Long before Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme court (by President Ronald Reagan in 1981), Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee gave us the play First Monday in October. The legendary writing team also penned Inherit the Wind, one of the most popular plays of the 20th Century.
My girlfriend Mary, now my wife, attended this new play with me when it opened in 1980 and it was a hot ticket. It starred legendary actor Henry Fonda (a longtime favorite of mine) and the popular, award winning actress Jane Alexander. Fonda was coming to the end of his career and rumors swirled that this may be his swan song, so Mary and I tried our darndest to get tickets. Thankfully, it wasn’t as expensive to go to the theatre in 1980, like it is today.
Onto the play. I thought that while both stars were engaging, to me, a play about the Supreme Court wasn’t my idea of grand entertainment. I was happy to see Fonda live and in action, but it did turn out to be his last play on Broadway, so it was bittersweet.
The public felt the same way I did about the play, apparently. Even though Ms. Alexander received a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play that year, the play itself lasted only 79 performances, disappeared, and was quickly forgotten.
Hollywood disagreed with me (as it often does) and decided to make a film version of the play, likely in the hopes of snagging Fonda for the film, in a reprise of his stage role. It was not to be, as Fonda’s health was in decline by the time the play closed, plus he was in production for what would be his final film, his Oscar-winning performance in the exceptional On Golden Pond.
The film version moved forward. Lawrence and Lee adapted their own play for the screen, handed it to director Ronald Neame and he handed it to the always lovable Walter Matthau, cast in the role earlier occupied by Fonda. Jane Alexander was either not available for the film or was not asked. Either way, the female lead in the film is occupied by the always-engaging Jill Clayburgh.
Here’s the skinny: Justice Dan Snow (Matthau) and Justice Ruth Hagadorn Loomis (Clayburgh) play off each other as they are politically polarized (not necessarily left vs. right) over several subjects while sitting on the highest court in the land. While bandying around they come to realize that they have more in common personally than they realize. The story shows how they learn from each other and cope with adversity. We have fun in the meantime watching the interaction.
The film version has its share of problems, mostly that it is nothing more than a filmed stage play with very little in the way of plot. Matthau and Clayburgh do have a palpable energy that is worth a look, certainly if you’re fans of their work.
Although his usual curmudgeonly self, Matthau comes off more likable in his performance as Justice Snow than Fonda, who I felt was too rigid and stern in is performance. Clayburgh does a nice job standing toe to toe with Matthau, no easy feat, but overall, I felt the film a bit of a drag.
The supporting cast, including Jan Sterling (as Matthau’s wife) and Barnard Hughes (as the Chief Justice) are given very little to do with their roles. A shame, as this film turned out to be Sterling’s last before her death.
The DVD, released by Paramount in 2004, has no extras.
Kudos to Matthau and Clayburgh for trying to breathe some life into the proceedings, but otherwise, First Monday In October struck me as a film that coasts on both stars’ likeability, but doesn’t rank very high in the careers of the stars or director Neame.