During the ’70s, it seemed as if playwright/screenwriter Neil Simon was an industry rather an individual—every year except 1978, he unveiled a new play, and from 1970 to 1979 no fewer than 11 features were released with Simon credited as writer. When the man slept is a mystery. In fact, he even managed to crank out a quasi-sequel to one of his own hits. Plaza Suite premiered on Broadway in 1968 before hitting the big screen in 1971, and its follow-up, California Suite, debuted onstage in 1976 before becoming a movie in 1978. Neither project represents the apex of Simon’s artistry, but both are rewarding. The title of Plaza Suite is a pun, because the film comprises a “suite” of three mini-plays, each of which takes place within the same suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
In order of appearance, the vignettes concern a middle-aged couple breaking up when the husband’s infidelity is revealed; a tacky Hollywood producer inviting his childhood sweetheart, now married, to his room for a tryst; and another middle-aged couple going crazy when their adult daughter won’t leave the suite’s bathroom even though guests are waiting downstairs to watch her get married. The first sequence is a bittersweet dance, the second is bedroom farce with a touch of pathos, and the third is an explosion of silly slapstick. Plaza Suite grows more entertaining as it spirals toward its conclusion, finally achieving comedic liftoff during the third sequence, which is by far the most fully realized.
Walter Matthau somewhat improbably plays the lead roles in all three sequences, and he’s terrific—chilly as the adulterous husband, smarmy as the producer, enraged as the would-be father of the bride. His primary costars are a poignant Maureen Stapleton in the first sequence, a delicately funny Barbara Harris in the second, and an entertainingly frazzled Lee Grant in the third. Plaza Suite drags a bit, and it’s tough to get revved up for each new sequence, but the fun stuff outweighs everything else.
California Suite wisely takes a different approach—although the play of California Suite featured four separate stories, in the style of Plaza Suite, the film version cross-cuts to create momentum. And while Matthau is back (in a new role), California Suite benefits from a larger cast and more use of exterior locations. The film is primarily set in the Beverly Hills Hotel, but Simon (who wrote the screenplays for both adaptations) includes many places beyond the hotel. One thread of the story involves a New York career woman (Jane Fonda) bickering with her estranged screenwriter husband (Alan Alda) over custody of their daughter. Another thread concerns a British actress (Maggie Smith) in town for the Oscars, accompanied by her husband (Michael Caine), a gay man she wed in order to avoid gaining a reputation as a spinster. The silliest thread involves a Philadelphia businessman (Matthau) trying to keep his wife (Elaine May) from discovering the prostitute in their room. And the final thread depicts the deteriorating friendship between two Chicago doctors (Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor), who bicker their way through a catastrophe-filled vacation.
Smith won an Oscar for California Suite, and her storyline benefits from the way Caine and Smith expertly volley bitchy dialogue. The Alda/Fonda scenes are more pedestrian, and they’re also the most stage-bound pieces of the movie; still, both actors attack their roles with vigor. Matthau’s vignettes are quite funny, with lots of goofy business about trying to hide the hooker behind curtains, under beds, and so forth. Plus, as they did in A New Leaf (1971), May and Matthau form a smooth comedy duo. Only the Cosby/Pryor scenes really underwhelm, not by any fault of the actors but because both men have such distinctive standup personas that it seems limiting to confine them within the light-comedy parameters of Simon’s style. Unlike its predecessor, California Suite eventually sputters—the funniest scenes occur well before the end.
As a final note, it’s interesting to look at both pictures and see how two very different filmmakers approached the challenge of delivering Simon’s work to the screen. For Plaza Suite, Arthur Hiller simply added close-ups and camera movement to accentuate the rhythms of the stage production, and for California Suite, Herbert Ross took a more holistic path toward realizing the work as cinema. Yet in both cases, of course, Simon’s wordplay is king.
Plaza Suite: GROOVY
California Suite: GROOVY