner is teaming with Future Films and Blackwood Entertainment Group to produce Elmore Leonard’s “Freaky Deaky.”
Matthau will direct from his own adapted screenplay. Production is slated to begin in January with Michael Meltzer producing while Simon Horsman of Future Films USA and Fred Pauzar of Blackwood Entertainment Group exec produce.
“Freaky Deaky” tells the story of two former 1960s radicals who decide to “go straight” using their bomb-making skills to become capitalists in the go-go world of 1974 Los Angeles.
Leonard’s work has served as the source material for such pics as “Out of Sight,” “Get Shorty,” “Jackie Brown.”and “3:10 to Yuma.”
Excerpt from Jack & Walter: The Films of Lemmon & Matthau by Ben Costello, 2009
Backstory on The Grass Harp:
A popular novel by Truman Capote, The Grass Harp opened on Broadway in 1952, running for only thirty-six performances. A 1971 musical adaptation, was an even bigger disaster, closing after a paltry seven performances.
To be honest, the material was tough to bring to a stage, and even tougher to bring to the screen – however, director Charles Matthau, facing every obstacle imaginable, successfully put The Grass Harp on celluloid, and did so brilliantly.
With urging from his friend Melanie Ray, Charles Matthau picked up the Capote novel. “I read the book in one sitting,” he remarked, “It is a beautiful, poignant story with great characters. It was exactly the kind of film that I wanted to make.”
A remarkable cast and crew set up in Montgomery, Wetumpka and Prattville, Alabama, for location shooting, and Charles Matthau noted, “It was like being in the living room with my family, only there were a lot of people around with photographic equipment.”
When asked what it was like directing his father, the younger Matthau answered, “He made the work a delightful experience because he was determined to help make this the best film possible. He did things that I’ve never seen him do for another director. He worked outlandish hours and would try anything I came up with. Besides, ies every kid’s dream to tell your father what to do.”
The family affair was almost shattered by nervous executives from Fine Line and New Line Cinema, feeling the project was spiraling out of control, which was not the case. The elder Matthau, who played Judge Cool, told Variety columnist Army Archerd, “Tell New Line to layoff, we’d appreciate it. They [New Line] are cutting the quality of the film. They are intimidating Charlie. They are cutting days out of the schedule’. They are on the set and are very destructive. They want to cut scenes.”
The veteran actor continued, “Everybody’s working for nothing – the picture is being made for nothing. I’m working for SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) minimum … They [New Line] are interrupting the whole creative process.”
Charlie later opined that the actions from New Line execs “creates terrible distraction for me and the actors. This movie could be something very special.” And he was right – despite the sometime troubled shoot, the finished product was an award-winning film.
The Grass Harp first appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1995, where it was a hit with the attendees. However, the film didn’t go into general release until October of 1996.
Upon release, Lemmon remarked about the difficult shoot, stating, “If you go a little late or a little bit over budget, there are guys with gray flannel suits coming out of the woodwork. .. On young directors it can be tough. I know Charlie got a little pressure to cut scenes, to speed up production, to reduce an already modest budget. But they picked the wrong guy because it didn’t affect him, thank God.”
A beaming father – proud of what his son accomplished and the obstacles he overcame, told the press that he Jelt The’ Grass Harp was “one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen, taking into account that I’m the father of the boy who directed it. I still think ifs one of the most tasteful, beautiful, penetrating, perceptive, delicious pieces of work that I’ve seen on the screen for a long time.”
The Grass Harp is a great accomplishment – one that all involved in, were justifiably proud of.
“I can’t take it anymore, Felix, I’m cracking up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you’re not here, the things know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow. ‘We’re all out of cornflakes. F.U.’ Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar!
- Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau) in “The Odd Couple”
Directed by Gene Saks and based on Neil Simon’s hilarious play, “The Odd Couple,” remains one of the funniest and smartest film comedies ever made.
It solidified one of the greatest film comedy duos of all time – Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon (they appeared in eight films together). Matthau starred as Oscar Madison, the divorced slob extraordinaire who finds his pal Felix Ungar (Lemmon), the newly separated and neurotic clean freak, as his unlikely apartment mate. Oscar’s favorite pastimes are gambling, cigars and warm beer. Felix’s pastimes are cleaning and maintaining order in every level of his (and Oscar’s) existence, from his sinuses to his polished shoes.
Nothing prepared moviegoers for the laugh fest courtesy of the two iconic characters this film would introduce (the marvelous television series would star Jack Klugman and Tony Randall), and though Matthau and Lemmon seemed the unlikeliest pals on the big screen, offscreen they were as close as brothers.
Much as been written about the two legendary actors, but talking to their offspring, sons Chris Lemmon (actor) and Charlie Matthau (actor, director, producer, writer), it’s all the more poignant.
Q. Did your dads have the same dynamic offscreen as they did in this picture (and, of course, later on in “Grumpy Old Men”)?
Chris Lemmon: It was almost identical. Walter was really the big brother that Pop always wanted and never had. I wrote [in A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to My Father] that if Walter ever learned to play golf, Pop probably would have married him.
Charlie Matthau: They were so very different when it came to backgrounds, but very alike somehow in the way they were always thinking about other people. They were both extremely nice people who were always for the underdog. And very humble. The best of friends.
Q. Was Jack Lemmon a “Felix” in real life?
CL: Dad was a neat freak. A lot of what you saw in Jack Lemmon onscreen came from Lemmon the real person. Neatness was certainly one of those real-life aspects he brought to Felix. I remember when I went with him to Pebble Beach for the golf tournament, he would bring all five days’ outfits and lay them out neatly on the beds in the room and then try to figure out where to sleep. [Laughing] I walked in one morning and there he was sleeping on the f—-n’ sofa.
CM: My dad was actually a cleanliness freak in real life. If we went to a hotel, he’d get out the Listerine or rubbing alcohol and clean the toilet seat and telephone. He wasn’t terribly organized, but he was fastidious. Everything needed to be clean. So he was actually more like Felix in that respect.
Q. What resonated with moviegoers about these two film characters?
CL: You have to basically take a look at what makes comedy teams special. It’s corny but it boils down to the IT factor. What made Laurel and Hardy? What made Abbott and Costello? Individually, they were brilliant actors and fascinating people. They were brilliant technicians. And when they got together it was magical. That’s what IT is, and our dads had IT.
CM: It’s like what Justice Stewart said about porn: He can’t define it but he knows it when he sees it. [Laughs]
Q. You two should do “Grumpy Old Men – The Prequel”
CL: That’s it! Only it would be “Grumpy Middle-Aged Men.”
CM: Only if I’ll be Jack and you be Walter.
Q. What’s the best advice your dad gave you about show business?
CM: My dad’s definition of a director: A guy who’s always out of work. I went in to [directing] so I could have a lot of free time.
Q. Define your dad in one word.
CL: I have to have two. Before every take my father ever did on any set, he always said two words: “Magic Time.” It was a statement of his character.
CM: If Chris had two, then I want two: My hero.
Q. Did the two of you get along growing up as famously as your dads?
CL: We really were pals. We didn’t see a lot of each other since we were East Coast and they were West. We had great times together.
CM: Chris is one of those people it’s impossible not to love.
Charlie Matthau has signed on to direct “Mikey & Dolores,” a love story about a down-on-his-luck talent manager who falls in love with his client, a jazz singer.
