No doubt about it, Oscar and Felix have become cultural icons. You’ll still see Neil Simon’s popular stage play The Odd Couple in theaters big and small all over the world. The movie was a smash success in 1968. The TV series reached into countless millions of homes. And there was a film sequel 30 years later. Of all these versions, however, it’s still the original movie that best captures the essence of the characters and story. It’s no wonder, then, that Paramount has finally given the film a proper DVD package, a two-disc Centennial Collection edition.
It’s interesting that when I first sat to write this review, I wondered if more readers would recognize the TV show than the film (it still airs on Nick at Nite). Today, both the movie and the TV series have probably either faded into memory for older folks or are totally unknown to younger people. Anyway, when the film opened, it became so famous that the public began talking about it as an accepted sociological pattern. Friends at the time referred to my then-roommate and me as an “odd couple” because I had a rather finicky attitude toward keeping the apartment clean, while he was more than a bit careless. The other night, my wife told me after we’d watched the DVD that I reminded her of Felix. I guess some things never change.
As the movie begins, Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon) is in despair because his wife of 12 years has left him. He’s ready to commit suicide, but when he tries to jump out of a ninth-floor hotel room he can’t get the window unstuck and throws his back out trying to open it. Felix’s best friend, Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau), comes to his rescue by suggesting he room with him for a while. Oscar has a big apartment, he tells him; and, besides, he figures if Felix cooks their dinners rather than his having to go out to eat every night, he can save enough money to pay his ex-wife the alimony and child support he owes her. The guys’ new relationship lasts about five minutes before Felix starts getting on Oscar’s nerves, Felix forever tidying up, cleaning, and fussing about. He even disinfects the playing cards when their friends come over for their weekly poker game. Likewise, Oscar starts getting on Felix’s nerves with his slovenly manner and general disregard for decorum. Felix is a persnickety hypochondriac, and Oscar is a dedicated slob. They are, indeed, an odd and very funny couple.
Matthau, with his perpetual hangdog look, would seem to have been born to the part of the high-paid sports writer who’s continually down on his luck. He marks his every utterance with a subtly droll resignation. What’s more, he gets the best lines. When he learns that Felix, in desperation, has downed a whole bottle of unidentified tablets, he discounts the possibility of overdose: “Well, maybe they were vitamin pills; he could be the healthiest one in the room!” Later, he can’t tell if Felix is choking or laughing: “You make the same sounds for pain and happiness.” Lemmon, on the other hand, plays Felix, the fastidious television news writer, rather seriously, taking some of the comic edge off the piece and occasionally replacing it with an uncomfortable air of sadness. It isn’t enough to dampen the film’s overall humorous spirit, but it can be a momentary wet blanket.
Most people probably remember Lemmon and Matthau for this particular collaboration, but, of course, they made a number of other films together over the years. I suppose practice makes perfect, even if they would never be quite as polished together as they were here. Let’s see, there was The Fortune Cookie a couple of years before The Odd Couple; then The Front Page (1974), Buddy, Buddy (1981), Grumpy Old Men (1993), Grumpier Old Men(1995), Out to Sea (1996) and, unfortunately, their last team effort, the sorry sequel, The Odd Couple II (1998).