8 June 2005 | BrandtSponseller
Like a master class in acting
I should probably first note that I have a bias. I'm a huge Walter Matthau fan. Almost any film with Matthau in it can get up to a two-point boost from me simply because of his presence, which naturally implies a great performance. With Plaza Suite, I'm not sure there was any overhead to fill, although my initial reaction to the second segment of the film this time around was that it perhaps brought the score down to a 9. However, on further reflection, I think the performances in each section of this film are perfect, as is Neil Simon's writing and Arthur Hiller's direction.
And if those three aspects are perfect, so is the film, as Plaza Suite is one of the purist examples of a structurally simple "filmed play" that can be had. As such, it shows why the normative advice that "films should not be filmed plays" is not hard and fast. It depends on the material. In some cases, such as Plaza Suite, nothing else would have worked better than this "filmed play".
Except for a couple very minor shots, mainly to serve as segues between the three segments, the whole film takes place in a single hotel room--a suite at New York City's Plaza Hotel. Although there are a few ancillary characters, the film solely rests on the shoulders of three man/woman couples.
The play by Neil Simon first ran at the Plymouth Theater in New York City beginning February 14, 1968, with Mike Nichols directing. The play was unusual in that George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton took on the roles of three different couples.
After Arthur Hiller's success with the Neil Simon work The Out-of-Towners (1970)--which was initially written as a segment of Plaza Suite, by the way, but then siphoned off because Simon rightly felt it was too different tonally--Hiller was contracted to do the film version of Plaza Suite as well. George C. Scott had just become a big star because of 1970's Patton, and was unavailable. Thankfully, Hiller tapped Matthau to play the male roles. As with the stage version, Matthau plays three different parts. Slight changes in make-up and costume aid his varied performances. Because Hiller felt that also having the same woman play three different parts would probably confuse film audiences (and at present, audiences would probably try to figure out what the Matrix (1999)-like plot is if the same actors played all three couples), he instead had Stapleton reprise her role in the first segment, while Barbara Harris did the second and Lee Grant the third.
The first segment, "Visitors from Mamaroneck", concerns Sam (Matthau) and Karen Nash (Stapleton). Karen has booked Suite 719 at the Plaza to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Sam arrives a bit late. It quickly becomes clear that all is not marital bliss with the two. Sam is mostly preoccupied with work, and they bicker about everything, including how old Karen is, whether they really stayed in 719 on their honeymoon all those years ago, and just how long they've been married.
The second segment, "Visitors from Hollywood", concerns film producer Jesse Kiplinger (Matthau) and Muriel Tate (Harris). Kiplinger is staying in Suite 719, at some other point in time. He's in town on business. He calls up Tate, an old flame, now married with three kids, in his hometown in New Jersey. Tate hesitates but shows up at his hotel for "one quick drink". Kiplinger just wants to use her, and the segment is a subtly complicated cat and mouse game between the two.
The third segment, "Visitors from Forest Hills", concerns Roy (Matthau) and Norma Hubley (Grant), parents of a bride-to-be. They're in Suite 719, at some other point in time, all decked out for their daughter's wedding, which is being held downstairs in the very expensive hall. However, their daughter has locked herself in Suite 719's bathroom and won't come out or respond. The segment has Roy and Norma trying everything they can think of to get their daughter to come around, while they bicker all the way.
The performances in each segment are quite different in approach. In the first, Matthau and Stapleton begin in almost a quiet realist drama mode, gradually work up to very intense comedy, and gradually transform that into even more intense, serious turmoil. The progression provides a breathtaking ride, with Stapleton particularly impressive (Matthau is appropriately much more subdued). This segment has a surprisingly downbeat conclusion.
In the third segment (I'll come back to the second), Matthau and Grant stay in a fairly high-intensity comedy mode throughout. This is the funniest segment (intentionally so)--I routinely had to pause the DVD because I was laughing so hard, and I've seen this film a number of times over the years. The comedy is an unusual combination of witty dialogue occasionally veering almost towards slapstick. It ends the film on a very high note.
The second segment was the one I had a problem with initially, as at first the performances do not seem nearly as confident and convincing. However, on analysis, they're not supposed to seem confident or convincing. Matthau and Harris' characters are each playing very unsure roles with each other. Kiplinger is experimenting with his manipulations and Tate is experiencing a rapid onrush of conflicting thoughts and desires. The "shaky" performances are perfect for the roles.
Although Plaza Suite is at heart a play, Hiller lets his filmic sense strongly affect the work, but in very subtle ways. For example, in the first segment, there is a clever usage of staging to symbolically show the rapidly evolving relationship. There is also ingenious usage of camera movement around Stapleton at appropriate moments. The other segments use similar techniques.
The confluence of superb writing, superb direction and the veritable master class for actors results in a must-see film that's both moving and hilarious.