Sunshine Boys, The (1975)

MGM (Ray Stark Production)

The little appeal that “The Sunshine Boys,“ Herbert Ross’s screen version of Neil Simon’s successful Broadway play, possesses depends entirely on the performances of Walter Matthau and George Burns as two cranky vet comedians.
 
Inexplicably, the movie was nominated for the Screenplay (which is still a play) and Art direction Oscars, though most of the tale takes place within a shabby apartment, or a hospital room.
 
Simon’s comedy is inspired by the real-life story of Smith and Dale, vet vaudevillians who reteamed in late age to do their most popular sketch, “Dr. Kronkeit,” on the Ed Sullivan show.
 
George Burns won the Supporting Actor Oscar, at age 79, for playing Al Lewis, and Walter Matthau was nominated in the lead category for playing Willie Clark, or Uncle Willie as his nephew and agent (Richard Benjamin) calls him.
 
The film would have been a nice short, because all it has is a premise, but no solid plot or character development to support a feature-length comedy.
 
Al Lewis and Willie Clark, both in their 70s, have not performed or spoken to each other for over a decade, a result of an acrimonious breakup, based on endless bickering and finger-pointing and using.
 
It’s the nearly impossible task of Ben Clark (Richard Benjamin) to bring them together for one more show. The first reel is a two-character tale of Ben trying to persuade Willie to reunite with his nemesis. At this point, Willie is semi-retired, scarping to do minor commercials (a silly potato chip TV spot) that Benjamin can secure for him. After much pressure, he agrees—reluctantly and with some conditions.
 
The second reel depicts the duo’s predictably disastrous reunion, again marked by arguments of how to begin the sketch (“Ask me, ‘knock, knock, knock,” Willie says), finger pointing, and mutual accusations of senility and lack of professionalism.
 
The third and last is set in the hospital, where Willie is recovering from a heart attack, and again needing to be convinced that she should let Al visit him; Al has been sending a daily bouquet flowers without cards.
 
The was the first screen role in35 years for George Burns, who replaced Jack Benny, who was originally cast, after the latter’s death.   Matthau, who’s substantially younger than Burns, wears heavy make-up and does well the Jewish shtick of a crank. Richard Benjamin is stuck with the thankless role of the straight man, the kvetsch. 
 
Some of Simon’s one-liners are witty and funny, but the film goes on for 111 minutes and gets tiresome in its repetitions.
 
You can spot in a small role F. Murray Abraham, who would win the 1984 Best Actor Oscar for “Amadeus,” and Ron Rifkin, who plays the TV Floor Manager.
 
Oscar Nominations: 4
 
Screenplay (Adapted): Neil Simon
Actor: Walter Matthau
Supporting Actor: George Burns
Art Direction-Set Decoration: Albert Brenner; Marvin March
 
Oscar Awards: 1
 
Supporting Actor
 
Oscar Context:
 
In 1975, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the most nominated (9) film, swept most of the important awards, including Picture, Director for Milos Forman, Screenplay for Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman, Actor for Jack Nicholson and Actress for Louise Fletcher. It was the second film in the Academy's history, after Capra's comedy "It Happened One Night," in 1934, to achieve that.
 
The Art Direction Oscar went to Kubrick's visually brilliant literary adaptation, "Barry Lyndon."
 
Sidnely Lumet's excellent New York streets drama "Dog Day Afternoon;" Spielberg's first blockbuster that was also extremely well-acted "Jaws"; and Robert Altman's cynical epic Americana "Nashville," considered by many critics to be his best work, which won only one Oscar (for Best Song). The technical Oscars were split between "Barry Lyndon" and "Jaws."