A grown-up romantic story that blends elements of comedy and drama with considerable artistry, Pete ’n’ Tillie pairs two actors who are equally adept at generating humor and pathos, Carol Burnett and Walter Matthau. Guided by Julius Epstein’s deservedly Oscar-nominated script and working under the sure hand of director Martin Ritt, one of the screen’s most consistent humanists, the leading actors and several fine supporting players deliver a surprising story about compromise, depression, loss, love, and redemption. Some of the plot points are more contrived than others, and the he-man attitude of Matthau’s character can be grotesque at times, but the sum effect is quite satisfying. At its best, the movie crackles with wit as Burnett’s character, who lacks self-confidence, manages her relationship with Matthau’s character, who has more confidence than he probably should. Watching gifted actors and filmmakers concentrate their energies on dramatizing the romantic woes of credible and unique middle-aged characters is a rare treat.
The story begins at a party, where sophisticated housewife Gertrude (Geraldine Page) introduces her friends Pete (Matthau) and Tillie (Burnett) to each other. Even though Pete is brash and sarcastic while Tillie is courteous and inhibited, they make a connection. After some on-again/off-again dating, the couple marries and has a child, but a rot sets into their union once Tillie realizes that Pete regularly has flings with young women who work at his office. An even darker complication arrives later, though that twist is best discovered while watching the film. Suffice to say that Pete and Tillie’s relationship suffers injury after injury, with the years-long ordeal eventually taking a heavy toll on Tillie’s psyche.
Since Matthau’s charming-rascal routine was familiar to audiences by the time Pete ’n’ Tillie was released, the revelation of the picture is Burnett’s performance. Predictably, she nails the reaction shots and verbal zingers in banter scenes—while still operating within the buttoned-down parameters of her character—but less predictably, she’s quite affecting in the film’s heavily emotional scenes. Watching her wail vitriol toward the heavens after a particularly cruel turn of events is especially wrenching, and the strong association one makes between Burnett and broad comedy never once detracts from the dramatic aspects of her work here. Given the strong leading turns, the film’s excellent supporting performances—by Page and by Rene Auberjoinois, who plays Tillie’s pragmatic gay friend—elevate the picture further, thereby making it even easier to overlook instances of clumsily schematic plotting.
Pete ’n’ Tillie: GROOVY