Two Lousy Lawyers and a Crumbled Cookie
Though it hasn’t been authoritatively documented by scholarly historical evidence, the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln, born 209 years ago today, gets the credit for it, and it certainly ranks up there among the top five actual and/or legendary observations he made about the human condition: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were always in the market for juicy, piquantly observant dialogue lines and appropriated the legendary Republican’s quote for a marvelous segment in their marvelous, wickedly cynical insurance-fraud comedy The Fortune Cookie (1966). Indeed, Lincoln makes a cameo appearance (in the bearded and stovepipe-hatted person of veteran character actor John Anderson) in a movie clip injured TV cameraman Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) catches in his hospital bed, as he mentally juggles whether or not to go through with shyster brother-in-law “Whiplash” Willie Gingrich’s (Walter Matthau) audacious scheme to fleece a multimillion-dollar insurance company settlement for his network-televised football gridiron mishap. The ambulance chaser’s evaluation of our 16th President is itself a classic line: “Abraham Lincoln. Great President. Lousy lawyer.” Yet, as spectacularly crafty and plentiful as Willie’s brainstorms toward the acquisition of easy money may be (and the trenchant wit and flashes of unexpected poignancy make the journey eminently worthwhile, the film somehow ends up proving Lincoln’s point. And if, as for Harry, it even turns up in your lunch tray’s fortune cookie like a providential omen, it’s not to be blithely disregarded. Except, of course, by Willie. His assessment: “The Chinese. What do they know?” The Fortune Cookie knew enough to earn Academy Award® nominations for the Wilder/Diamond screenplay, the black-and-white art direction/set decoration skills of Robert Luthardt and Edward G. Boyle, and Joseph LaShelle’s gorgeous black-and-white Panavision cinematography. Willie, like Lincoln, stood out from the crowd despite proving a lousy lawyer: Matthau won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® and graduated to starring roles allowing him more leeway to himself comment on the human condition, fooling all of us all the time. Incidentally, Anderson would repeat his Presidential portrayal 11 years later and at greater length in the more serious circumstances of the speculative docudrama The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977). The Fortune Cookie is part of Twilight Time’s current limited-time MGM Sales Promotion, a steal at 50% off original list through February 28. No fooling…really.