The lead role will be played by David Proval, who wrote the script with his wife, Cheryl Meccariello. Michael Meltzer is producing.
The film will include a lot of music, most of it in the form of jazz standards sung by the songstress.
Proval, a character actor who has appeared in such movies as “Mean Streets” and the upcoming “Balls of Fury,” is best remembered for his “Sopranos” turn as gangster Richie Aprile. The young singer is still being cast.
Pic will be financed by exec producer Gary Arnold through his First Take Prods. banner.
Matthau had been prepping an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel “Freaky Deaky” when Proval called.
Pic begins shooting in May in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
“Her Minor Thing” was released today nationwide on DVD in the U.S. The funny, entertaining, award-winning film is widely available for rental and purchase.
“Sexy, smart, and outrageously funny!” — Mark S. Allen, CW/CBS Television Group
“The ongoing war of the sexes soars to new and hilarious heights in this tale…” — Jason Buchanan, All Movie Guide
”During his childhood, Matthau, his brother and his mother lived in a succession of cold-water tenement apartments in the Ukrainian area of the Lower East Side…’It was a nightmare — a dreadful, horrible, stinking nightmare,’ he grimly remembers.” (The New York Times, 1971)
”We had one toilet for everyone on the floor. And I would sit for hours in the toilet and read Shakespeare….One girl…[would]knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, Shakespeare, get out of there.”’ (Matthau, New York Daily News, 1986)
”Rose Matthow, 78, doesn’t understand why son Walter changed the spelling of his name to Matthau. ‘He never robbed a bank or anything.”’ (People, 1978)
”Walter had to hustle to make a living. He played everything everywhere. Shakespeare, summer stock, Broadway. Most of the plays on Broadway lasted three weeks.” (Anonymous friend, Parade magazine, 1971)
”Mr. Matthau, a black-haired, lunging gentleman, is a good actor who is likely to find himself in a good play sometime.” (The New York Times review of Broadway’s The Grey-Eyed People, 1952)
”Walter Matthau as a sneering villain is one of the old tent-show school.” (The New York Times review of the actor’s film debut in The Kentuckian, 1955)
”Walter and I got married at City Hall. He insisted we go by subway.” (Carol Matthau, in her memoir, Among the Porcupines, on the couple’s 1959 wedding)
”The second and solidest act of the play is commandeered by Walter Matthau in a brilliant portrayal of a patrician whose blood has been blue for so long that it has curdled. Haughty, unutterably bored, pompous, his face and his talk seem ravaged by Bourbonic plague — a snob’s snob who becomes human under stress.” (Time on Matthau’s Tony-winning performance in Broadway’s A Shot in the Dark, 1961)
”Don’t worry, darling. This will be a very big hit, no matter what. And you can get a lot of maids in the morning.” (The actor to his wife before leaving for the 1965 opening-night performance of The Odd Couple on Broadway, as told in her memoir)
”Mr. Matthau could play all the parts in Dead Souls with one hand tied to one foot and without changing makeup. He is a gamut-runner, from grim to game to simple hysteria, and when he finally does have his long overdue nervous-breakdown, with his voice sinking into his throat like the sun in the western sea, he is magnificent.” (Walter Kerr reviewing the stage version of The Odd Couple, 1965)
”He is a tall, loose-jointed man of forty, with a brain full of razor blades and a heart full of chutzpah.” (The Fortune Cookie script description of shyster Willie Gingrich, the role that won Matthau a 1966 Best Supporting Actor Oscar)
”…Walter Matthau now asking $1 million per flicker…” (Item in Ed Sullivan’s ”Little Old New York” gossip column, 1969)
”After a number of false starts on funny stories about Matthau, [producer Howard W.] Koch finally admitted that Matthau was a loner and a very private man. Koch says that Matthau reads a great deal and is terribly fond of classical music which is constantly playing in his home…and his dressing room on the sets.” (Reporter’s notes, Time magazine in-house files, 1971)
“One of the funniest men I’ve ever worked with and [he] didn’t understand anything about the movie at all.” (Don Siegel, who directed Matthau in 1973′s Charley Varrick)
“Watching Mr. Matthau, as his wife awaits on the other side of the door, trying to pull pantyhose onto the rubbery form of a very drunk hooker, is one of the more cheerful moments of the entire movie season.” (Critic Vincent Canby on California Suite, 1978)
“Lemmon…tells of a time Matthau was almost killed shooting a scene [during the filming of 1981's Buddy Buddy]. He was set to go down a laundry chute, but the mattresses weren’t set right and he went headlong down 12 or more feet and crashed. Lemmon said he got to him first and all he could hear were moans. ‘I put my coat under his head and tried to keep his head straight… Then I asked him, “Are you comfortable?”‘ Lemmon said Matthau stopped moaning, looked up at him and said, ‘I make a living.’” (New York Daily News, 1983)
“He’s grown slouchier, scrawnier, clumsier, more singular with age, until he at last resembles a giant grumpy question mark with a three-pack-a-day habit, flecks of pastrami in his teeth and really bad clothes. To watch him motivate from one side of the room to the other is both an adventure and a discovery.” (The Washington Post on Matthau in one of his and Lemmon’s numerous post-Grumpy Old Men comeback films, 1997′s Out to Sea)
“Matthau has himself been very ill, and could no doubt have drawn on that experience for enough cries and whispers to furnish a Bergman movie. But he’s read the script and understands it and doesn’t embarrass himself by providing more authenticity than the material can carry.” (Roger Ebert on the actor’s final role, in this year’s Hanging Up)
“Walter Matthau, the foghorn-voiced master of crotchety comedy who won an Oscar for The Fortune Cookie and cemented his stardom as the sloppy Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple, died Saturday of a heart attack. He was 79.” (AP report, July 1, 2000)
An Onscreen Curmudgeon Who Made Misanthropy An Art, Walter Matthau Loved Mozart, His Friends…and Life
As a 31-year-old novice director, Charlie Matthau was plenty nervous when he arrived on the set of 1995′s The Grass Harp. Doubly so: He was directing a legendary actor. Times three: The actor was his father, Walter. Charlie gingerly approached his star to whisper some directions in his ear. “The whole crew was watching us,” Charlie recalls. “And he yelled in this really loud voice, ‘Bulls—-! I’m not doing that!’ Then we all started laughing. That was kind of his way of breaking the ice.”
Now Hollywood will have to find someone else to take over as gruff Daddy. Matthau, 79, died of a heart attack July 1 in Santa Monica. His death hit his 10-time costar in high jinks, Jack Lemmon, hard. “I have lost someone I’ve loved as a brother, as my closest friend and a remarkable human being,” Lemmon, 75, said. “We have also lost one of the best damn actors we’ll ever see.”
Matthau was buried, according to Jewish law, the following day at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles, where the interred include Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin. Lemmon, Carol Burnett and Matthau’s children (the others, by his late first wife, Grace, are Jenny, 43, a cooking teacher, and David, 46, a radio news broadcaster) were among the 50 guests who saw the actor laid to rest, as he wished, in a plain pine casket. Lemmon’s eulogy, Charlie says, recalled “that Walter and my mother and I had been like his family, together with his wife and his daughter.” Matthau’s Pacific Palisades home was awash in bouquets from the likes of Lemmon, Goldie Hawn, Sophia Loren, Meg Ryan and Diane Keaton. “You’d think we’d be more prepared for it,” adds Charlie, 37, who was grieving with mother Carol, 75. “Intellectually, we knew he wasn’t going to live to be 130, but emotionally it’s different. Since he has had heart problems among other diseases basically all my life, I’ve always lived with the angst that this day would come. And it finally did.”
