Neil Simon, Gone at Ninety-One

On Film / The Daily — Aug 27, 2018

Playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon, who turned an unprecedented string of Broadway hits that began with Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965) into some of American cinema’s most popular comedies of the 1960s and ’70s, has passed away at the age of ninety-one. As Charles Isherwood notes in the New York Times, Simon, who had four plays running simultaneously on the Great White Way in 1966, “ruled Broadway when Broadway was still worth ruling.” He racked up ten Tony nominations for his plays, four Oscar nominations for his screenplays, and saw the The Odd Couple become a long-running television sitcom in the early ’70s.

Like Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, Simon honed his comedic skills writing sketches in the early 1950s for television pioneer Sid Caesar. Norman Lear turned Simon’s first play, Come Blow Your Horn (1961), into a 1963 vehicle for Frank Sinatra, but once he began writing his own film adaptations, “the Simon assembly line quickly accelerated,” as Frank Rich puts it for Vulture. If there was a formula for Simon’s particular brand of hit-making, it was hardly a secret: Squeeze a few people, preferably just two—such as The Odd Couple’s Felix, the uptight neatnik, and Oscar, the lovable slob—into a confined space and send the sparks flying. Two crucial early collaborators were Mike Nichols, who debuted as a director on Broadway with Barefoot in the Park and won a Tony for directing The Odd Couple, and director Gene Saks, who steered the film adaptations of this one-two punch to box-office success.

Simon also wrote original screenplays, and while The Goodbye Girl (1977) scored five Oscar nominations, including best screenplay—and a best actor win for Richard Dreyfuss—a 1972 sleeper remains the overall critical favorite. “Although most of Simon’s movies are stagebound and claustrophobic, his screenplay for The Heartbreak Kid is stunningly good,” wrote David Edelstein in a profile for New York magazine in 2009, “and director Elaine May’s off-the-beat timing gives the lines some air.”

And yet, in that same piece, Edelstein pretty well summed up the problems many critics have had with Simon’s work over the years: “Forget subtext: It’s all bellowed. . . . Although there’s a sense in one or two plays that the world has gone meshuga, politics never intrude. The social order goes unquestioned. Sexual identity isn’t in play. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: You don’t have to be Brecht, Odets, or Miller to write a funny comedy.”

Almost as if in response to such accusations of political and social irrelevance, Simon wrote a trilogy of plays in the 1980s based on his memories of growing up during the Great Depression in a household all but torn apart by his parents’ ferocious arguments over their financial straits: Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), Biloxi Blues (1985), and Broadway Bound (1986). As Isherwood notes, “these comedy-dramas were admired for the way they explored the tangle of love, anger and desperation that bound together—and drove apart—a Jewish working-class family, as viewed from the perspective of the youngest son, a restless wisecracker with an eye on showbiz fame.” Naturally, Simon the screenwriter would adapt all three, with Saks directing the first in 1986, Nichols the second in 1988—his only film based on a Simon screenplay—and Paul Bogart directing the third for television in 1992 with Anne Bancroft and Hume Cronyn.

In 1991, Simon won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Lost in Yonkers, a play that Mark Harris, writing for Vulture, suggests is “a memory piece that was his attempt at a Jewish Glass Menagerie.” And while he continued to write plays into the early 2000s, his popularity had long since begun to wane. “For most of his career,” writes Harris, “it had been enough just to be funny, but suddenly, his rat-a-tat style, his almost compulsive belief that there was no moment that could not be undercut or leavened with a perfectly crafted one-liner, was out of step with the times. Audiences did not want an audience-pleaser.” But Frank Rich argues that Simon “deserves a second look” as an American original who “married a three-dimensional humanity to his genius for writing jokes.”

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