Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Reacting is acting, too

Sometimes, the purpose of a role in a movie is to serve as a bouncing-off point for the actions of the main character. I've mentioned the movie The Bellboy before, in which Bob Clayton's function as Jerry Lewis' boss is pretty much just an impetus for Lewis to perform each of his funny sketches. A different type of impetus comes in the comedy The Sunshine Boys, which TCM is showing overnight tonight at 12:15 AM ET.

Walter Matthau stars as aging actor and former vaudevillian Willy Clark, who was part of the famous comedy team Lewis and Clark back in the day, but is now struggling to find work even though he doesn't want to retire. Fortune smiles upon him though (or at least, seems to) when a TV producer wants to do a special on the history of American comedy, and bring back Lewis and Clark for one performance as part of that special.

The only problem is, Lewis and Clark haven't seen each other in a decade, and the duo broke up in part because of the death of Lewis' wife, and in part because they ended up at each other's throats. Lewis (played by George Burns) is retired now, and it takes quite some convincing for Clark's agent (also his nephew, played by Richard Benjamin) to convince Lewis to come out of retirement. We can see why when the two old comics first meet again. They quickly return to their old bickering ways, threatening the whole production.

It's here that George Burns really shines. In real life, he had played the straight man to his wife, Gracie Allen, and his role here is in many ways a straight man role, with a bit of a twist. That twist is that Lewis' deadpan, straight-guy delivery seems habitually to do nothing more than wind up the manic and almost scheming Clark (Matthau played variations on that theme many times). And boy does it get Clark wound up. Matthau is supposed to be the star here, and he's quite funny, doing an excellent job. But in many ways, it's Burns' understated delivery that really makes the movie work; indeed, while Matthau was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar (losing to Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Burns walked away with the Supporting Actor statuette. The Sunshine Boys is a movie that's warm at heart, although as a movie from after the studio era, it does contain some bad language.

That having been said, if you're a fan of classic entertainment, I think you'll love The Sunshine Boys. One benefit in addition to the story is that the opening features some footage from The Hollywood Revue. The movie has also been released to DVD.

No comments: