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The Neil Simon Blogathon: California Suite (1978)

neilsimonblogathon

Paddy over at Caftan Woman, and Rich over at Wide Screen World, have teamed up to co-host this blogathon celebrating Neil Simon. Be sure to visit their sites to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself. 

Neil Simon was a master of comic dialogue. He was also involved with so many great films over the years, that it took me a while to decide which film to cover for this blogathon. After giving it much thought, I’ve decided to write about California Suite.

The film is directed by Herbert Ross. The film is based upon Neil Simon’s 1976 stage play of the same name. The film has four separate storylines. Each story focuses on different characters who are all staying at the same luxury hotel in Beverly Hills. Some of Neil’s funniest and sharpest dialogue can be found in this film.

The first story focuses on two couples from Chicago. The four are all close friends and they are on a long planned holiday to Los Angeles, where they are booked in to stay at the luxury hotel which is featured in all four stories.

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The four friends arrive at the hotel. Screenshot by me.

The group consists of Dr. Chauncey Gump(Richard Pryor) and his wife, Lola (Gloria Gifford), Dr. Willis Panama(Bill Cosby) and his wife, Bettina(Sheila Frazier). 

This story is very funny because everything that could possibly go wrong on a holiday does so for this group. On their special trip the friends end up enduring car trouble, major arguments over silly things, food poisoning, bad room locations and much more. 

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Richard Pryor as Chauncey. Screenshot by me.

Cosby, Gifford and Frazier are good enough, but I don’t think that there is anything they do that makes their performances particularly memorable.

It is Richard Pryor’s dead pan delivery and reactions to the various things his character endures which really make this story work as well as it does in my opinion.

I really don’t think that this story would work as well as it does if another actor had been cast in Richard’s role.

This story veers into slapstick comedy territory, and to me it often feels like I am watching scenes from a completely different film. This particular story seems to me to be quite similar to the film National Lampoon’s Vacation. 

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Diana and Sidney prepare for the Oscars. Screenshot by me.

The second story focuses on the famous British actress, Diana Barry(Maggie Smith)who is in Los Angeles to attend the Academy Awards. Diana is a first time nominee for the Best Actress Oscar.

Diana is joined by her loving husband, Sidney Cochrane(Michael Caine). Diana is highly anxious about the Academy Awards, and she is also very worried about her marriage.

While Diana and Sidney love each other very much, Sidney happens to be Bisexual. Although Diana accepts that fact about him, she can’t stand that he keeps having affairs instead of just being with her. Diana and Sidney must take a long hard look at their marriage and decide whether to stay together or not. 

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Sidney and Diana mid argument. Screenshot by me.

This is my personal favourite out of the four stories. Maggie and Michael work so well together and they get many of the funniest and best scenes and lines in the entire film. 

I love how they are warm and tender one minute, and then seriously bitchy with each other the next. Their bickering and arguments are hilarious.

I especially love the fight they have after returning to their hotel room after the Academy Awards.

This story also cracks me up because it highlights the hypocrisy of the awards where the nominees all get fawned over on the way in, but if they lose out, nobody wants to know them when they leave the awards ceremony. I love Sidney’s rant about how everyone else got their cars before Diana and Sidney got theirs at the end of awards ceremony.

I think that all four of the stories had the potential to be a feature length film in their own right, but in my opinion the story of Diana and Sidney could definitely have been made into a feature film. 

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Marvin tries to wake Bunny. Screenshot by me.

The third story focuses on middle-aged businessman, Marvin Michaels(Walter Matthau), who has to try and conceal a prostitute called Bunny (Denise Galick)who his brother(Herb Edelman)smuggled into his hotel suite as an early birthday present.

Things get complicated when Marvin’s wife, Millie(Elaine May)arrives at the hotel to join him when the prostitute is still in his room. 

While this does have some funny moments in it, I think this is the weakest of the four stories. None of the characters in this one come across as being remotely likable.

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Walter Matthau as Marvin. Screenshot by me.

I also don’t like how Marvin doesn’t seem the least bit concerned for the health of Bunny in the scene where she won’t wake up, he could have at least phoned down for some help. He is just concerned for himself if she is discovered in his room.

If he didn’t want anyone to know she had been his room, then surely he could have taken her out into the corridor, pretended that he found her out there and got some help?

The only positive thing in this segment is Walter Matthau, he was always a very good physical comic and he gets to really do his thing here. I always fast forward through scenes from this story when I watch the film. 

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Hannah and Bill have a talk at the beach. Screenshot by me.

The fourth story focuses on Hannah Warren(Jane Fonda) who is staying at the hotel for one day to meet with her ex husband, Bill(Alan Alda).

They are meeting to discuss which of them their teenage daughter, Jenny(played by the troubled child actress, Dana Plato) will stay with for the majority of the year.

As they discuss their daughter, the pair quickly fall back into their old arguments and sniping. I think that Jane Fonda delivers one of her best performances here, as the strong woman trying desperately hard to hide how scared and worried she really is.

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Jane Fonda as Hannah. Screenshot by me.

Watch her face during the arguments with Alan Alda, she says so much with her expressions alone and conveys to us how she can’t afford to let her tough mask slip for a second.

I think this story is the most poignant and relatable out of the four. I can imagine anyone who has been through a divorce where children have been involved will be able to relate to at least some moments in this one. 

The dialogue in this story is very funny and sharp. The trouble is though that much of the dialogue is the sort that you just never hear in real life. I think that the use of such dialogue ends up taking you out of the film, because it comes across as contrived, even if it is very funny and clever.

The good performances by Alan Alda and Jane Fonda keep me interested and invested in this story. There are also some beautiful locations featured in this story that I really enjoy looking at.  

While I do like the film quite a bit, I do think that it is one which is a bit hit and miss. Neil Simon’s dialogue is hilarious throughout, but some of the dialogue does come across as being very contrived. Most of the characters aren’t very well developed either, which means that we don’t really care about them that much. The performances in all of the four stories more than make up for these issues though.

A few fun facts about the film. 

  • Maggie Smith would ironically end up winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance here as an insecure actress. While I do like her performance here, it is far from one of her very best screen performances. Is her performance really Oscar worthy? It’s good, but I don’t think it was Oscar worthy at all.

 

  • Eagle eyed viewers will spot James Coburn. He is playing Diana’s co-star in the film she is up for an Oscar for. A clip featuring James and Maggie plays in the scene on the plane at the beginning of the film. 

 

  • The scene where Diana and Sidney arrive at the Oscars was actually filmed at the real 50th Oscars ceremony, which was held in April,1978. 

 

  • The hotel featured in the film is the Beverly Hills Hotel. Large numbers of celebrities have stayed at the hotel over the years. The actor Peter Finch suffered a fatal heart attack in the lobby of the hotel, in January, 1977.

 

What do you think of the film? Which of the stories is your favourite?

 

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