Matthau, who nearly died after five bouts of pneumonia last year, refused to be glum about his health. “Even just rolling by in a stretcher, he would say ‘Hi!’ to the person rolling by in the other direction,” says Delia Ephron, who cowrote his bittersweet final film, Hanging Up—fittingly, it was about three sisters coming to terms with the impending death of their irascible father. She adds that “he was in the hospital on a respirator for 24 or 26 weeks, and who walks out of a hospital after that? But he did. You knew he just loved every minute of every day.”
That core of sunshine so at odds with his misanthropic image was likely a reaction to harsh beginnings. Born Walter Matuschanskayasky in 1920, Matthau was raised by his Lithuanian seamstress mother, Rose, in Manhattan’s mostly Jewish Lower East Side. His Russian father, Milton, an electrician turned process server, deserted the family when Walter was a toddler. “He never had a father, really,” says Charlie. “I think he saw his own father, like, twice in his own life. So he was determined to be the father that he never had.”
Young Walter was a self-starter, running a card game on the roof of his building at age 6 and hanging around the neighborhood’s Yiddish theaters selling snacks. He got his first break at age 11, getting a part in a play called The Dishwasher. “I was shaped by the whole experience of the Depression,” he told The San Francisco Examiner in a rare serious moment in 1996. “The humiliation of the competition in the theater, the humiliation of poverty.”
He spent three years as a U.S. Army Air Corps radio operator and cryptographer in England in World War II. Glenda Jackson, his costar in 1978′s House Calls and 1980′s Hopscotch and now a member of the British Parliament, recalls Matthau telling her that “he visited Cambridge, and he asked a don [professor] directions to somewhere. The man said, ‘I’m going that way. If you follow me I’ll take you there.’ Walter, being Walter, was attempting to make conversation. At which point the don turned around and said, ‘I said I would take you where you wished to go, I did not say I would enter into conversation with you.’ He loved that.”
Returning to the States, Matthau studied acting on the G.I. Bill at New York’s New School for Social Research. By 1948 he was working regularly on Broadway. But with a face seemingly designed by a cartoonist—all jowls and eyelids topped off by a nose on loan from W.C. Fields—he was consigned to journeyman work on stage and in films such as 1957′s A Face in the Crowd. “I could play the guy next door,” he told Interview in 1994. “I am the guy next door.” He didn’t break out as a leading man until he played an Oscar and won another. He perfected the cantankerous slob Oscar Madison to Art Carney’s Felix Unger in the 1965 Broadway production of The Odd Couple, and followed it as the cantankerous shyster Whiplash Willie Gingrich to Jack Lemmon’s hapless TV cameraman in 1966′s The Fortune Cookie, for which he won Best Supporting Actor honors. That teaming with Lemmon—chopped liver and white bread—was so delicious that, for the 1968 film of The Odd Couple, Lemmon took the role Carney had created. The result was a smash, the fifth highest-grossing film of the year. They would keep working together through 1998′s The Odd Couple II, their comedy tics aging like fine whine. “The main thing I like about Jack,” Matthau told PEOPLE in 1998, “is that he bathes every day, so I don’t have to worry about being assaulted odoriferously.”
There was much joy in their schtick. Take their first meeting, as Matthau used to describe it: “I went into a deli in [L.A.'s] Brentwood—it was a Jewish deli—and there was Jack Lemmon, and I said, ‘Hi, mind if I join you?’ I asked him what he was going to eat. He said, ‘I’m going to have fried shrimp and a chocolate frappé.’ I figured he was nuts and I fell madly in love with him.” Nonsense, said Lemmon: The pair met in Sardi’s in New York City. Matthau, he said, was still squirming from the night before, when he had sat on and broken a glass coffee table at Gloria Vanderbilt’s house. “Gloria walked over,” Lemmon added, “and said, ‘Look what you’ve done to my coffee table.’ ” In real life, though, the pair confessed they had never exchanged a cross word. Ann-Margret, costar of both 1993′s Grumpy Old Men and its 1995 sequel, says, “Walter used to whisper to me, ‘You know, when you talk to Jack today, please try to cheer him up, because he’s not feeling well.’ It was so cute. Because whenever there was something wrong with Walter, Jack would come up to me and whisper, ‘You know, Walter is not feeling good today. Could you cheer him up?’ It was such a sweet thing. They loved each other so much.”
In fact, Matthau had little in common with his crusty screen alter egos—he was a Mozart lover who once guest-conducted the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra and was, he told The Odd Couple’s author, Neil Simon, a natural to play fussy Felix Unger. But like Oscar Madison, he did cop to a lifelong love of the ponies. “He was a compulsive gambler,” says Tony Curtis, a friend since the pair studied acting together in the late 1940s. “He was diabolical. He knew how to handicap every horse. He knew everything about gambling except how to win. He was always broke.”
So broke, in fact, that in the ’50s, Matthau owed bookies several hundred thousand dollars. Luck finally shone for him at two-for-one odds. He got a part in Broadway’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and fell in love with cast member Carol Marcus, the former bride of The Human Comedy author William Saroyan. At the time, Matthau was married to Grace Johnson, whom he had wed in 1948. Matthau and Johnson divorced in 1958 and he married Carol the following year. “From beginning to end, this was a great love affair,” says Gloria Vanderbilt. Carol said in 1992, “My favorite thing in the world is to sleep with him and wake up and see these sparkling eyes looking at me.”
He was just as loving with their son Charlie. Carol Burnett, who co-starred with Matthau in 1972′s Pete ‘n’ Tillie and again in the 1998 CBS TV movie The Marriage Fool, which Charlie directed, says that during the latter’s filming, “He would kiss Charlie in the morning on the lips! Walter would come up and go, ‘Moochie, moochie, moochie,’ and pinch his son’s cheeks and say, ‘Give Daddy a kiss!’ And go ‘smack!’ and look at me and say, ‘Isn’t he delicious!’ He just knew how to love.”
And knew how to keep those around him in stitches. “We couldn’t wait for him to come into the makeup trailer in the morning,” Burnett remembers. “He would just regale us with very raunchy jokes and then turn right around and put a CD of his favorite opera on and start singing!” One time, Burnett recalls, the pair were on a plane together when they saw Jackie Onassis board. “And I leaned over to Walter and said, ‘Aaaah, if this plane goes down I get third billing.’ And he said, ‘Yes, and she gets second.’ ”
That keen sense of humor carried him through countless health crises: In 1966, Matthau suffered a heart attack, which caused him to quit smoking, and a decade later he underwent a quadruple bypass operation. He beat cancer three different times. All of which made Charlie decide he had better write his father a detailed note in a Father’s Day card last year. “You are a giant,” the card read. “The most loyal and patient husband, and as a father, a volcanic and infinite explosion of unconditional love, universal wisdom and a supernova of everything that is right and good in this world. Apart from that, however, I’m not very pleased with you!” The child-hating grouch of The Bad News Bears and Dennis the Menace “broke down all of a sudden and cried,” says Charlie. “And then he never mentioned it again.”
