Opinion

Why Neil Simon’s Plays, for All Their Success on Broadway, Didn’t Make Such Great Movies

Almost all of Neil Simon’s plays and stage hits became films, but none of them became a pillar of cinematic comedy

Theatrical poster for the movie 'The Goodbye Girl.'
Warner Bros. / Cinema Internatio

What’s the connection between Neil Simon, the author of the most successful comedies in the history of American theater, some of them with a clear Jewish slant, who passed away on Sunday, and Vittorio de Sica, one of the directors who laid the foundation of neorealism in Italian cinema, which came into its own after World War II?

This cinematic trivia question could be considered totally baseless, but such a connection really did exist. It came into being in 1966, when Simon joined Italian screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who wrote the scripts for several of De Sica’s early and most important films. Together they created the script for “After the Fox,” a comedy in which Peter Sellers played a sophisticated criminal who pretends to be directing a film in an Italian coastal village, in order to get his hands on the loot from a robbery, which is supposed to arrive at the beach. Although the film failed, it was Simon’s first original script.

20th Century Fox

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Almost all of Neil Simon’s plays and stage hits became films, but none of them became a pillar of cinematic comedy. One reason was that in the transition from the stage to the screen, the overly calculated nature of the plays became evident – while it turned them into sophisticated comic machines, they lacked a stirring cinematic soul.

Of course Simon was a highly talented writer of comedies. The characters in his plays were well drawn, although not in depth; every punchline they uttered came at the right moment and the balance that Simon tried to achieve in several of his plays between humor and pathos worked effectively. But when you watched his plays on the screen they seemed to have been created in a laboratory for producing the perfect comedy, one that’s not only funny but also touches on the human experience.

Another reason why the film versions of Simon’s plays are on the margins of the history of cinematic comedy is that the directors who were placed in charge of their transition to film were faithful mainly to the stage original, and didn’t add any cinematic value it. Only rarely did an important director make one of these versions, for example Mike Nichols, who in 1988 directed the film version of “Biloxi Blues,” the middle chapter of Simon’s autobiographical trilogy.

In other cases, the job of transferring a play by Simon to the screen was carried out by directors who lacked any particular cinematic talent, like Gene Saks (who directed Simon’s two greatest early movie hits, “Barefoot in the Park” in 1967 and “The Odd Couple” in 1968, and Robert Moore (“Chapter Two”) in 1979.

Of course these films provided entertainment. How could they do otherwise, with stars like Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Anne Bancroft, Marsha Mason, James Caan, Michael Caine and Maggie Smith, who won an Academy Award for best supporting actress in the 1978 film “California Suite,” directed by Herbert Ross. She played a British actress who arrives with her gay husband at the Oscar ceremony where she is a nominee.

This film won Simon one of his four Oscar nominations, only one of which was for best original screenplay, which he wrote for Herbert Ross’ 1977 film “The Goodbye Girl.” Richard Dreyfuss won an Oscar for his role as a failed actor. Another actor who played in a film based on a Simon play was the elderly comedian George Burns, who won best supporting actor in “The Sunshine Boys,” for his role as one of the two veteran rival comedians in Herbert Ross’ version of the comedy.

The fact is that the script that Simon wrote for “The Goodbye Girl” yielded his best original screenplay, as well as the most successful film based on an original script of his. What comes close is the script he wrote for the 1972 film “The Heartbreak Kid,” directed by Elaine May. (This is one of the few cases in which a film written by Simon was directed by an artist with evident comic talent.) But our fond memory of this comedy was dulled by the additional coarse and superfluous version produced in 2007, directed by brothers Bobby and Peter Farrelly, without Simon being involved in its rewriting.

United Artists

These were two very reasonable comedies, even if their formulaic nature is evident; but it would be hard to find another outstanding comedy in the films based on Simon’s original scripts, including his two parodies of literary and cinematic thrillers, “The Cheap Detective” in 1978 and the 1976 film “Death by Murder,” both of which were directed by Robert Moore, who wasted their comic potential.

And does anyone even remember that in 1998 Simon wrote a sequel to “The Odd Couple,” directed by Howard Deutch, and once again starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon? The film was a critical and financial failure, and the only sad thing about it was that it was the last film costarring Matthau, who died in 2000, and Lemmon, who died a year later.

Neil Simon left behind a rich comic-theatrical legacy, without having an equally prolific and popular successor. In film he left a much smaller impression, and his films belong to the past of movie comedy without conveying any message to its present, like the creators of the great comedies in film history.