Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Heartbreak Kid is 40!

"We'll have 40 or 50 years together"  -Lila

"Elaine May directed it.

Neil Simon wrote it.

Bruce Jay Friedman conceived it."

In early Dec 1972, The Heartbreak Kid was first sneak- previewed at New York's Sutton theatre (I attended) and soon opened to unanimous rave reviews. Vincent Canby in the NY Times summing things up: "The Heartbreak Kid is a first-class American comedy, as startling in it's way as was "The Graduate." It's a movie that manages the marvelous and very peculiar trick of blending the mechanisms and the cruelties of Neil Simon's comedy with the sense of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The film is an unequivocal hit".

And it was. The Heartbreak Kid would go on to set box office records at the intimate Sutton theatre with continuous lines around the block throughout the month until it opened widely.

"Trailers From Hell", screenwriter Larry Karaszewski on "The Heartbreak Kid":

Jeannie Berlin as Lila, Charles Grodin as Leonard
at their wedding
 Neil Simon's first rate screenplay was adapted from Bruce Jay Friedman's short story "A Change of Plan" which had appeared in the Jan 1966 issue of Esquire...

the 2 page opening spread for "A Change of Plan" in Esquire. Illustration by the great
cartoonist Stan Mack (click to enlarge)
The story was about young man named Cantrow who marries and is off on his honeymoon to Miami Beach with his new bride, but upon arriving quickly falls for and pursues a young beautiful WASP girl. The story ends with Cantrow attending his second marriage ceremony and actually showing interest in his new mother-in-law (the film doesn't go there)

Read "A Change of Plan" here:
The original poster for "The Heartbreak Kid",
 actually highlighting the talent behind the film, all but unthinkable today.
Neil Simon had been a long-time admirer of Bruce Jay Friedman's fiction. Simon had toyed for years with the idea of adapting BJF's novel "A Mother's Kisses" into a film, and would later adapt BJF's "The Lonely Guy's Book Of Life" into what would eventually become the Steve Martin comedy "The Lonely Guy" (co-starring Charles Grodin).  for a "Dialogue On Film" for the American Film Institute, Neil Simon commented:

 "I love Bruce Jay Friedman's writing... what I did-- and I've never done it at any other time-- I wrote it as though I was Bruce Jay Friedman. I didn't write it as Neil Simon. The style of writing is quite different from the style of writing I'd done in other pieces. Friedman has a very oblique and unique sense of humor, and I tried to write it like him."

 Many critics, while being somewhat harsh towards Simon's earlier film scripts, cited his screenplay for "The Heartbreak Kid" as finally having an "understanding of character", rather than going for the easy laughs.

                                            The Heartbreak Kid trailer

           Director Peter Bogdanovich on "The Heartbreak Kid:

an early ad for the hit film

Director Elaine May
"The Heartbreak Kid" was Elaine May's second film as a director following her promising comedy (which she also wrote) "A New Leaf", in which she co-starred with Walter Matthau the year before. With "The Heartbreak Kid", she delivers the goods, finding her full comic voice as a director and the movie reflects her unique, dry, deadpan persona...
Elaine May directing Charles Grodin in Miami Beach
 especially in the casting and performance of her daughter, a reflection of herself, 21 year old Jeannie Berlin who sounds and looks like a (slightly more zaftig) version of her mother. Some of the scenes and dialog between Charles Grodin and Jeannie Berlin even sound like Nichols & May Routines. Making her film debut Jeannie Berlin is perfect in the role of the nice Jewish girl/spurned bride Lila, funny, pathetic and finally sad and heartbreaking. She was deservedly nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar.

