Posts Tagged ‘Walter Matthau’

Football, Fuller, Fleckum, and “A Face in the Crowd”

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

The tale of Lonesome Rhodes is a cautionary one.  Written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd revolves around Rhodes, a drunk with a gift for guitar playing, singing, and folksiness.  Arkansas radio producer Marcia Jeffries discovers Rhodes in an Arkansas jail while airing a live broadcast titled A Face in the Crowd for her uncle’s radio station.

Patricia Neal plays Jeffries and Andy Griffith plays Rhodes.

Seeing the appeal of the down-home Rhodes, Jeffries creates a radio show for him. Soon, Rhodes skyrockets, ultimately getting a television show in New York City.  Fame infects Rhodes, who grasps his power with deftness.  When a general sees up the potential for Rhodes to affect the electorate, he matches the celebrity with Senator Worthington Fuller whom Rhodes dubs “Curly” to make him more accessible to the plain-speaking, God-fearing, simple-minded voter.

Jeffries falls for Rhodes’s lusty approach to life.  When Rhodes returns home to Piggott, Arkansas to judge a drum majorette contest, he catches the attention of 17-year-old Betty Lou Fleckum.  And vice versa.  Jeffries is heartbroken, when Rhodes comes back to the Big Apple with Fleckum as his bride.

Lee Remick plays Betty Lou.

It arks her first real step toward realizing that Rhodes barrels through life like a tornado without any regard to others and with one goal in mind—satisfaction.  He is no different than when Jeffries discovered him in the jail.

Schulberg penned a description of his research for the New York Herald Tribune, which published the article about a week and a half before the film’s premiere in late May.  Research included conversations with “200 TV personalities, TV directors and producers and advertising directors.”

Television, according to Schulberg, represented a powerful force for public opinion but a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.  “I’m encouraged to think that in Lonesome Rhodes we have hit on a truly representative figure.  Naturally our Lonesome must be an individual in his own right, but from our talks it does seem that he represents the dynamic-mercurial quality of TV success.”

When Jeffries reaches her breaking point with Rhodes, she raises the sound level over the closing credits of his show, thereby uncovering Rhodes’s real self, displayed by his vocalizing nasty descriptions of his audience.  Those who adored him withdraw their devotion faster than Jesse James leaving a robbery.  When Jeffries reveals her part in his demise, Rhodes, from his penthouse, screams at Jeffries not to leave him; accompanied by former Rhodes writer Mel Miller, author an upcoming exposé Demagogue in Denim, Jeffries disappears into the Manhattan night.

Walter Matthau plays Miller.

Kazan filmed the drum majorette contest on the Piggott High School football field in Piggott, Arkansas.  “The northeast Arkansas community was chosen because of its connection to the legendary Ernest Hemingway, who lived and visited there when married to Piggott native Pauline Pfeiffer,” states Arkansas.com.  “Otto ‘Toby’ Bruce of Piggott, a friend of and assistant to Hemingway, heard of the project after meeting Schulberg in Key West while visiting the author.  Bruce suggested Piggott, director Elia Kazan and Schulberg visited, and they decided it was the place to shoot.”

The 1990s CBS situation comedy Evening Shade mentioned Piggott High School’s football team as an opponent of the Evening Shade team coached by Wood Newton, former quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Burt Reynolds plays Newton; football credentials dotted Reynolds’s body of work, including playing college football and starring in two football-themed films in the 1970s—The Longest Yard and Semi-Tough.

Another football connection to A Face in the CrowdGriffith’s legendary stand-up comedy routine What It Was, Was Football, which depicts an unknowing person’s introduction to the gridiron.  Griffith concludes, “And I don’t know, friends, to this day, what it was that they was a-doing down there, but I have studied about it, and I think that it’s some kindly of a contest where they see which bunch-full of them men can take that punkin [sic] and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other’n [sic] without either getting’ knocked down or steppin’ in somethin’!”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 2, 2016.

