Thursday, January 21, 2010

Walter Matthau: Hollywood's Curmudgeon



"Why don't you kids go play on the freeway?"

- Walter Matthau as "Whiplash Willie" Gingrich, The Fortune Cookie, 1966

Hunched, taciturn, and perpetually unkempt, Walter Matthau was one of the most endearing American actors of the second half of the Twentieth Century. As New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow noted in his 2000 obituary: "...through a kind of reverse chic Mr. Matthau could make himself seem stylish. Without airs or affectations, he became a widely respected international star."

Perhaps best remembered for his many comedic pairings with life-long friend Jack Lemmon (notably The Odd Couple, The Fortune Cookie, and their later work as America's preeminent Grumpy Old Men), Matthau was a distinguished actor in his own right, utilizing his disheveled charm for comedic and dramatic roles.

Walter Matthau was born in 1920 in a tenement on New York's Lower East Side. His father left the family when the boy was three year's old. His mother worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop to provide for Walter and his brother. His earliest acting experiences were in the then-thriving Yiddish theater. Matthau was an Air Force radio-gunner during WWII, serving under Lt. James Stewart. (Yes, that James Stewart.) After the war, he attended the New School's Dramatic Workshop. Primarily a stage actor at this point in his career, he also took the occasional bit part in television. Matthau made his film debut in the little-seen 1955 backwoods adventure The Kentuckian - as a villain. He worked steadily in theater and film for over a decade, establishing a name for himself on the stage without making much of an impact in Hollywood.

The actor's breakout performance came in the 1966 Billy Wilder comedy The Fortune Cookie. This marked the first onscreen pairing of Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and audiences took notice. He played a morally - and financially - bankrupt personal injury attorney named "Whiplash Willie" Gingrich. The Academy awarded him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Lemmon and Matthau re-teamed in 1968 for the Neil Simon classic The Odd Couple; cementing their status as one of the great comedic duos. Matthau's almost uncanny gift for hilariously off-beat line-readings is on ample display in both these films.

Matthau's sole directorial effort was the 1960 melodrama Gangster Story, which would seem to indicate a personal interest in the crime genre. In 1973 he starred in two remarkable crime-centered pictures: Charley Varrick and The Laughing Policeman (based on the detective novel by Swedish writing duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö). The following year he appeared in the stellar heist film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

Matthau was twice nominated for the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar; Kotch (1971) and The Sunshine Boys (1975). But if there is one 1970s performance that best captured Walter Matthau's unlikely charm, that is undoubtedly The Bad News Bears. His portrayal of alcoholic pool-cleaner-turned-little-league-coach Morris Buttermaker is quite possibly the most enduring performance of his 5-decade career.

It's been argued - more or less fairly - that the quality of Walter Matthau's films had deteriorated by the 1990s. (The same has been said of Jack Lemmon's later work.) But it's worth noting that the actor himself is consistently engaged and entertaining throughout this late period, regardless of any script or directorial deficiencies. Matthau's performance in Grumpy Old Men (and its oft-maligned sequel) and the following year in I.Q. should be ample evidence that his unique talents were still intact. One of Matthau's final performances was in an aptation of Truman Capote's novel The Grass Harp (1996 ), directed by his son, Charlie Matthau.

Hanging Up (2000)
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Out to Sea (1997)
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I'm Not Rappaport (1996)
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The Grass Harp (1995)
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Incident in a Small Town (1994)
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I.Q. (1994)
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Grumpy Old Men (1993)
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Dennis the Menace (1993)
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Hopscotch (1980)
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House Calls (1978)
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Casey's Shadow (1978)
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California Suite (1978)
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The Bad News Bears (1976)
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The Sunshine Boys (1975)
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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
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The Front Page (1974)
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The Laughing Policeman (1973)
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Charley Varrick (1973)
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Awake and Sing! (1972)
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Kotch (1971)
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Hello, Dolly! (1969)
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The Odd Couple (1968)
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A Guide for the Married Man (1967)
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The Fortune Cookie (1966)
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Fail-Safe (1964)
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Charade (1963)
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Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
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Further reading:
Matthau: A Life by Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg
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4 comments:

  1. There's a four-fecta, but that's in Cuba, and it's a cigar :)

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  2. HA HA! Classic late-career Walter Matthau.

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  3. Big Matthau fan. enjoyed the blog. I have a few movies yet to see.

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  4. Always loved Walter Mathau. Good reason to watch some of the oldies again. Interesting reading about him.

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