How the Cookie Never Crumbles
After the taboo-traipsing sex farce Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) was rejected by critics and audiences, director Billy Wilder was very precise in describing the next project which he and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond were cooking up. As Kevin Lally reports in his 1996 Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder, the six-time Oscar® winner told Variety’s Army Archerd: “It’s about greed, love, compassion, human understanding, but not sex.” It marked a return to Wilder’s earlier Double Indemnity theme of money-grabbing insurance fraud, as well as an entrée to the well-deserved star spotlight for an actor/director who had spent a decade in films doing noteworthy supporting work (Bigger Than Life, A Face in the Crowd, Lonely Are the Brave, Fail-Safe, among others) in the shadow of bigger marquee names, someone the filmmaker had his eye on for a decade. Lally notes: “Wilder, who had wanted [Walter] Matthau for [the film version of] The Seven Year Itch (1955) just as the actor was starting his film career, came to The Odd Couple already sensing he had the perfect role for Broadway’s hottest comedy star. Remembers Matthau, ‘I had been given about half a dozen scripts after the notices came out on The Odd Couple, and I didn’t like any of them. I was judging them the way I judged play scripts, by their literary value – and that’s not how you judge a movie. As a matter of fact, you really can’t judge a movie – there are too many factors that go into it. But when Billy came to see me in The Odd Couple and told me the story of The Fortune Cookie (1966), I said, ‘Fine, I’m ready.’”Someone else who was ready was co-star Jack Lemmon, who had already headlined three previous Wilder movies, and who, in the role of a TV cameraman longing to reunite with his ex-wife (film debuting Judi West) who is persuaded by his shyster brother-in-law (Matthau) to feign a debilitating injury after an NFL game tackling accident (with fellow screen newbie Ron Rich), would spend most of the movie stuck in a wheelchair. From this movie, both one of the great screen comedy partnerships and one of the great Hollywood friendships were born. “In an oft-quoted anecdote,” Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg write in Matthau: A Life, “Matthau told Lemmon, ‘You know, you don’t have the best part in this picture. I have it.’ ‘Well, it’s about time, slick,’ was Lemmon’s comeback. ‘It’s about time somebody saw you in a good picture.’” The resulting fractious fable was more than good. To Lally’s eye, “Like The Apartment (1960) and Kiss Me, Stupid, The Fortune Cookie is photographed in wide-screen black-and-white by the gifted Joseph LaShelle, each film depicting its characters’ humble living environments with an unsparing crispness,…while composer André Previn – after exceptionally lively creative contributions to One, Two, Three, Irma la Douce and Kiss Me, Stupid – sets the perfect mood with his bluesy score.” And in the view of Life’s Richard Schickel, it proved “a jackhammer of a film savagely applied to those concrete areas of the human spirit whose cupidity and stupidity have been entrenched for so long. It has all the defects of a power tool – it is crude and noisy and nerve-racking. But it has a virtue that cancels out these faults: it is a bitterly, often excruciatingly funny movie,” with Wilder being “just about the only American director of comedy who finds his material not in manufactured ‘situations’ but in the artful exaggeration of all-too-recognizable human and social traits. His is a cold rather than a warm comic spirit, and therefore not to everyone’s taste. But if you can stand the chill, I think you’ll find plenty of truth in what he has to say.” A fortunate outcome was presaged on the first day of the shoot when the actors and their director got down to business. Again from Walter Matthau: A Life: “Lemmon reported that later in the day, ‘Billy starts explaining to Walter in his thick German accent, ‘O.K., here’s what you have to do. Now you go here, do this and that.’ And he went on for what seemed like five minutes. Walter just gaped at him and waited. Billy said, ‘Walter, you got that?’ And Walter stared at him and replied, ‘You speak kinda funny, Billy, you from out of town?’” From then on, a bond was sealed, one that would be tested in a major way. “With 10 days left on the shoot, Matthau, then in his mid-40s, suffered a serious heart attack….It was uncertain when Matthau would return to work, and so the powers-that-be wanted to replace him and reshoot the entire film.” Wilder stood by his man: “Absolutely not. Under [no] condition can we replace him. There isn’t anybody who could play the part like that. We’ll wait, no matter now long it [takes]. As fair as I’m concerned, Walter can play anything from Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara.” Production took a five-month break, and it didn’t matter that Matthau, trimmer by 30 pounds upon his return, appeared thicker and thinner in various sections of the film. “He recalled, ‘People said to me, ‘How did you do that? You were 195 pounds at the bottom of the stairs. You walked up the stairs and, at the top, you were 165.’ I said, ‘I just acted lighter.’” It also didn’t matter than Matthau was facially bruised with his arm in a sling from a two-days-prior bicycling accident when he walked to the stage at the 1966 Academy Awards® to accept his Best Supporting Actor Oscar® in view of a worldwide audience that included, in the hall, fellow Cookie nominees Wilder and Diamond (for their original screenplay), cinematographer LaShelle and the art direction/set decoration team of Robert Luthardt and Edward G. Boyle. What does matter is that The Fortune Cookie, co-starring Cliff Osmond, Marge Redmond and Lurene Tuttle, still crackles and crunches with comically wise observations about strivers and schemers 50 years later on a fabulous Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray arriving April 18, with Previn’s sterling score on an Isolated Music Track. Preorders open April 5.