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The long goodbye l Chuck's World


Last updated 8/29/2018 at Noon

In a scene from the 1985 film “Say Anything,” John Cusack plays a teenager trying to impress a girl way out of his comfort zone. He volunteers at the retirement facility her father manages and takes on the job of temporary social director.

I’ve been thinking of that scene lately, as I’ve been trying to arrange some entertaining evenings for a group of friends. I’ve done it the past couple of summers, mostly movies last year. This summer, we expanded our range of activities, but it’s hard to beat a good movie. I just had to find one that everyone would enjoy.

Since the potential audience could range from kids in the single digits to people well into their 80s, it was a tricky situation. What film could possibly be appropriate for such a wide range?

Oh. Sure. “The Princess Bride.” Of course.

But that’s only one sure-fire success. I had other films to schedule, so I ended up choosing a movie my wife and I remembered from our dating days, “My Favorite Year,” director Richard Benjamin’s 1982 ode to live television in the 1950s.

It’s a delightful film, by the way, if you’ve never seen it.

It’s based on a story Mel Brooks has been telling for decades, about a week he spent in 1954 with former swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn. Brooks was a young writer for Sid Caesar’s "Your Show of Shows,” 90 minutes of sketch comedy on NBC, and Flynn was a charismatic man whose passions in life appeared to consist of lovely ladies and alcohol in large quantities.

He was scheduled to appear on the live show, and Brooks was in charge of babysitting. Peter O’Toole scored an Oscar nomination for his role.

So we watched it only a couple of weeks ago, and it was on my mind when I heard the news last week that Neil Simon had passed away at the age of 91. Simon also was a writer on “Your Show of Shows,” and in fact memorialized the time in his own take on the experience, his 1993 play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.”

The 1950s is by far the most interesting decade to me in this American experiment, and I have a lot of affection for Sid Caesar. I wasn’t all that sure about Neil Simon.

By the time I was in college in the late 1970s, studying theater, there was some disdain for Simon, who was considered conventional and old-fashioned, a relic.

Of course, we were young and, by definition, very stupid. He was the most successful playwright of our time, and it wasn’t just the jokes.

I just couldn’t find many Simon films I was all that interested in. There were a few, but it tended to feel more like my parents’ films.

I decided to watch “The Goodbye Girl” on Sunday, probably my favorite Simon movie, owing another look at the film I saw every chance I got, long before video stores gave us options. I enjoyed Marsha Mason, as well as Quinn Cumming as a 10-year-old precocious child.

Richard Dreyfuss is a true baby boomer, born 30 years before Simon, and he brilliantly plays his generation’s fascination with wheat germ, vitamins and meditation in the mornings, probably needed as he has to deal with an idiot director who wants Dreyfuss to incorporate homosexual tendencies into this troubled Shakespearean role.

He rehearses endlessly, fights with his director and performs a Richard that Lucy, the 10-year-old daughter to Marsha, whispers, “He sounds like that guy in the beauty parlor.” Best line in the show.

I watched it the day Neil Simon died. There were some bumps along the way – 2018 sensibilities make Marsha Mason feel conventional, more of the previous generation than the next, while Dreyfuss has far more modern ways.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film again, remembering why.

Simon’s passing came on the heels of the death of Sen. John McCain, and the testimonies to an American hero tended to minimize Mr. Simon’s passing, as might be expected.

We lost two seminal figures recently, and while I admired Sen. McCain (from time to time, anyway) and his lifetime of public service, there’s plenty to admire, and not just politicians.

And from Richard Pryor to Mike Nichols to Robin Williams, we’ve now lost admirable performers whose goal was less activism than producing joy, and now I’m on the fence.

There’s no more important work in the political system of this country than responsible leadership. I just think the people who make us think and laugh about our everyday reality are important, from Tig Notaro to Hannah Gadsby to, I think, Neil Simon.

We’re reeling from broken norms and incivility and blatant lies disguised as commentary. We could use some laughs.

That’s what Simon provided, permeating the culture, and if his days have passed his jokes remain.

So it’s worth noting that while we honor a war hero and public servant for three decades, we should also honor the professional funny people, and how they make our day a little more bearable.

Rest in peace, John McCain and Neil Simon.

I don’t think they complemented each other as we all occupied the same tenuous time, and they held up very different mirrors. I worry about my country all the time.

I need to remember to laugh, too, and today I’m reminded why.


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