Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
If you’re unfamiliar with the name Neil Simon, it seems clear you’ve regularly attended neither theater nor film, have an aversion to natural human comedy, or are very young. The author has written over 30 plays, almost an equal number of screenplays, and a handful of librettos. Simon received more combined Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer. His melding of comedy with compassionate drama and situation with characters we feel we know – often heroes in their own small worlds – allows us to laugh even when highly affected.
This is a big book. It combines Simon’s 1996 Rewrites and his 1999 The Play Goes On with an introduction by Nathan Lane and an afterward by wife, Elaine Joyce. Don’t let the bulk throw you. It’s easy, enjoyable reading. For those of us long aware of the artist, references to most work embroiders memories and illuminates well known collaborators. The volume is not a resume. Simon is candid about fallibility and fear, personal life inspiring his oeuvre and vice versa. That he states he kept neither journals nor diaries makes detail impressive.
“If character is fate, as the Greeks tell us, then it was my fate to become a playwright. Destiny seems preordained by the gods. Fate comes to those who continue on the path they started on when all other possible roads were closed to them.”
Marvin Neil Simon (1927-) grew up during the Great Depression regularly abandoned by his father, raised by an overwrought mother who inadvertently taught him to refuse assistance, advice, and comforting. “I have driven myself to the hospital rather than put someone out…” He admits this cut him off from many organic feelings. I would amend the statement by suggesting the difficulty may have applied to his private life, not the author’s prose.
Directly after High School and The Army Air Force Reserve, Simon and his older brother Danny got jobs writing comedy for radio and television. (See: Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound, and later, Lost in Yonkers for which he won The Pulitzer Prize.) The two eventually joined a brilliant staff concocting Sid Caesar’s iconic Your Show of Shows. Carl Reiner, Howie Morris and Woody Allen, who stated that Danny Simon taught him everything he knows about comedy, were peers. (See Laughter on the 23rd Floor)
Simon’s first plays were Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park – the last directed by Mike Nichols about whom he writes with keen-eyed ardor, and the Tony Award-winning The Odd Couple which turned out to be an annuity encompassing film and television. The studio wanted Bing Crosby and Bob Hope to play his characters on film. Instead, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau inhabited the roles. The memoirist writes about both actors with wit and esteem. We hear about producers, directors, actors, agents… There’s neither difficulty nor dirt here. Curiously Simon elaborates on trials in personal rather than professional relationships, the opposite of most autobiographies.
Plays and screenplays (including some adaptations) flowed out of him. The author often juggled two or three projects simultaneously. “Neil the writer had time for only one thing: he wrote…more and more he would take over Neil the person’s time…” Despite incredible success and remarkable early facility “I could almost always tell what wouldn’t work in front of an audience. This is not to say I could tell what would work…,” he remained insecure and strangely guilty. Guilt, a state that contributed to breakdowns and drove him to intermittent analysis, comes up again and again.
Does self reproach stem from a childhood about which he was impotent? Did Simon feel ideas came too easily; that he was unworthy of accolades? Were serial consequences of not paying attention to personal relationships the root of his remorse? Armchair conjecturing.
Neil Simon was married five times. Joan Baim created a stable home life for which he was grateful and about which he was surprised, bore two daughters, and tragically died of cancer. Actress Marsha Mason brought light back into his life, understood and participated in common craft, and is deemed incredibly patient. (See: Chapter II.) Actress Diane Lander, whom he wed twice, eventually adopting her daughter, was fired from a Neiman Marcus job for talking to him. “I have to make it up to you,” Simon entreated. “Dinner isn’t enough. I have to buy you a small restaurant…” (There are endless wonderful quips.) Simon is descriptive, yet discreet. He takes the blame for every nuptial failure.
Falling in love with and wedding actress Elaine Joyce, after both felt finished with marriage, offers a happy ending. “For me, I hope there will be additional satisfactions besides my work…I feel now that while I have fewer years to live, I have more time in which to live them.”
BTW, according to Neil Simon, it was his brother Danny who nicknamed him “Doc” during playtime with a doctor’s kit. Neil was three years-old.
“I had a gift, albeit a simple one-but then fortunately I was not the one who God chose to lead His people out of Egypt.”
As we enter the final days of a presidential campaign that has been both historic and unusually ahem interesting we are more aware than ever of the vital need to engage in politics, (however distasteful it can sometimes be.) Here are some movies dedicated to examining how the sausage making of electing political leaders actually occurs.
