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Still Buddy Buddy

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are making mirth together for the umpteenth time with'Out to Sea'--while proving there is a place for actors and audiences of their generation.

June 29, 1997|Charles Champlin | Charles Champlin is an occasional contributor to Calendar

There is evidence, so far not much more conspicuous than a touch of silver in the hair, that the major studios have begun to realize what anyone could have told them years ago: There's a huge movie audience waiting to be tapped.

These viewers are well north of that roughly 16-to-20-year-old, primarily male demographic that the industry has been seducing so relentlessly for decades and now seduces more expensively than ever because the same fare finds even more customers abroad than at home.

The largely unsolicited audience is composed of the over-40s and over-50s--the graying America that grew up with the movies, loves the movies and would still go to the movies if the offerings were more to its taste.

It's not necessary to go back to "The Sound of Music" to discover titles that define the taste or the many flavors of it. "On Golden Pond" found mature audiences eager to see its aging icons once more (and the film found a crossover audience of the young as well). In "Driving Miss Daisy," a senior audience embraced a senior woman of spirit and sensitivity, creating a nice commercial rebuke to the Hollywood studios that wanted no part of the script.

Then there is the significant popularity of the most durable screen team in the business: Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, who have become not least the avant-garde of the major studios' long-overdue overtures to the middle-aged audience (and of course to any in the younger crowd who enjoy watching a pair of matchless actors at work).

It is a partnership that began just over 30 years ago in Billy Wilder's "The Fortune Cookie," a dazzlingly cynical work whose misfortune was to be made in glorious black and white in a transitional period when only color seemed to sell.

Then, as usually later, they were a version of good cop, bad cop, with Lemmon the protesting innocent being led astray by Matthau in full bellow and sounding, as one writer observed, like a dyspeptic moose. Matthau won an Oscar for his portrayal of a shyster lawyer trying to extract a major medical settlement on behalf of Lemmon, a television cameraman who had been knocked over by a pro footballer running out of bounds but was not hurt a bit.

The teaming has worked, generally with great success, in "The Odd Couple" (1968), one of the funniest comedies of any decade; in Wilder's remake of "The Front Page," Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's classic newspaper comedy, in 1974; in Wilder's "Buddy Buddy," one of the less successful outings, in 1981; and two outings as "Grumpy Old Men" for Warner Bros. in 1993 and 1995.

In their latest togetherness, Fox's "Out to Sea," opening Wednesday, they are semi-grumpily at sea, Matthau (running from bookie debts) conning Lemmon into snagging a free cruise by pretending to be dance hosts. Actually, as an exercise in demographic appeal, "Out to Sea" is interesting not only because its male stars are both past 70 but also because their love interests are Dyan Cannon, who is 60 (although not looking within 20 years of it), and Gloria DeHaven, who is 71 and most alarmingly attractive.

However preposterous the goings-on, the appeal of "Grumpy Old Men" (there may be a third, set in Italy to make Sophia Loren feel at home), like the appeal of "Out to Sea," is the insistence that life begins when you say it begins, that romance is not the sole province of the young, who often make a mess of it anyway, and that youth doesn't have exclusive possession of silliness either. (Martha Coolidge directed "Out to Sea," and Matthau says, "Every time she came over I gave her a big kiss, and she said, 'Now I've forgotten what I was going to say. Wonderful.' ")

If Lemmon and Matthau on screen have a particular warmth and charm, it is likely because the two men (and their wives, Felicia Farr and Carol Grace) have been close off-screen friends for something like 40 years.

The details of the beginning of their friendship have a sort of "Rashomon" quality, each claiming to remember the first meeting differently from the other.

Lemmon is sure he was introduced to Matthau for the first time at the bar in Sardi's in New York, Matthau having a beer and shifting uncomfortably. He explained that he had sat on Gloria Vanderbilt's glass cocktail table at a crowded party and broken it into a million pieces, lacerating himself severely. His nether parts were still hurting. At the time of the accident, as Lemmon tells it, blood was spurting, and Vanderbilt's comment was "You broke my table!"

Matthau insists he has no recollection of the Sardi's meeting but agrees that the incident of the cocktail table was true: "My girlfriend, Carol Grace [now his wife], and I were in a play together and she was a friend of Gloria's. We were always going to her parties and I was always uncomfortable. The first time I was there she slugged me. I had to hold her wrists. She thought I was taking too much of her girlfriend's time.

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