CBS claimed the top three positions with its “60 Minutes” (1968), Touched By an Angel (1994) and the movie, “The Marriage Fool” starring Walter Matthau. All aired on Sunday. ABC won the overall ratings race for the week — its first weekly win since last March — while Fox picked up honors for the most-watched network among 18-49 year-olds, the prime demographic unit. ABC averaged an 8.1 rating and a 14 share. CBS was second with a 7.9/14. NBC was third with a 7.5/13, followed by Fox with a 6.2/11.
The top ten shows for the week, according to Nielsen Research:1. CBS Sunday Movie, The Marriage Fool, CBS, 14/23; 2. “Touched By an Angel”, CBS, 13.6/21; 3. “60 Minutes”, CBS, 12.9/23; 4. “N.F.L. Monday Night Football” (1970), ABC, 12.7/21; 5. “20/20″ (1978) – Wed, ABC, 12.3/21; 6. “Frasier” (1993) Special, NBC, 12.2/20; 7. “Frasier” Special, NBC, 12/19; 8. Friends (1994/I), NBC, 11.5/20; 9. “Ally McBeal” (1997), Fox, 10.9/16; 10.”ER” (1994), NBC, 10.3/18.
THE night before, Liza Minnelli had sat on the same red leather banquette, reserved by the Russian Tea Room for the sour creme de la creme of celebrities. And now here, up front, is Carol Matthau, best known — until her current splash — as the wife of the actor Walter Matthau; before that, the wife (twice) of the writer William Saroyan. She gets the V.I.P. treatment from the Tea Room staff and a hearty hello from the owner herself, Faith Stewart-Gordon.
What a difference writing a well-publicized, much-talked-about book can make, especially if it’s a juicy, name-dropping, bed-bouncing, no-beach-blanket-should-be-without-it memoir like Mrs. Matthau’s “Among the Porcupines” (Turtle Bay Books, $23).
The author is something of a throwback. Much of her life, as she chooses to tell it, has been spent in the shadows of high achievers, the half-dark of nightclubs, the bedrooms of distinguished others, usually writers. She was always there to contribute her lucid incoherence, which recalls Diana Vreeland, and mercurial behavior along the lines of Holly Golightly. She claims in the book that Truman Capote based Holly Golightly on her — easy to believe when she says she uses pink polish on her fingernails but bright red on her toes — but it is Blanche DuBois who immediately comes to mind.
Those looking for a dark side beneath Mrs. Matthau’s Kabuki-like makeup mention the alienation between her and her two children by William Saroyan, though she is close to her son by Mr. Matthau. She is vague, too, about her age, though she went to school and grew up with Oona O’Neill, her lifelong friend, who was 66 years old when she died in 1991.
Last week, the book gave the author an excuse to lunch with Maureen Stapleton, an old friend who figures prominently in the story. Mrs. Matthau, readying herself for the interview circuit, flew in from Pacific Heights, Calif.; Miss Stapleton motored down from her condo in Lenox, Mass. The two have known each other since the early 50′s, before Carol Grace became Mrs. Matthau, even before they appeared together in the S. N. Behrman play “The Cold Wind and the Warm.” Miss Stapleton, the younger of the two, played her grandmother.
They have, Mrs. Matthau writes, been “close, close friends” ever since. She also writes that her friend is “very beautiful — she looks like a shattered old-fashioned valentine.” Also that Miss Stapleton “rarely took a bath” and is “always performing with a hangover.”
What are close, close friends for, anyway?]
“Good God, Carol, you’re as pale as ever,” Miss Stapleton declares, leaning back in the banquette. “Everybody comes back from California with a tan. You come back looking like Lady Macbeth. You were always hiding from the sun. Big hats. Big parasols.”
“Well, now it comes out that I was right all along about the sun,” Mrs. Matthau replies.
“Yeah, you was right, honey, you was right,” Miss Stapleton says. “You was always right.”
Miss Stapleton lights a cigarette, “Carol,” she says, “in over 30 years I’ve seen you only once without makeup. I still can’t believe you put on makeup at night! And not just overnight creams — that I could understand. But that dressy-occasion stuff.”
She reaches for her glass of red wine.
“I’ll never forget your look of astonishment,” Mrs. Matthau recalls with glee. ” ‘Makeup at night?’ you asked. ‘Is somebody coming?’ Anyway, I did persuade you to take off that Betty Boop lipstick you were using.”
Miss Stapleton, says, defensively, nostalgically: “It was Victory Red. That should give you a clue to how long ago it was. Elizabeth Arden.”
“Who else?” Mrs. Matthau replies.
Mrs. Matthau toys with her long strand of pearls, twisting them in her mouth like that famous Avedon photo of Marilyn Monroe. She is wearing a white silk pants suit from Amen Wardy. “I mostly wear pink, ice blue or white,” she says. Her white shoes with tricolor trim (blue, green and purple) would be at home on a velvet pillow.
Miss Stapleon has put together black sandals and a green-and-blue print shirtwaist. “Polyester,” she announces. “You throw it in the machine. I wore it in ‘Sweet Lorraine.’ It’s a freebie. I’m comfortable in it.”
“Maureen, never use that word,” Mrs. Matthau admonishes. “Clothes were not made for comfort.”
Miss Stapleton lights another cigarette. “Where’s the loo around here?” she wants to know.
A while later she returns, somewhat out of breath. “It was all the way upstairs,” she announces, adding that “you gotta be young” to use the bathroom in this place.
Mrs. Matthau is searching for her purse. “Don’t worry,” Miss Stapleton assures her. “With all those cosmetics nobody could lift it.”
Mrs. Matthau is a wisp of a woman with eyes that go beyond pleading “Please be kind.” They say, rather, “I know you’ll be kind.”
There are only two roles she says she would like to play: Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (“Oona once said, ‘All you have to do is show up, and you’ll get the part”) and, as she puts it: ‘The lady who sells magazine subscriptions on the telephone. You know, ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ ”
Does Mrs. Matthau ever feel that she sacrificed her acting career for her husbands?
“As Malraux said, ‘A woman who seeks equality loses her superiority.’ ”
Miss Stapleton takes a gulp of wine on that one.
“Remember the time I took the train to L.A., and you hired a Salvation Army band to meet me?” says Miss Stapleton, who never flies.
“I asked them to play ‘Easy Come, Easy Go,’ and they told me they would only play one of their songs,” Mrs. Matthau says.
“They played something like ‘There’s Power in the Blood,’ ” Miss Stapleton says.
It is Mrs. Matthau’s turn. “And do you remember that rainy Saturday and the tremendous sale at Porthault?”
Miss Stapleton picks up the story: “I’d never even heard of Porthault, and that man took us upstairs to show us those peach satin sheets. Eighty nuns spent 80 days or something weaving them for the Shah of Somewhere or Other.”
“Do you still have what you bought that day?” Mrs. Matthau asks.
“I have whatever it was you made me buy. Probably never used. You know, I also remember how you got me to make up with Walter after I’d had that big fight with him. What you said — and I’ve never forgotten it — was ‘You might as well make up: they’re all pains.’ ”
“Right,” Miss Stapleton says. “I have two ex-husbands to prove it.”
