In Memoriam: Neil Simon, King of Broadway- and Hollywood

by Yoram Kahana September 6, 2018
Writer Neil Simon, Golden Globe winner

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Neil Simon, who passed away at 91, was a giant among Broadway playwrights. The Los Angeles Times headlined the obituary "Curtain Falls for a Broadway King". Indeed, he ruled the American theater scene with an unparalleled run of 30 plays and musicals opening on Broadway, and his passing was noted by all media, with similar emphasis on his theater legacy.

The HFPA celebrates another facet of Simon's rich career, one that lies hidden in plain sight: Simon has also adapted 18 of his plays to film or television (and also wrote 11 screenplays not based on his own plays). For about a decade Simon was an annual presence at the Golden Globes with his Hollywood work. Between 1968 and 1980 some dozen movies were released with screenplays that Simon wrote or adapted from his own Broadway hits.

In that decade-long run, his movies earned a total of 25 Golden Globe nominations and won nine times. As a screenwriter, Simon was nominated three times for a Best Movie Screenplay Golden Globe but only won the last one, for The Goodbye Girl (1977) which was an original screenplay, not an adaptation. (He was also nominated by the Academy four times for  screenwriting, but never won an Oscar.)

Simon's first stage-to-screen transfer, Barefoot in the Park (1967), was based - like many other Simon plays- on a time in his own life: moving with his new, first wife into a small Greenwich Village apartment. While a huge success on Broadway (it was also Simon's longest running play, with 1,530 performances in four years) it did not fare well on the West Coast: the Academy gave it one minor nomination, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association voters ignored it. But the two leads, Robert Redford (reprising his Broadway role) and Jane Fonda (replacing Elizabeth Ashley]  soon became HFPA frequent visitors and honorees: Redford amassed nine nominations and five wins, as well as the Cecil B deMille award, and Fonda was nominated 15 times and has seven Golden statuettes on her shelf.

Simon's next stage-to-screen venture, The Odd Couple, (1969) fared much better. The HFPA nominated it for Best Motion Picture-Comedy or Musical, as were the odd couple themselves: Walter Matthau, reprising his Broadway role as the slovenly Oscar Madison, who would go on to collect eight Globes nominations and win once, and Jack Lemmon, replacing Art Carney as the neurotic and fastidious Felix Ungar. Lemmon became Simon's frequent actor and a Golden Globe regular, with a lifetime 29 nominations, five wins, and a Cecil B. deMille award.

Simon followed with The Out-of-Towners (1971) with Best Actress (Sandy Dennis) and Best Actor (Lemmon again ) nominations. Plaza Suite  (1972) was nominated for Best Motion Picture and Maureen Stapleton, reprising her Broadway success under the direction of Mike Nichols, received a Globe nomination (out of her career total of five ).

Golden Globe winners with Neil Simon films

Neil took them to the Globes: (clockwise from top left) Neil Simon and director Herbert Ross, with presenter Michael Douglas and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture-Comedy or Musical, 1978; Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss, Best Motion Picture-Comedy or Musical, The Goodbye Girl, 1978; Walter Matthau and George Burns, Best Actors-Comedy or Musical for The Sunshine Boys, 1976, with presenter Debbie Reynolds.

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Simon received his first of three screenplay nominations for The Heartbreak Kid (1973), along with actors Charles Grodin and Jeannie Berlin whose mother, Elaine May, directed. Roger Ebert wrote that "the movie is about how we do violence to each other with our egos( ... )(It) has a way of making us laugh while it hurts".

Simon hit his stride with the screen adaptation of The Sunshine Boys (1976), getting five Globe nominations. Ironically, while the movie and actors George Burns, Walter Matthau and Richard Benjamin won in their categories, only Simon's screenplay did not get a golden statuette.  Variety called it "an extremely sensitive and lovable film version of the play," about a pair of vaudeville artists who love but cannot stand each other.

The stunt casting of Truman Capote in a supporting acting role in Murder by Death (1977) brought the In Cold Blood author a Globe nomination in a later discontinued category - New Star of the Year- his only acting recognition. The New York Times wrote: "Mr. Capote possibly is acting, but it looks more as if he's giving us an over-rehearsed impersonation of himself as people see him on unrehearsed TV talk shows". It added that the movie, a parody of all detective and mystery films, is "as light and insubstantial as one could wish.".

Simon's best Golden Globe year was 1978. His original screenplay of The Goodbye Girl was competing head to head with Annie Hall, arguably one of the best films by that other king of New York comedy, Woody Allen.  While Allen dominated the Academy Awards, the HFPA gave it all to Simon: five nominations, and wins for Best Motion Picture-Comedy or Musical, screenplay (Simon's only Globe) and the acting leads, Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason, Simon's second wife, and muse. (She shared the Globes win with Annie Hall's Diane Keaton). The New York Times said that " it may be the perfect American comedy for an age in which opportunism is not only an acceptable way of getting ahead in the world but also a fashionable style of conversation" perfectly caught by Simon acid wit.

The following year came California Suite, with two nominations- Best Comedy, and Best Actress for Maggie Smith, who won. That was one of three wins and a dozen Globe nominations for the British actress, over her amazing 52 years association with the Globes: From Most Promising Newcomer (another discontinued category) in 1964 to Best Actress for The Lady in the Van, in 2016.

Neil Simons and Marsha Mason

Neil Simon and Marsha Mason arrive at the 37th Golden Globes, 1980.

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Fittingly, Simon's last appearance at the Globes was in 1980, with Chapter Two, with acting nominations for Valerie Harper and, again, for Marsha Mason, whose marriage to Simon (1973-1983) inspired the play. Six months after the death of his first wife, Simon fell in love at first sight with actress Mason, who auditioned for a role in one of his plays. They were married three weeks later. Simon transformed those events of 1973 into an autobiographical play that opened in 1977, and later into the film- with Mason playing a role based on herself.

A fitting close to the Simon-Globes association story.                                                                                                                    

The Los Angeles Times summed this phase in Simon's life: "Had Simon ended his theatrical career after the 1970s, he would have gone down as a Broadway legend whose audience-pleasing comedies captured the fading necktie- wearing zeitgeist as it was being rocked and rattled by the long-haired counterculture". 

After Chapter Two, Simon went on to the next phase of his long and illustrious career, writing screenplays for TV series and movies for television. Simon closed his career with writing for a remake of The Odd Couple as a series, 2015-2017, a year before passing away.

But that memorable decade of Simon scripted films will remain a part of the Golden Globes story.

Rest in peace, King of Broadway (and of Hollywood too).