Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Grumpy Old Men

Apparently the ramble I wrote on Tomb of the Cybermen caused a good deal of interest. Between discussions on racism, acting talent and scarcity of writing talent at this end, it didn't go too badly. Despite his far more structured critiques on film at his new blog, Gavin Mills (amongst others) kept asking me to write more.

So, only three months later, I respond. This is pretty good going, by Adamsian standards. The only Doctor Who I've seen since - bar the Christmas episode, which was suitable Christmassy - is the Tenth Planet. I may write a ramble about how brilliant that was another time, if there's a groundswell of support for such a thing. (A groundswell of support? Hahaha)

So this is more a ramble on several fronts. Some of it is TV, some of it film. All of it archival. You may note similar actors shared between them. That is not accidental. There is so much OLD TV/film out there, that it is often hard to know where to start. So if I enjoy something, I latch onto the actors I loved in it, travel to the ol' imdb and try to track down other stuff they were in. And the strands move on forever outwards!

So we'll start with the last film I saw, which, as memory would have it, might not be the one I remember best.

Grumpy Old Men (1993)
d Donald Petrie (b. 1954)
w/ Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Burgess Meredith.

It is a bit strange to think I'd never seen this film before. I remember the trailers on TV, and it's justly well regarded. Mandy went to see it in the cinema. It has The Penguin in it too, and yet I'd not seen it till two nights ago.

The story is a simple one. Two aging neighbours share a decades old grudge, and a new, younger, female neighbour is the object of both of their affections. Our main character has a living but ancient father fed up with the antics. It writes itself as a standard plot.

Then you add actors. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were lifelong friends, and appeared in eleven films together. You can tell that just by looking, their sense of timing for knowing exactly when to respond to the others lines is brilliant. You can't teach immaculate timing (as Paul Eddington might have said if everyone remembers a one off joke in A Bit of Fry and Laurie). The two aging neighbours genuinely come across as old pals with a curmudgeonly edge, as real life creeps into the performances. Certainly, it seemed little acting was needed for scenes when the repentant Matthau was concerned over the health of the seemingly dying Lemmon. Both actors coming from comedy too, when the jokes are there, they nail them.

Take this bit near the start for example:

Max Goldman: You know what Jacob said? Jacob said old Billy Hensel was killed in a car crash. Cleared his car straight off the bridge into the Mississippi. 
John Gustafson: Lucky bastard. 
Max Goldman: You bet. 
John Gustafson: Hey, how is he, anyway? 
Max Goldman: Dead! Died on impact! 
John Gustafson: Jacob, moron, Jacob! 

The last three lines aren't funny in the hands of less capable actors. Indeed, blankly that looks quite tragic. Old pal dead. This is a comedy though. Instead we have Jack Lemmon effortlessly dragging all the humour you can out of someone who might not be listening to the conversation, but quickly finds a retort. Alternatively, Matthau is swift to dive on the "Aha!", but the deadpan delivery of the line made me laugh a lot.

It wasn't till recently that I learned that the character of down-on-his-luck Gil the Salesman from the Simpsons was lifted almost entirely from Jack Lemmon's character in Glengarry Glen Ross. Then I saw the film. He's one of the few things I actually liked in it. I know him well from Some Like It Hot, one of the finest  comedies of the 20th Century. A deserved Oscar winner, he had legendary partnerships not just with Walter Matthau but Billy Wilder and Blake Edwards. He helped produce Cool Hand Luke! You can see films like this one, or GGR and find an actor, even in the twilight of his career and life, finding new aspects and elements to add to his performance. His relationships here with his friend/nemesis, dad and neighbour/lover are all unique, yet all intrinsically the same guy.

Don't let that overshadow Walter Matthau though, or my childhood confusing of him with Martin Landau. Matthau is also an Oscar winner, and alongside having one of the most recognisable faces in Hollywood history, had the rugged acting greatness to join it in creating an outstanding career. The title of the film says Grumpy. Matthau excels at the grumpy part. Every second in the earlier half, even in simple lines like "Oh shut up" he drags every ounce of disdain at the world out of it. You are left with no doubt whatsoever that Max Goldman is an old man raging at life for the perceived slight he suffered many years ago.

The two have such a Tom and Jerry relationship though, and that adds to the brilliance. For all the bickering, Matthau, beneath the scorn, is genuinely saddened at how everything has gone between the old friends, and wants to make amends. He is just cut up in his own stubbornness to see things in front of him. His absolute anguish at his old pals heart attack is heartbreaking, and the film threatens to dive headfirst into pathos, especially the moment when the nurse asks if Goldman is friend or family, and he hesitates dreadfully over saying "Friend" for he has not being acting like one.

But then, it doesn't matter what happens in the previous fifty years. True friends always make up in the end.

