Dynamic Duos in Classic Film: THE ODD COUPLE

Walter Matthau (1920-2000) and Jack Lemmon (1925-2001) are two of my all time favorite actors in cinema history. My introduction to them as a dynamic duo of film was Gene Saks’ 1968 comedy classic The Odd Couple which had originally been a Broadway play starring Art Carney as Felix and Matthau as Oscar. For the film adaptation, writer Neil Simon created some additional exterior scenes since the original stage version had taken place entirely in Oscar’s apartment. Following the success of the movie, it was adapted into a popular 70’s TV series with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. As much as I liked that show, I still hold the film in highest regard. I think that’s because of the two lead actors/friends who tapped into the characters so brilliantly and set the mark for them.

Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon had first starred together in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie (1966) and it was apparent from the outset that they had a great comedic chemistry. When a film adaptation of The Odd Couple came along a couple years later they were simply the perfect pair to take on the roles. Lemmon was cast as Felix Ungar, a middle aged man whose life is thrown into a tailspin when his wife suddenly files for divorce. His best friend is Oscar Madison (Matthau) a sports journalist who has become a freewheeling bachelor since his own divorce. Oscar holds weekly poker games at his pad and serves his famous green and brown sandwiches to his pals. When Oscar gets a call that Felix may be on the verge of suicide due to his marital split, he and the other guys try to be as polite as possible when he shows up at the door. The mixture of Felix’s utter desperation and Oscar and Co’s reactions as they secretly watch his every move is just brilliant. Luckily Felix finally shows he’s going to be alright and calms down enough to see he will get through the storm.

Being a good friend, Oscar offers “Feel” (as he calls him) a room at his place until he decides what he wants to do next. Felix accepts and moves right in and this is when the craziness starts. Since leaving his wife, Oscar just doesn’t care about keeping his homelife in order and is a total slob. Being an uptight neat freak, Felix notices the dirty atmosphere and immediately begins cleaning and even starts cooking fresh hot meals for which he has a real knack. While this is a pleasant change for Oscar at first, soon Felix’s extremely neurotic behavior begins to seriously get on his nerves. The two were always best pals but never lived together so all those quirky little things Oscar had got a laugh out of before suddenly turn extremely irritating.

These guys are hysterical when they begin having a live-in war and tearing each other’s personalities apart. Felix hates Oscar’s careless attitude and Oscar is driven insane by Felix’s annoying allergies and compulsion to clean every speck of dust in sight. Their longtime friendship is on the verge of being ruined forever by them sharing the same roof. What makes these characters so appealing and gives the movie its heart is the fact that even though they are men with completely different personalities, we can see they still truly care and admire each other for who they really are underneath all their wacky foibles.

Neil Simon’s comedy writing in The Odd Couple is simply some of the best I’ve ever heard. Every other line or gag is hilarious. I can’t really put into words how good it is since much of it is about timing and the visual acting. You’ll have to actually watch the film and just hear/see it for yourself (if you haven’t already). I guarantee if you’ve got any sense of humor you’ll get tons of laughs out of the monologues and hijinks going on throughout.

After seeing (and loving) The Odd Couple I continued to look at Simon’s other screenwriting work such as The Out of Towners, Plaza Suite, The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl, I Ought To Be In Pictures, Max Dugan Returns, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues. All were equally entertaining and extremely funny but also had that soulful quality underneath the hilarity. I highly recommend checking them out.

30 years after the original, Simon, Matthau and Lemmon reunited for The Odd Couple II. Sadly it didn’t even come close to the success of the 1968 film. For those who want to see them at the top of their comedy game in later years all you need to do is watch both Grumpy Old Men movies because those are really the modern equivalents of the great work they did all those years earlier.

Odd Couple Accolades

– Neil Simon was nominated for the Academy Award for Writing-Adapted Screenplay
– Frank Bracht was nominated for the Academy Award for Film Editing and for the
– The film was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
– Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were each nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
– Gene Saks was nominated for the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film.
– In 2000, the American Film Institute honored The Odd Couple as the 17th greatest American Comedy

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Peter

Editor-In-Chief of The Grindhouse Cinema Database/Furious Cinema contributor. Pete is a rabid movie geek who enjoys everything from wild n' crazy exploitation/cult flix to big budget mainstream classics. His other interests include: graphic design, cartooning and music.

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6 Responses

  1. R.A. Kerr says:

    I completely agree with everything you`ve said. Matthau and Lemmon were perfect in The Odd Couple, and in every other film they made together.

    I like what you said here: `…we can see they still truly care and admire each other for who they really are underneath all their wacky foibles.` This really gives the movie its heart, in my opinion.

    Great post!

  2. Fritzi Kramer says:

    Hey there! Love, love, love this movie and this duo! Absolutely agree that the suicide prevention scene is just brilliant. Thanks for the great post! 🙂

    Fritzi
    MoviesSilently.com

  3. Aurora says:

    Absolutely brilliant pairing and the Dynamic Duos wouldn’t have been the same without them. I struggled to not write about this pairing myself but I’d already done a piece on Lemmon referencing Matthau and their movies together. One of the definitive duos in film from any era! What can I say? Love this! And I also adore Neil Simon!

    Thanks so much for taking part in the blogathon! As you can see, I’m still making my way around to all the posts.

    Aurora

    • mm Peter says:

      Hey Aurora, I really enjoyed being a part of your latest awesome blogathon. Tons of great posts about all kinds of legendary duos! Glad I could bring back the great Lemmon and Matthau to peoples attention again. I always look forward to these projects that get our film geek minds working! Until the next time…Thanks and Cheers mug!

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