Matthau, Madison, and Buttermaker

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

In the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears, Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, a former minor league ballplayer with the unenviable task of managing a team consisting of loudmouth Little Leaguers.  Matthau’s rumpled persona matches the Buttermaker character like lox matches cream cheese.  Perfectly.

Buttermaker’s Bears squad, though initially pitiful, nearly beat the Yankees in the North Valley League of southern California, thanks to star pitcher Amanda—a daughter of an ex-girlfriend of Buttermaker—and Kelly Leak, a star athlete who looks and acts like he’s auditioning to be the next James Dean.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie comes by most of its comedy fairly easily.  Matthau is, of course, an engaging performer, and the role’s a good one for him as he sits in the dugout, hung over and bleary-eyed, watching his Bears come out of the first inning 26 runs behind.  The kids are good, too; [director Michael] Ritchie sees them in a fairly tough and unsentimental way, and lets them use the sort of dialog we’d like to think 12-year-olds aren’t familiar with.”

Contrary to the myth of A-list stars isolating themselves while not filming, Matthau engaged with the kids’ families on set.  In a 2005 Tampa Bay Times article, Keith Niebuhr quoted Gary Lee Cavagnaro, who played the Bears catcher.  “As far as the adults, Walter Matthau (coach Morris Buttermaker) was in a class by himself.  As great as he was around the kids, he was even better around the moms.  Behind the field, the tree-lined area between the field and the concession stand, the mothers would camp out there.  And during off time, Walter would come out with Jack Lemmon occasionally and do an old vaudeville routine, which would keep the mothers in stitches.

In The Odd Couple, Matthau translates his portrayal of New York City sports writer Oscar Madison from the stage to the screen.  Matched with Art Carney in the play, written by Neil Simon, Matthau received plaudits in Walter Kerr’s New York Times review.  “He is a gamut-runner, from grim, to game to simple hysteria and when he finally does have his long overdue nervous breakdown, with his voice sinking into his throat like the sun in the western seat he is magnificent,” wrote Kerr.  Additionally, the noted critic praises, “But perhaps our man is best of all when he is merely intimating contempt in his sneering dark eyes, with a baseball cap peaked backwards on his untidy head and his face curled in scorn until it looks like the catcher’s mitt.”

Carney portrays television news writer Felix Ungar, Oscar’s friend, who suffers from a martial rift, which sends him into an emotional tailspin.  Finding refuge at Oscar’s apartment, Felix exemplifies domestication that Martha Stewart would envy.  When Felix’s dedication to cleanliness borders on obsessive, frustration overwhelms Oscar.  In a monologue bathed in a combination of pathos and hilarity, Oscar confesses, “I can’t take it anymore, Felix, I’m cracking up.  Everything you do irritates me.  And when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me.  You leave me little notes on my pillow.  Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow.  ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes.  F. U.  Took me three hours to figure out F. U. was Felix Ungar!”

In the movie, Matthau plays against Lemmon, his co-star in several films, including Grumpy Old MenThe Fortune Cookie, and The Odd Couple II.  All’s well that ends well—at the end of The Odd Couple, Felix exorcises his marital ghosts and spends time with the attractive Pigeon sisters while Oscar, in an example of Felix’s habits rubbing off, admonishes his poker buddies to keep the poker table clean.

Matthau passed away in 2008.  Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times revealed the reality behind the actor.  Citing Lemmon, Downey wrote, “Fact is, says the actor whose finicky Felix Unger played opposite Oscar, they were an odder couple than some realized, for the Matthau he knew was a fragile figure, susceptible to ailments of all kinds, with a pinch of hypochondria thrown in, who would cringe and bruise if a stranger made the mistake of slapping him on the back.

“Lemmon says: ‘He was Felix.'”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 28, 2015.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

Friday, November 11th, 2016

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training gives the underdogs from southern California’s North Valley League a shot at the Houston Toros—a bigger, stronger, and faster team.  Where else could the climactic game take place but the Astrodome—the post-modern Eighth Wonder of the World.

