- Movie Rating -

California Suite (1978)

| December 22, 1978

I have a tendency to step into Neil Simon’s work with my hackles up because I generally know what I am going to get: good actors working through deep drama or high comedy using dialogue that sounds like they’re reading it from cue cards.  Simon’s words can be fun, but most of the time I hear the words being written.  They never sound the way people talk.

In large part, California Suite is guilt of this.  This is, for the most part, an aggravating film about four couples who check into the same Los Angeles hotel armed with physical and emotional baggage.  Alan Alda and Jane Fonda are a married couple from New York who are fighting over custody of their daughter.  Walter Matthau is visiting from Philly and receives a hooker (Denise Galick) from his brother as a birthday present that he has to hide her from his wife (Elaine May).  And, in stiflingly unfunny bit, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor are Chicago doctors whose vacation in a series of slapstick involving a broken-down rental car and a flooded bathroom.

Mericfully, there is a saving grace in the couple from London, played by Michael Caine and Maggie Smith.  She is celebrated actress Diane Barrie who is in a marriage of convenience to Sydney, a closeted antique dealer whose sexual orientation is starting to make itself a little more public.  They’re in town for the Academy Award presentation because she has been nominated for Best Actress for a light comedy that she didn’t even like.

Smith won the film’s only Oscar, and thus became the only Oscar winner to play an Oscar nominee.  She is the film’s only fully-developed character, an actress who fears that she is well past her prime, and finds herself in need of some affection from Sydney despite his attraction to the same sex.  They bicker like they’ve been married for years, but like most married couples they know how to prop each other up.  They have a beautifully tender moment when she asks him to see her as herself, not simply as a matter of convenience.  It’s quite touching.

Smith allows herself small moments in the corners whether unconsciously ordering a second gin and tonic at the Polo Lounge or voraciously eating snacks after her defeat at the Academy Awards, there’s always something going on with Diane.  She’s not just words on a page, she’s a person with a heartbeat, and certainly a heartbreak.  For Neil Simon, this is the best kind of collaboration between the words and the performer because it’s not just jokes, it’s a person.

[reviewed February 9, 2021]

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1978) View IMDB Filed in: Comedy, Drama