Lila and Lenny on their way to Miami Beach, singing
 "I'd like to buy the world a coke"
Neil Simon would later say in an interview that he imagined Lila in his script as attractive and only slightly befuddled (and less Jewish). There's also no indication that the first (nameless) wife in the original BJF short story is Jewish, unattractive or had any unpleasant (disgusting) habits (eating Milky Ways during sex, devouring egg salad with remnants seen around her mouth, smearing her face with gobs of sun cream, etc).
Lila loves egg salad
Simon had Diane Keaton in mind for the part of Lila but Elaine May had her own ideas. He felt that if Lenny had dumped a more attractive Lila (Diane Keaton) for the shiksa, it would have shown the audience an even darker, colder side of  Cantrow,  leaving his new wife on their honeymoon on merely a whim. Elaine May wanted her daughter for the role and that was that. No matter, all agree that Jeannie Berlin practically steals the film.
"Lenny, I put cream on!"
3 days into the honeymoon, Lenny announces the marriage is off. Lila doesn't take it well
By 1972, Charles Grodin had been acting (and directing) for over a decade, mostly in NY theatre. In 1968 he appeared as Dr. Hill in "Rosemary's Baby" and 2 years later was cast in a small role in Mike Nichols film version of "Catch-22". (that same year he also briefly starred in BJF's off-Broadway play "Steambath", replacing Rip Torn, the role eventually going to the show's director Anthony Perkins). Grodin had earlier been under consideration for the lead role in "The Graduate".
Grodin as Dr. Hill, 1968

 Grodin was 37, balding and a bit paunchy when he was cast as the twenty-something Leonard Cantrow. He trimmed down, grew long sideburns, was fitted with a bushy dark toupee, and delivered a superb comic performance and, actually achieves something rare in movies: He plays a guy who does something so reprehensible and cringe-inducing and still gets the audience on his side, cheering his eventual triumph. You just had to admire the guys chutzpah. Even so, when at one point in his frustration he announces "And... I'm a SCHMUCK!", audiences inevitably broke out in applause.
21 year old Cybill Shepherd as Kelly meets 37 year old
 Charles Grodin as Lenny on the beach in Miami
A second poster for the film

the soundtrack album
Cybill Shepherd delivers a sexy, subtle and funny performance as Lenny's WASP/Shiksa/Dreamgirl/All-American Goddess Kelly, at first flirty, then disinterested, unattainable and finally... attainable
Leonard pursues Kelly to her snowy midwest university as her 3 suspicious meathead boyfriends look on.  Kelly: "You know, I'm really flattered"
Shiksa Dreamgirl:
"You're in my spot"

Two years after his TV sitcom Green Acres had left the air, Eddie Albert returned to play Kelly's steely-eyed, overly-protective midwestern father Mr. Corcoran. Kelly's dad can simply can NOT accept his beloved only child being pursued by a pushy east coast Jew who sells sporting goods for a living. Albert delivers a pitch-perfect comic performance as Lenny's main obstacle and was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar. 

  Audra Lindley is also excellent in the film as Eddie Albert's nervous, clueless wife... 

and briefly performing in the Miami nightclub is the great comic/magician Art Metrano. The young waiter who has the thankless job of telling Lenny that the kitchen has just run out of it's famous pecan pie is Erik Lee Preminger, one of the films producers and the son of director Otto Preminger and famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
To me, the true success of a film has always been whether it was worthy of being parodied by MAD magazine. Sure enough, The Heartbreak Kid passed the test and received the full-throttle, seven page MAD treatment in their Oct 1973 issue (OK, Mad wasn't always the most timely publication) with a funny script by Larry Siegel and beautiful art by the master himself, Mort Drucker...

opening spread for "The Heartburn Kid" from MAD magazine No. 162 
In 2007, A party at New York's Le Cirque was held to celebrate Charles Grodin's new memoir and the 35th anniversary of "The Heartbreak Kid" attended by several of the cast members and talents behind the film: (photos by James Hamilton for the NY Observer)

Elaine May and Bruce Jay Friedman
Neil Simon and Charles Grodin
Post script: In 2007 "The Heartbreak Kid" was, for some unfathomable reason "remade" with the son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara in the lead and written & directed by two men named "the Farrelly brothers", clearly none of them having any understanding of what made the first film great. The "remake" was an abomination and thankfully a huge flop. Avoid at all costs. Hopefully "the Farrelly brothers" will never again attempt to "update" classic movie comedy...

Oh... Wait...


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