With Tatum O’Neal and Walter Matthau from the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears absent in this 1977 sequel, the Bears need a pitcher, a coach, and a way to get to Houston.  Timmy Lupus, the team’s worst player, cannot travel with the team because he broke a leg while skateboarding.

Enter Carmen Ronzonni, a friend of Kelly Leak—the Bears’ star player.  Employing a maintenance worker bordering on mute, the Bears construct a scheme to have him masquerade as the coach with basic sentences to greet the parents.  After the parents drop off the kids, Kelly et al. take a van to Houston.  During the Bears’ voyage, the audience hears Looking Good, a song performed by James Rolleston, with lyrics by Norman Gimbel and music by Craig Safan.

A subplot reveals Kelly’s other reason for traveling to Houston—his long gone father.  Kelly confronts him at a factory.  Initially, Michael Leak agrees to be a figurehead so the team can have a legitimate coach, something they hadn’t considered.  But his status too changes; the Bears realize he can help them in their game against the Toros.  Kelly’s already strained relationship with his father continues to fracture during a tense moment in a practice where the father eclipses the son as the team’s leader.

Right before the game at the Astrodome, Tanner, the wise-cracking shortstop, gives a locker room speech mirroring the climactic “Win One for the Gipper” speech in Knute Rockne, All-American, a movie he saw late at night while the rest of the team was asleep in the hotel room.  Tanner’s speech could easily be titled “Win One for the Looper” in a nod to Lupus.

The four-inning game between the Toros and the Bears takes place between the games of a doubleheader at the Astrodome.  Only one problem, though.  The powers that be call the game on account of time.  Bob Watson and Cesar Cedeno of the Houston Astros appear in the dugout.  When they find out that the game ended prematurely, Watson exclaims, “Come on, let the kids play!”

Inspired, Michael Leak takes the field and shouts, “Let them play!  Let them play!”  Kelly joins him in the chant, signaling a new relationship between the two Leaks.  The Bears follow suit, as does the Astrodome crowd.  Meanwhile, Tanner refuses to leave the field, evading the two suited gentlemen trying to capture him.

Caving under the pressure, the decision makers resume the game.  Carmen slams an inside-the-park grand slam for a Bears victory.  The Bad News Bears in Japan followed, marking the end of this 1970s baseball movie trilogy.

Boston Globe film critic Bruce McCabe wrote, “The film is perhaps most successful when it stops trying to figure out exactly what it’s supposed to be and goes for a certain kind of laugh.  One such moment is when a loony groundskeeper is conned by the kids into pretending to be their manager.  Another is when the van, filled with adolescent and preadolescent boys, backs up on a freeway to give a ride to a comely young hitch-hiker who has decided she’d rather not be a passenger.”

A version of this article originally appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 1, 2014.

Lonesome Rhodes, Will Stockade, and Andy Taylor

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

RemingtonCorruption rooted in ego, fame, and power forms the foundation for A Face in the Crowd, a 1957 film; Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay based on his short story The Arkansas Traveler.

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My Favorite Things

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

RemingtonGreg Brady getting selected to be the next “Johnny Bravo” because he “fit the suit” on The Brady Bunch.

Jimmy McNulty on The Wire.

Any Seinfeld episode involving Frank Constanza or David Puddy.

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Chandler Bing, Oscar Madison, et al.

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

RemingtonUndoubtedly, Matthew Perry’s most recognized role is Chandler Bing on Friends, the powerhouse sitcom on NBC’s Must See TV Thursday night lineup in the 1990s.  Perry has a distinguished roster of roles beyond the wisecracking Bing, who used humor as a defense mechanism to guard against his insecurities.

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Before He Was Colonel Potter

Friday, February 6th, 2015

RemingtonBefore he was Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H, Harry Morgan was one of Hollywood’s cornerstone character actors.  He shared the silver screen with legends.

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“Let Them Play!”

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Baseball is a beautiful game, largely because it has no clock determining its end.  An NFL team has 45 seconds to execute an offensive play.  An NBA team, 24 seconds.  But baseball has no time limit.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training illustrated this point with the help of an inspirational chant, a defiant kid, and Bob Watson.

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