“I married Saroyan the second time because I couldn’t believe how terrible it was the first time,” Mrs. Matthau says. “I married Walter because I love to sleep with him. When I bring him coffee in bed, I make sure to put a fresh flower and a poem on the tray.”
There is a pause. “What do you do when you’re unhappy?” Miss Stapleton asks.
“I walk in the rain. The first time I saw you, you were walking in the woods wearing a raincoat.”
“I’d forgotten. Was I wearing anything under it?”
“Another red wine?” a passing waiter asks.
“What the hell!” Miss Stapleton replies. “She said I’m a drunk, and I don’t want to make a liar out of her. Listen, could you please wrap these blinis in a doggie bag?”
Holy Spinning Movie Set! It’s 21 years this month since athletic Adam West first donned cape and cowl to battle the forces of evil on the hit TV series “Batman”.
As the campy Caped Crusader, West contended with super-tech crime-fighting equipment and weirdly angled cameras twice a week. But he probably never encountered anything like the set he’s working on now: a circular creation that spins so fast the “Guinness Book of World Records” has declared it the fastest whirling set ever built in Hollywood.
The set, for Cannon Group’s teens-meet-extraterrestrials August release “Doin’ Time on Planet Earth” depicts the interior of a Holiday Inn Rotunda Room, a revolving restaurant complete with tacky red-vinyl booths and gaudy fake stained-glass windows. Built for half a million dollars by Reel EFX, the 60,000-pound set takes up half a sound stage at Raleigh Studios, where about 30% of “Doin’ Time” is being shot.
“Doin’ Time,” about a teenager who believes an extraterrestrial and meets a group of real aliens unwillingly stuck on earth, brings some veteran actors – including Hugh O’Brien (TV’s gunslinging “Wyatt Earp”) and Gloria Henry (the TV mom of “Dennis the Menace”)- together with several young performers and behind-the-camera talents, including Nicholas Strouse, 18, as the alienated teenager Ryan, fresh from his Broadway success as Eugene in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs”; director Charles Matthau, 23, the son of actor Walter; and screenwriter Darren Star, 25.
West plays Charles, the charismatic alien leader. Looking virile and fit, costumed in a black jump suit and silver cravat, he reflects, “Here I am in a situation where everybody around me is 22, 21, 19, 27, and it may be the typical Hollywood situation now. If I do seem less than octogenarian, it’s because I enjoy working with young people-the freshness, the ideas. And anyone who could put on a pair of tights and a cowl and a cape,” he adds, eyes twinkling, “has to be a child at heart.”
On this sunny day, the Rotunda Room, decorated for the grand finale wedding scene, is filled with extraterrestrials (in fluorescent orange jump suits) and wedding guests (in polyester and chiffon). Suddenly Matthau calls “Action!” and the set starts whirling like a speedy merry-go-round. Actors spill into each other and swing from chandeliers as ribbons fly from the kitschy pink and blue wedding garlands festooned around the room. Off to the side, crew members relax in chairs, reading novels and working on crossword puzzles as if nothing unusual is happening.
When the spinning stops, Matthau takes a short break. His tallness is accentuated by the hiking shorts he wears. The low-keyed director says that a USC film school short he made, titled “I was a Teenage Fundraiser,” caught the eye of Cannon head Menachem Golan and led to a contract to direct “a low, low budget” feature.
Star’s script for “Doin’ Time” is set in fictional Sunnydale, Ariz, the prune capital of the U.S.A. “The idea was to shoot in L.A. but to make it look like a small, generic Western town,” says Matthau. “So we shot all over, in unidentifiable places, such as in the city of Orange County for a small town feel, in Palmdale out in the Mojave Desert for the Holiday Inn.”
A couple of times the shoot was visited by Matthau senior, which made the young director “very nervous. But he was very supportive, told me I was doing a good job. Of course, he’s biased,” he grins shyly.
Most of the younger actors seem thrilled to be working alongside the seasoned performers. “To be around these vets is like being a connoisseur of wines and finding yourself in the vineyards of France,” effuses Strouse, neat as a pin in his wedding-scene tuxedo.
And blond Matt Adler (“Flight of the Navigator”, “Teen Wolf”), who plays Ryan’s best friend Dan, says that West was a childhood hero: “I watched ‘Batman’ every day! It’s great to be working with Adam-he’s so funny. He’s got all of Batman’s cool.
The older contingent is more reserved. O’Brien and Martha Scott (Jennifer Talbot on “General Hospital”) plays the parents of the bride (Isabel Walker). O’Brien, square-jawed and still handsome, has had a longstanding involvement with youth throughout his worldwide Hugh O’Brien Youth Foundation and the Hugh O’Brien Acting Awards at UCLA.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do this film is because it was for a young audience,” he explains.
And Scott finds a serious message beneath the movie’s farce: “The significance of doing time on planet Earth is: What’s to happen to the young people? Because they’re up against it! It’s about how young people feel about our society and what they want their contribution to be.”
Petite, blue-eyed Henry, who once again portrays a mom (to Strouse), thinks the older actors set an example of professional patience on the set. “One of the things I’ve learned is that, yes,it’s fun to cut up on the set, but your energy gets dissipated,” she says.
But burly Hugh Gillin (“Psycho” II and III’s sheriff), playing her polyester-tuxedoed husband, takes a sanguine view. “All these young kids running around with so much damned energy, ” he chuckles. “I stay away from them-they wear me out!”
“I always consult him on every script,” says the famous actor-comedian. “He’s my friend and I trust his judgement.”
By Jane Ardmore
Charlie is 16 and he’s just starting his senior year in high school. He writes for the school paper, acts in school plays and struggles to stay at the top of his class in math and Latin. An ordinary kid. Sort of.
Sandwiched between the hours he spends on homework and extra-curricular activities, Charlie works in the Industry, the movie industry, that is. Like this summer, he was Associate Producer on Little Miss Marker, his opinion was sought on decisions involving casting and plot structure. But most of his time was spent with Walter Matthau on that comedy master’s interpretation of the famous Damon Runyon character, Sorrowful Jones.
“Nothing new,” says Matthau. “I always consult Charlie on every character I play. I read the whole script aloud to him and he tells me whether to do it. Take The Sunshine Boys for example. I didn’t want to do it. I thought it was a good script, but very depressing. When I read it to Charlie, he laughed and lot and said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do that. That’s a very funny script, and you do it so well!’ So of course I did it because Charlie is a friend whose judgment I trust.”
Charlie is also Matthau’s son. The two are a familiar sight around Hollywood; the tall, dark-haired man and the thin, dark-haired kid, both wearing their favorite baseball caps (Charlie is partial to his Dodger blue, Walter prefers his Del Mar green). “I never had a best friend like Charlie. He goes any place I want to go,” says Walter. “To baseball games… to the races… to concerts… the theater… on location… to films.”
We’re sitting in Matthau’s office at Universal Studios. “Sorry I’m late,” he says, “but I had a race with a guy on the freeway. I beat him the first part of it, and then I got into this hassle with the cop on the lot who thought he’d read a story that I’d ‘given up’ on the Dodgers. I never give up on the Dodgers.” Off comes the familiar cap: “I wear it to keep the wind from blowing my hair askew,” he quips as he stalks the well-appointed office (“much too nice for us; they’ll probably throw us out momentarily”) trying to find his comb and brush. Any prowlers around? The Marx Brothers been here? Jane, did you swipe ‘em?”