The Best Man(1964) Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, Patton) and written by Gore Vidal was based on his own play of the same title. Starring Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Edie Adams, Margaret Leighton and Lee Tracy this drama details the sordid maneuverings behind the nomination of a presidential candidate. Tracy was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in what was to be his final film.
The Candidate (1972) This satirical comedy drama was directed by Michael Ritchie (The Bad News Bears, Fletch) and written by former Eugene McCarthy speechwriter Jeremy Larner. Political specialist Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) needs a Democratic candidate to oppose a popular Republican incumbent (Don Porter). Since no serious candidate will enter such an unwinnable race Lucas seeks out Bob McKay (Robert Redford) the son of a former Democratic governor who wants to use the campaign solely as bully pulpit to spread his idealistic platform. Things don’t go as planned. It was widely acclaimed for Redford’s performance and Larner’s script, and the latter won an Oscar.
Bob Roberts (1992) This satirical mockumentary was written and directed by Tim Robbins who also starred in the title role as a conservative Republican folk singer who becomes the challenger against a Democratic incumbent for one of Pennsylvania’s Senate seats. Shot through the perspective of Terry Manchester (stage star Brian Murray) who’s doing a documentary on Roberts’ campaign while a young reporter Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito) attempts to expose Roberts as a fraud. It currently has a 100% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Wag the Dog(1997) This hysterical black comedy produced and directed by Barry Levinson kicks off with allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of the President and an adorable firefly girl…less than two weeks before the election. Trouble shooter Conrad Bean (Robert DeNiro) is brought in to save the situation and he concocts an elaborate scheme to distract the public by creating a fake war with Albania. To that end he recruits legendary Hollywood producer Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman) and then things get very, VERY complicated. Besides Hoffman and DeNino we also get Anne Heche, William H. Macy, Denis Leary, and Woody Harrelson all at the top of their game as well. Small wonder it has an 85% rating at Rotten Tomatoes as well as Oscar nominations for Dustin Hoffman for Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Primary Colors (1998) Based on the novel of the same name, directed by Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Silkwood) and starring John Travolta as a charismatic Southern governor trying to win the Democratic Party nomination for President. (Three guesses who this is based on.) Besides Travolta we also get winning turns by Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, and Adrian Lester. Bates was nominated by the Academy for Best Supporting Actress and screenwriter Elaine May (Ishtar, The Birdcage) also received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
It’s often forgotten in the whirlwind of grilled hot dogs and sparklers but Labor Day was originally meant to celebrate well…labor and the hard working folks who perform it. So this year along with the mandatory barbecue and fireworks show, consider brushing up on the history of the workers movement with one of the following films. (And remember to tip your server!)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Directed by John Ford and based on John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath recounts the story of the Joad family. After losing their farm in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, the Joads make an arduous journey across the west to California where they become migrant workers-and find their troubles have just begun. Starring Henry Fonda and John Carradine, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two including Best Supporting Actress for Jane Darwell as Ma Joad and Best Director for Ford. It’s also widely considered one of the best movies ever made.
How Green Was My Valley (1941) Based on the Richard Llewellyn novel of the same name, this is the epic chronicle of the Morgan family. The Morgans are a hard scrabble close knit clan living in South Wales where the family members work in the coalfields. Over time disputes between the mine’s owners and workers as well as environmental despoliation from the coalfields tear apart the family and destroy the once idyllic village in which they’ve lived. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor.
Norma Rae (1979) Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, Norma Rae tells how its title character (played by the indomitable Sally Field) becomes a union organizer at the local textiles firm after her health and that of her co-workers is compromised. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two including Best Original Song and Best Actress; prompting Field’s immortal “You like me! You really like me!” acceptance speech for her second Oscar win for Places in the Heart. That quote was, in fact, a reference to dialogue in Norma Rae.
Silkwood (1983) Written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, directed by Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Graduate) and starring Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell, inspired by the life of Karen Silkwood. Silkwood was a nuclear whistleblower and union activist who died under extremely suspicious circumstances at the same time she was investigating alleged criminal behavior the plutonium plant where she worked. Silkwood was nominated for five Academy awards including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay
Made in Dagenham (2010) Directed by Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls, Saving Grace) Made in Dagenham tells the true story of the Ford Sewing Machinists strike in 1968. The strike was prompted by sexual discrimination against its female employees who demanded equal pay. Starring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, and Rosamund Pike it was nominated for four BAFTA awards including best supporting actress for Richardson and Outstanding British Film.