Ann-Margret adds suitable charm to her role as love interest, though had Ariel shown an interest in me, I think I'd have skipped the country. Scary assertive women! (Rocks back and forth while wife laughs evilly) Ossie Davies is wonderful in a few short scenes, Buck Synder is a loathsome antagonist few will moan the cinematic downfall of.

And then in comes Jack Lemmons dad, Grandpa.

And it's only bloody Burgess Meredith.

You may know him as the definitive Penguin in the Adam West Batman series. You may know him as Rocky's trainer. You may know him as Grandpa, the man in various Twilight Zone episodes, or the guy from MacKennas Gold.

But lets know him as he is. As a bloody amazing actor.

Burgess Meredith just adds class to anything he showed up in. With the words of Rod Serling in The Obsolete Man, he gave one of the finest examples of civil disobedience against totalitarianism depicted on screen.

Wordsworth: I am a librarian, sir. That is my occupation. That is my profession. If you people choose to call that obsolete...
Chancellor: A librarian. Having to do with books?
Wordsworth: Yes sir, books.
Chancellor: And since there are no more books, there are no more libraries. Therefore,it follows there would be little use for the services of a librarian. Case in point,a minister would say his profession is preaching the word of God. And,of course, since the state has proven that there is no God, that would make the function of a minister somewhat academic as well.
Wordsworth: There is a God!
Chancellor: You are in error, Mr. Wordsworth. There is no God. The state has proven that there is no God.
Wordsworth: You cannot erase God with an edict!
Chancellor: You are obsolete, Mr. Wordsworth.
Wordsworth: A lie. No man is obsolete
Chancellor: You have no function, Mr. Wordsworth. You're an anachronism. Like a ghost from another time.
Wordsworth: I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages.
Chancellor: You're a bug, Mr. Wordsworth. A crawling insect. An ugly misformed little creature who has no purpose here, no meaning.
Wordsworth: I am a human being!
(The Obsolete Man, Rod Serling)

If you haven't seen it already, watch it! It's on youtube, there's no excuse. It has at the heart a blistering performance of rage, desire and righteousness which explodes off the page. Never mind Twilight Zone, it's one of the greatest performances in ACTING ever filmed. And it opened my eyes to Meredith. Before I knew him as The Penguin. Now I realised how great he was. It's a blistering performance which has grounds in reality too: Burgess Meredith was a complete unabashed Liberal, and an opponent of McCarthyism. (He'd later call winning an Emmy for playing Joseph Welch his revenge on McCarthy!)

As he would later say: "All my life, to this day, the memory of my childhood remains grim and incoherent. If I close my eyes and think back, I see little except violence and fear...In those early years I somehow came to understand I would have to draw from within myself whatever emotional resources I needed to go wherever I was headed. As a result, for years I became a boy who lived almost totally within himself."

In Grumpy Old Men, he steals every scene he's in. He swills back a bottle, then calls it breakfast. He breaks up a fight between the sexagenarian Lemmon and the septuagenarian Matthau, the octogenarian Meredith moans about "Bloody kids!" The line, read like The Penguin on a particularly bad day fighting Batman, "kids! can't live with them! can't shoot them!" is genuinely laugh out loud.

You can tell he's having a brilliant time too, the actor, which is lovely, as it's one of the last things he filmed. He died in 1997 after a long illness. Far too soon. Ok, he had Alzheimers and was ninety. So what? Isn't there a law that says brilliant outstanding and spellbindingly amazing people should live forever, so they can continue to amaze with their spellblindingly outstandingess? There should be!

Matthau, Lemmon and Davies are also now sadly now longer with us. The loss of these four fine actors might make one think the film has a sombre tone to it in hindsight. Not at all. All four are here doing the thing they loved, and the outtakes suggest, having a right ball of a time doing it. They'll live forever here, because they're too good not to.

"I think doing comedy is more difficult ... than doing noncomedic or tragic or whatever you want to call it. "Because it's difficult to make all kinds of different audiences understand what you're doing, and moving you to laughter."
Walter Matthau

"It's hard enough to write a good drama, it's much harder to write a good comedy, and it's hardest of all to write a drama with comedy. Which is what life is."
Jack Lemmon

"Walter is a helluva actor. The best I've ever worked with."
Lemmon, on Matthau

"I am Hepburn and Lemmon is Tracy. Although when I asked Jack he told me he always thought I was Tracy and he was Hepburn. Oddly enough, I'm told that Tracy had the same problem."
Matthau, on Lemmon

"Like the seasons of the year, life changes frequently and drastically. You enjoy it or endure it as it comes and goes, as it ebbs and flows.I'll just take amusement at being a paradox."
Burgess Meredith

"Burgess was not only a marvelous actor, he was one of the dearest human beings I ever knew."
~ Jack Lemmon

Well, there's a test run. Peter Cook, Peter Capaldi, Dinsdale Landen, Robert Hardy and Eli Wallach will follow over the course of the week.