Personal secretary Grace McColum says she thinks she saw them in the kitchen.
“My brush? Whatever you do today, Grace, don’t make me an egg salad sandwich!”
Grace finally retrieves the comb and brush from the suite’s bathroom and brings them in, beaming. She obviously adores Matthau and confides. “He’s like no one else in the business. Always real. Always warm, understanding, funny, and real.”
Which may explain Matthau’s attitude toward directing. “I’ve done it – in 1958 – a piece called Gangster Story, but I didn’t like. I don’t like all the power that comes with directing. I’m never quite sure of myself when I’m trying to create a character or interpret a piece, and the director must be sure of himself – or make his actors believe he is.
“I directed Charlie once. He’s had parts in five or six of my pictures – New Leaf, Charley Varrick, Kotch, Plaza Suite and House Calls, – and he played young Scrooge on the Young Bob Cratchit Show on television. Most of these were just background parts, but the best so far was in House Calls when he was Glenda Jackson’s son. Charlie’s first speaking part was on Charley Varrick – he had seven or eight lines. The director [Don] Siegel, pretended to have a long-distance call and left the set, letting me direct Charlie in his scene. I was very hard on Charlie. After my hollering for the sixth time, “Let’s take that again,” Charlie said, ‘When is the real director coming back?’ But it was a great moment for me. I wasn’t going to just say, ‘Cut and print.’ I didn’t want to let go of that moment; directing my son in his first movie scene.”
Ask Charlie about that experience and he reveals, “It was awful. My dad was very forceful. I love doing everything else with Papa, but I wouldn’t want him to direct me in a picture. I’m close to him. There has to be a little distance between actor and director. But in every other situation… he and my mom are both knowledgeable, terrific people, and we have an excellent relationship that I treasure very much. That relationship had a major influence on my life. Until this last year, when the pressure got pretty heavy at school, I used to go along with my parents on every location. No wonder I’m hooked on the business – it’s been part of my education.”
Did Matthau assume that his son would follow in his footsteps? “Oh, I never even thought about that,” he says. “I just liked having him around. I don’t care what he does career-wise. He can become a cat burglar if he wants to . He’s such a nice person, so delightful and interesting and funny. I’m going to try to talk him into going to Harvard. A Harvard graduate is always impressive. Harvard Law.”
Charlie’s answer to that: “Look, I can always take law. That’s graduate work, anyhow. Dad has a kind of old-fashioned concept about education. Why shouldn’t I study something I’m interested in, and probably going to be involved with and fascinated by for the rest of my life? Since my interests are acting and directing, I should apply to USC. They have the finest theater arts department in the country.”
Besides, in between times, there will always be jobs like the one he’s involved with right now – working for David Susskind as production assistant on Loving Couples, a job with which Walter has nothing to do. As we chat, he picks up the phone and gives Charlie a ring to see “how things are going.” You can hear Charlie’s deep voice as he roars “New Leaf Productions” into the telephone. His dad laughs. “That was a picture I did with Elaine May about eight years ago,” he whispers to me. Then into the phone.
“Charlie, I’m going to be talking to Jennings Lang about your billing as associate producer (on Little Miss Marker). Now, if he does allow you billing… you what? You want your name in a box? He may not even give you billing. You know how Jennings is, he’s a very nasty, mean, wonderful fellow – it depends on what he’s had for breakfast, and whether it has agreed with him.” Aside to me, “Charlie says we should call Lang’s secretary for a digestive status report.”
“Listen, Charlie, you want your billing to be Charles Matthau or Charlie? Oh you think Charlie is a little demeaning? How about Charles M. Matthau or Charles Marcus Mattahu. Okay, just Charles Matthau. Yeah, much less pretentious. It’s like that guy who has his first initial and then his second name, and then his last name, like Y. Howard Friedman or Y. Charles Smearfarp; you know, the kind of guy they say, ‘So she married a guy who even questions his first name.’ You want to be Irving R. Levine? Okay. Well, you can do the 7 o’clock news. See you later, Buddy… Bye-bye.”
Regina Gross, who first worked with Matthau as a public relations liaison on Guide for the Married Man and later in the same capacity on Sunshine Boys, has traveled with the Matthau family on location and notes a great difference in Walter over the years. “He was always a very good actor, but when I first knew him, he hadn’t achieved major stardom yet, and he was not as sanguine or as settled into his life as he is now. Under the humor, there is a very serious man who adores his wife Caorl… a fragile, Dresden beauty, but really a very strong lady. Charlie is the light of their lives. He and Walter are like two guys together… I think Walter has to be the greatest father I’ve ever known.”
At a time when the generation gap is widening in a town where top stars sandwich parent-child relationships between the rigors of production and around-the-world location trips, how has Walter Matthau achieved such total communication with his kid?
“I don’t think most people get this lucky in one lifetime,” he says simply. “Most adults cannot accommodate the intransigence of adolescence, so they are constantly at odds with their children. Most parents don’t have the time or energy for all it takes. But we’re lucky, Carol and I. We’re older, and we have had good experiences with our other children. You know, we have four kids besides Charlie – Carol had two and I had two – and they’ve all turned out okay. My son David is an actor, my daughter Jenny goes to school; Carol’s Lucy is an actress, and her son Aram SAroyan is a writer and has just written quite a good book called Genesis Angels. We had Charlie when we were a little more mature, when we didn’t have to worry so much about earning a living. Besides – Charlie was a great baby. You could take him any place, just stick him in a bag, and he’d go anywhere – grinning, laughing, talking, just marvelous. Our secret is luck.
“You have to have a spouse you’re crazy about,” Matthau adds. “Now you’re crazy about the spouse and you have this little kid, and the kid turns out exactly like the spouse, so you’re crazy about the kid from the start: and he’s even cuter because he’s smaller and helpless, and the whole thing just rolls into a marvelous life.”
Unlike many fathers who feel a little uncomfortable with newborns, Walter insists that Charlie has been his best friend since he was “about a half-hour old: I pinched him then and he laughed.” Carol claims the father-son love affair didn’t really start, though, until 24 hours later. Walter was in Paris then, finishing up Charade, and though Carol had wanted to stay with him, her doctor wanted her safe at home. Walter concurred: “Our kid can’t become President of the United States if he’s born in Paris,” he pointed out.
So Carol flew home to New York and Charlie was born December 10, 1962. Carol immediately cabled Walter: BOY ARRIVED TODAY. LOOKS JUST LIKE YOU. NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT. Twenty-four hours later, the new father was at New York Hospital falling in love with his baby.
“He looked exactly the way he does now,” Walter recalls, “He still looks like he jus got out of the egg. I helped take care of him from the first – we took him everywhere. I remember at Acapulco. He was about eight months old, and I was down there doing Ensign Pulver. Carol and I had a room on the sixth floor of the hotel, and we could always spot him in the crowd when we looked over the balcony. He was very white and very small and everyone else, including his nurse, was very large and very tan. The kid was always special.”
One of the first time I met Charlie was when I visited the Matthaus at their house in Pacific Palisades. Carol and I were sitting in the living room, when Charlie, then five, ran in from the pool,naked and dripping wet, and introduced himself as “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”
“And have you composed anything lately?” I asked.
