The world has lost one of its greatest writers and storytellers with the passing of Neil Simon, the creator of scores of plays, movies and TV shows, many of which are rightly considered classics of their respective mediums.
To mark the exit of one of the greatest, most prolific writers of the 20th century, let’s look at the trailers for six movies, mixing those widely held up as exemplary of his genius along with a few that have long been personal favorites of mine.
Barefoot in the Park (1967)
Simon’s second screenplay gave him access to two up-and-coming stars for which this would act as their breakout role. Robert Redford and Jane Fonda star as newlyweds who are having some issues navigating marital bliss. He’s a buttoned-down lawyer and she’s a free-spirited romantic, meaning that once their leave the honeymoon suite they don’t always see eye to eye on things like the livability of their apartment, the neighbors in that building and more.
Given that Redford and Fonda were not big stars in 1967 – he was transitioning from TV to film and she was growing from being a supporting player – it’s not surprising the trailer does more to focus on the story, as well as Simon’s involvement, than trading on their names. Still, it shows how well the two play off each other, acting as the jumping off point for three more collaborations, most recently last year’s Netflix-original Our Souls At Night.
The Odd Couple (1968)
The gold standard, Simon’s second screenplay benefitted from perhaps the most perfect casting decisions in all of film. Putting Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathau together, the former as a hypochondriac neat freak and the latter as a slovenly cigar smoker, is so ideal it seems inevitable and the two play off each other so well their partnership would become the gold standard on film.
The trailer hits many of the movie’s highpoints, including the “…now it’s garbage” scene and others, showing the dynamic between Felix (Mathau) and Oscar (Lemmon) as one of oil and water. Narration provides most of the backstory so the footage is free to just show how wonderful the two actors are in their roles. That’s a testament to how big the two were at the time and the interplay, which seems so natural, speaks to how comfortable Mathau felt reprising the role he’d played on Broadway and how gifted a comedic (and dramatic) talent Lemmon was.
The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
Yes, there’s a newer version starring Ben Stiller, but the original with Charles Grodin in the lead as man who falls in love with another woman while on his honeymoon is [chef’s kiss]. That’s for a number of reasons. First, Grodin’s incredible delivery is a wonder to behold and we don’t appreciate him enough. Second, Simon’s script in the hands of the incredible Elaine May is a pairing that one for the ages. Third, Cybil Shepherd as the young woman who turns his eye shows just how good she’s always been.
The trailer shows all that, including how the romantic complications are only going to get more complicated. Plus, Eddie Albert.
Murder By Death (1976)
You get a good sense of exactly what the movie will have to offer in the trailer, which explains that a group of the world’s greatest detectives have been brought together to solve a murder that hasn’t yet taken place. Those detectives are all analogs for some of literature’s most famous sleuths, with stand-ins for Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, Charlie Chan and others. Playing those detectives is a cast that’s so good it’s silly, including Peter Sellers, Charles Niven, Maggie Smith, Estelle Winwood, Peter Falk and others.
The meta nature of the story is well ahead of its time. In modern parlance, the movie deconstructs the detective genre by showing how all these characters rely on chance, often get things completely wrong until the moment after the bad guy screws up and more. Also, it establishes that all these characters – or at least their dollar store stand-ins – exist in the same “cinematic universe,” which is really something. It’s hilarious and a must-watch.
Seems Like Old Times (1980)
You can take issues with some of the ways the movie is presented in the trailer (and I can), but it’s hard to argue with the movie itself. Chevy Chase plays Nick, a writer who gets mixed up with a couple bank robbers, causing complications for his ex-wife Glenda (Goldie Hawn, at her most charming) and her new husband Ira (Charles Grodin, at his most dryly comedic), who’s about to be named District Attorney.
Because the trailer takes some things out of order and doesn’t allow certain scenes to play out in full it’s hard to get a sense for just how snappy the dialogue is, especially in the hands of the those mentioned above as well as the incredible Robert Guillaume. It’s a throwback of sorts to the kind of Howard Hawks screwball comedies with their farcical situations and fast-paced dialogue.
Max Dugan Returns (1983)
Jason Robards stars as the title character in what *isn’t* a sequel, despite the “Returns” in the title. Max is kind of a shady character who’s long been put aside by his daughter Nora (Marsha Mason) and unknown to her son (Matthew Broderick). When he comes back he brings with him hundreds of thousands of dollars, which she can certainly use given her status as a struggling single mom, but also with all the issues she’s had with him. Oh, and the money was embezzled from Las Vegas gangsters.
Robards doesn’t appear much in the trailer but his shadow looms over everything, influencing everyone’s actions and shading all the relationships between the other characters. It’s a wonderful look at a movie that’s actually a very sweet look at how parent/child dynamics are complicated at every age but that it’s never too late to try and make amends.