Remembering the humor and humanity of Neil Simon
At a weekend writing workshop in 1989, the late E. Katherine Kerr discussed the playwrights she admired. And, near the top of her list, was Neil Simon who died in 2018.
As Kerr said, Simon made us laugh and think, chuckle and cry, wonder and resolve.
For more than 50 years, his humor and humanity filled stage and movie theaters with a rich collection of characters, a broad range of situations and lasting memories of times well spent. While most of Simon’s work originated on stage, he quickly discovered the magic of the movies with a series of adapted and original films that still leave us wanting more.
Take a look.
The Odd Couple (1968)
While our memories may initially recall the television series — based, of course, on the play and movie — take a fresh look at this gem of a screen translation of a Broadway hit. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon shine as divorced fathers who help each other explore their hopes and fears, joys and disappointments, starts and stops, as they search for new beginnings in their lives. And, thanks to Simon, they try not to take themselves, or each other, too seriously.
Barefoot in the Park (1967)
Simon’s second Broadway hit — after “Come Blow Your Horn” — became his first movie blockbuster with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford making magic in this comedy about newlyweds trying to adjust to life together. All these years later, the humor still works because Simon writes for character, not for punch line, enabling gifted actors to embed their roles with warmth and authenticity. Watch for Oscar nominee Mildred Natwick as Fonda’s well-intentioned mother.
The Out-of-Towners (1970)
In Simon’s first film written directly for the screen, he gives Jack Lemmon one of the richest characters in his gallery, a mild-mannered man from Ohio who comes to New York City for a job interview only to discover the dark side of Manhattan. The comedy works beautifully because Simon makes us care for this man and his wife — beautifully played by Sandy Dennis — never making fun of the challenges they face. Look for a young Sylvester Stallone in a cameo.
The Goodbye Girl (1977)
In another movie written for the movies — and Simon’s only film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award — he casts then-wife Marsha Mason as a down-on-her-luck Broadway dancer who finds herself sharing an apartment with a self-absorbed actor. Richard Dreyfuss won an Oscar for his shaded portrayal of a man captivated by his ambition yet touched, perhaps for the first time, by what someone else might need. A lovely romantic comedy.
Chapter Two (1979)
Simon’s whirlwind romance with Marsha Mason — and early weeks of marriage — prompted him to write this Broadway comedy in the same way that life with his first wife inspired “Barefoot in the Park.” On screen, the one-liners that highlight the play translate into dialogue that defines the characters as Mason — essentially playing herself — and James Caan make us believe in the challenges people face when they want to love more than they may be capable to love.
Only When I Laugh (1981)
In 1970, Simon surprised Broadway audiences by writing a drama, about an actress fighting alcohol abuse, called The Gingerbread Lady. Years later, when he adapted the play to the screen, he believed the role would be a perfect celebration of Marsha Mason’s growth as an actress. The result is one of her most enlightening portrayals — and the fourth of her Oscar nominations — in a film that effectively captures the fears we may face when we face ourselves.
No matter the story, regardless of the characters, every story by Neil Simon revealed a layer of the writer’s character, a piece of his soul, a nuance of his worries, a corner of his joyful world.
And he brought to life many of the principles E. Katherine Kerr shared with her students.