“No, I’ve been swimming. But now I’m going upstairs to compose a sonata.”
“Well, say hello to your dad for me.”
“Okay, “ said Charlie. “Leopold?”
The conversation was not as surprising as it sounds. Walter loves classical music, and has inspired his son. Walter is convinced that a love of music is genetic, “And Charlie’s genes in the music department are inherited from his momma, since he’s now into Big Band music, although he is perfectly open to Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.”
Also in the genes must be a love of acting. Charlie has played in school productions (Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet; Lovberg in Hedda Gabler; Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire). But the role that his father enjoyed the most was Charlie as the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear, complete with English accent. It took Walter back to his own first days on Broadway.
You understand, Walter didn’t just grow up in New York’s Lower East side, sell ice cream and cold drinks at the Jewish Theater and then start acting. It wasn’t until he returned from a four year hitch in the Army and graduated from the Dramatic Workshop of the New School that he gave himself a chance at what he really wanted to do. “How many people, even if they can act, are smart enough to realize that they’re not going to make a living at it? I gave myself three months,” he remembers, “and I learned to do it myself. You don’t get an agent. You just look around while you’re still going to school, see what’s going on, and try out everywhere. You have to be very cocky and very arrogant and appear to be very humble. When I went for my first Broadway job, a part in the play Anne of a Thousand Days, I was 27. I was cocky and arrogant but I appeared to be very humble. They liked my humility and also my apparent confidence.”
Matthau was hired immediately as an understudy to Percy Waram, who played the aging Cardinal Wolsey. “And then, unfortunately, Waram had a heart attack six weeks after our opening, and I went on for him. Rex Harrison, who was playing Henry VIII and Joyce Redman, who was Anne Boleyn, were so nervous they couldn’t look at me. Rex Harrison was trembling. I probably was, too. But I did it – in my best aged English accent.”
After the performance, Rex Harrison called Matthau to his dressing room. “That accent of yours,” he said, “it’s really remarkable. Are you English?”
“No,” Matthau replied, “but I was born in London.”
“Aha, I can tell. And how long did you live there in London?”
“Six months,” Matthau lied.
“Hmm.” Rex hmmmed. “I guess you absorbed it through your genes.”
And now there is another Matthau who’s absorbed a lot of theater know-how through his genes. As they say, like father, like son.
Director Billy Wilder once ecstatically claimed that Walter Matthau “could play anything from Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara.” For more than a decade Matthau was as unpredictable as his facial expressions: an adamant sheriff in Lonely Are the Brave, a psychopathic killer in Charade, an ambulance chaser in The Fortune Cookie, the libidinous suburban husband in A Guide for the Married Man. Of late, his roles have yielded an amusing but unvarying character: the rumpled crank whose shpeesh shoundsh ash if it wash making itsh way around a shigar. Plaza Suite happily puts him in reverse. In Arthur Hiller’s rigid transcription of Neil Simon’s Broadway one-acters set in Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, Matthau essays not one part but three. Each is unique, all are achingly comic.
In the curtain raiser, fluttery Karen Nash (Maureen Stapleton) books a suite, trying to rekindle the lust hopes of her 23-year-old marriage. But saturnine Sam Nash proves as remote as room service. The reason, Karen correctly deduces, is Sam’s office fixture, a Miss McCormack. It is not only the affair that grieves the wronged wife, it is the businessman’s lack of enterprise. “Everyone cheats with their secretaries,” she wails. “I expected something better from my husband!” But beneath the holy acrimony are wounding truths. Successful Sam is no longer struggling; he wants the arrivé’s most inaccessible prize: a destination. His plaint, “I just want to do it all over again,” is a caricatured truth on the verge of tragedy. But, as always, Simon pulls back when the laughter stops. His comic mask seems to hide not wisdom but embarrassment.
In the second playlet Matthau is a case of acute satyriasis billed as Jesse Kiplinger, Famous Hollywood Producer. When his New York schedule frees him from 2 to 4 p.m., Jesse books overcoy Muriel (Barbara Harris). He had stolen her maidenhood 17 years earlier in suburbia; now he wants to return to the crime, if not the scene. Acting under an assumed mane, the red-wigged Matthau is a Narcissus whose self-love is contagious. But Muriel is immune until Jesse discovers the secret: big names. Dropping them like rose petals, he strews the path to the bedroom…Frank Sinatra…Paul Newman…Troy Donahue…Lee Marvin…
The movie’s zenith is reached in the closer. A florid father, despite misspelled names on matchbooks and overcharging musicians, is trying to give Daughter Mimsey a first-class wedding. Mimsey gives him a first-class crisis instead: she refuses to come out of the bathroom and go to the altar. As the afternoon degenerates, the bridled father’s assaults on the bathroom door leave him and his cutaway looking like Salvation Army rejects. His face a frieze of capillaries, Matthau ultimately makes King Lear seem a whining serf.
All three skits are only mildly illuminating front-line communiqués from the sexual wars. But when Simon is writing them and Matthau reading them, substance seems almost beside the point. This has been a drab year for domestic comedy; in the valley of the bland, the one-joke man is king.
Neil Simon notwithstanding, Walter Matthau employed Matthau Method Acting in defining the nuances of the three character portraits he puts on display in Plaza Suite: he developed his own miniature biographies for them. In a benign, Lower East Side growl that reaches the ear about midway between W.C. Fields and a gramophone winding down, Matthau says: “That first guy now, he had a Jewish father and an Italian mother, grew up poor and got rich in the garment business. The second guy is half Jewish and half German, grew up in Tenafly, N.J. The third guy, he was raised over on Tenth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. Worked on the docks, eventually got a good job in the union and saved a lot of money for his daughter’s wedding. He’s Irish, German and Swedish.”
Matthau will settle for the life he has made for himself. Twenty-five years ago he was a 50¢-a-night extra in Yiddish theater; at age 50, he now commands $500,000 a picture and 10% of the gross. There is little doubt among those who have worked with him that he is worth the price. Says Jack Lemmon, who has twice co-starred with Matthau and just finished directing him in a new film, Kotch: “He’s the best actor I’ve ever worked with.” The trade papers have declared him one of the ten top box office stars. “I’m Number 10,” Matthau announces with a mixture of ego and irony. “Right under Barbra Streisand. Can you imagine being under Barbra Streisand? Get me a bag, I may throw up.”
The Plutonium. He is about as likely a candidate for superstardom as the neighborhood delicatessen man. He walks with a combination of soft shoe and shamble, and his shifting, slouching posture makes him look like a question mark with an identity crisis. The clothes, though subdued and expensive, lose the contest to the walk and the slouch: he seems the part he played—Oscar, the dilapidated sportswriter in The Odd Couple. “Every actor looks all his life for a part that will combine his talents with his personality,” Matthau says. “The Odd Couple was mine. That was the plutonium I needed. It all started happening after that.”
It almost stopped not long afterward. Matthau went from Broadway to a role in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie and from there into a massive heart attack at the age of 45. He was out of action for almost half a year, but returned to finish the picture. He won an Oscar for it: “They wanted to give me something for all my long years of achievement before I died.”
Matthau was a wildly enthusiastic gambler, but he is hedging the action a little since the heart attack. Lemmon remembers that “if you couldn’t find Walter on the set you looked in the phone booth. He’d be placing a bet.” He still visits the track for some immodest but not extravagant betting (he is part owner of nine race horses), and limits himself to an occasional game of cards. It is a high limit, however; he recently took $1,300 from Polly Bergen in a single hand of poker. To keep in decent shape, he runs five miles a day on the beach near his home in Pacific Palisades. Under the watchful eye of his wife Carol, he keeps his weight at about 180, munching on fruit and raw vegetables. He no longer smokes; friends say they have seen him walk up to strangers and deliver a lengthy and vehement antismoking lecture. Now he jokes about the heart attack, telling shaggy thrombosis stories which find him experiencing the first stabbing pain, snapping his fingers fatalistically and saying, “Shucks, it’s a little coronary.”
Attila the Hun. He professes to have more serious concerns. Elaine May, for one. “Have you ever worked for Attila the Hun?” he asks with feigned hurt. “Martin Bormann? Rudolf Hess? A New Leaf was two months late, two million bucks over budget, and when Paramount asked her why, she said ‘It’s all on account of Matthau. He keeps trying to grab me, and by the time he finally succeeds it’s 4 o’clock and too late to do any work.’ Now I’ll admit I was certainly interested in grabbing Elaine, but making that the reason for the picture going so far over…”
Then there are the critics, a few of whom have experienced something less than rapture over a few recent Matthau performances. He retaliates with indignant but anonymous letters, condemning their shabby prose and shopworn aesthetics. When one critic dismissed him as “a good beer and undershirt comedian,” Matthau fired off a reply saying “that’s like calling Albert Einstein a good pinochle player.”
Ultimate Luxury. Playwrights are not immune from the Matthau missives. When Neil Simon declined to change a line in The Odd Couple about doubleheaders that particularly bothered Matthau, the actor took to his typewriter and sent Simon a letter, signing it with the phony name of a “professor” at the University of Berlin. The letter took pedantic but persuasive exception to the line that had bugged Matthau. Impressed, Simon cut it out.
Matthau also allows himself a hint of self-mockery, the ultimate luxury of the secure man. He even pretends to be worried about work. “I figure I can go for a year and a half without a job, then I hit the unemployment line and it’s all over,” he says. In fact, he has just rejected one offer at his usual fee because he does not like the script and is haggling over a second assignment. “Let’s face it, I really like all this money,” he says. “It looks like I’ve been moving toward it all my life.”
The Odd Couple Review
The Plymouth Theater
I’m sorry the Moscow Art players have returned to Russia. I’d like them to have seen the first-act poker game in “The Odd Couple.”
I don’t necessarily say they’d have learned anything from it. I just feel pretty sure they’d have liked it. It has so much interior truth. Director Mike Nichols has staged an absolute summer festival of warm beer, sprayed toward the ceiling like those terraced fountains municipal designers are so fond of, and I suppose we can credit author Neil Simon with providing the sandwiches. The sandwiches have been of whatever was left over in host Walter Matthau’s long-defrosted refrigerator (“it’s either very new cheese or very old meat” Mr. Matthau volunteers as he offers his cronies a choice between brown sandwiches and green) and the members of the party are happy enough to munch them as they gripe, growl, snarl, and roar over their hands, their wives, their lives, and the high cost of losing.
This is where the art comes in. Instead of isolating each one of Mr. Simon’s dozens of laugh-lines and milling it for all it’s worth, director Nichols flings all the gags into the pot together, letting them clink and spin like so many chips, until everything overlaps and you can’t tell life from lunacy. Nat Frey shuffles the pack as though he were crushing glass in his strong bare hands, John Fielder sings his piping little song about having to leave by twelve until it takes on the piercing sound of counterpoint from another planet, Sidney Armus and Paul dooley fling their arms up and their cards down like men freshly accused of treason, and Mr. Matthau grunts and bellows in his homespun way to put a moose-like bass under the whole hot summer-night orchestration. The interplay is true, blue, and beautiful.
After the poker game comes the play, which is jim-dandy, ginger-peachy, and good. Mr. Matthau is a divorced man, which is why he is able to have all his friends in on Friday nights and also why the eight room apartment looks like one of those village bazaars at which underprivileged citizens can exchange their old refuse. (Oliver Smith has caught in his setting just the right muddy and mottled note for ramshackle bachelor quarters with the trousers back from the cleaners hanging where they ought to be, from the bookshelves, and with a nice fat hole burned in what used to be the best lampshade).
Into the dissolute comfort and the brawling bliss of Mr. Matthau’s menage comes a thin note of warning. One friend, who turns out shortly to be Art Carney, hasn’t shown up. News is received that he, too, has left his wife. Furthermore, he is threatening suicide, sort of. Now it is time for Mike Nichols to set his mother-hen actors pacing, pacing, pacing the floor as they brood and cluck and worry inordinately about their deeply disturbed buddy. When Mr. Carney does finally appear, the rush to save him from himself – all windows are locked tightly against jumping and he’s scarcely allowed to go to the bathroom alone – is sympathetic, solicitous and rough as a maddened hockey game. We may not have had as funny a first act since “The Acharnians.”
Naturally, Mr. Matthau and Mr. Carney now settle down his roommates, making as nice a couple as you’d care to meet if they could only get along. Mr. Carney is death on dust and a fast man with an Aerosol bomb (one reason his wife threw him out is that he always insisted on recooking the dinner) and he drives Mr. Matthau stark, staring mad. In short, both of them might just as well have wives and that constitutes the meat, the moral, and the malicious merriment of this brief encounter.
The contest thins out a bit, I am honor bound to say, during the second act, while Mr. Carney worries desperately over his London broil and reduces a couple of visiting pigeons (they’re girls, they’re sisters, and their name is Pigeon) to tears. But the repeated joke is at least a good joke, the Pigeon sisters ultimately prove to be funny and useful, Mr. Simon’s comic inventions keep re-igniting, and the poker players are coming back, so I wouldn’t even notice if I were you.
Now a word about Mr. Matthau, and I do hope the Moscow Art is listening. Mr. Matthau could play all of the parts in “Dead Souls” with one hand tied to one foot and without changing makeup. He is a gamut-runner, from grim, to game to simple hysteria and when he finally does have his long overdue nervous breakdown, with his voice sinking into his throat like the sun in the western seat he is magnificent. Of course, he is good, too, impersonating an orangutan as he leaps furniture in his wild desire to make certain alterations in Mr. Carney’s throat, and again when he shows his old pal the door (only to be haunted by the memory of that despairing face and by a parting remark that he comes to think of as The Curse of the Cat People). But perhaps our man is best of all when he is merely intimating contempt in his sneering dark eyes, with a baseball cap peaked backwards on his untidy head and his face curled in scorn until it looks like the catcher’s mitt.
We mustn’t overlook Mr. Carney, who is immensely funny quivering his lip like an agitated duck, clearing his ears by emitting foghorn hoots, and clawing his hands through what is left of his hair to indicate pride, despair and all of the other seven deadly virtues. His problem is tension (“It’s tension. I get it from tension. I must be tense,” he says) and ours is to keep from laughing through the next good line.
It’s a good problem to have, and I urge you to drop in on “The Odd Couple” any night at all, Friday’s included.