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The Walter Matthau Bio

The Walter Matthau Review –

by Nate Lee

Best Films:

The Fortune Cookie / Charade / Sunshine Boys / The Odd Couple

There is no doubt that "Charade" is his best serious film, even though he had larger parts in films that almost the equal of that classic. On the comedy side, "Sunshine Boys" is easier to like, perhaps because it hasn't been played to death like "Odd Couple," both on TV and in a gender-switching version that has a life of its own. As good as they are, those two are still mostly plays on film. "The Fortune Cookie," though certainly not one of Billy Wilder's best, was Matthau's sole Oscar-winning performance.

Great Performances You May Not Have Seen:
The Fortune Cookie (Oscar-winning, Golden Globe-nominated performance as a crooked lawyer, in the first of ten pairings with Jack Lemmon)
Hopscotch (Golden Globe-nominated performance as a retired spy who decides to write a book about his adventures)
Pete n Tillie (Golden Globe-nominated performance opposite Carol Burnett)
The Front Page (Golden Globe-nominated performance as crooked editor Walter Burns)
I'm Not Rappaport (eccentric friend who helps Ossie Davis)
The Grass Harp (retired judge, directed by his son)
Buddy Buddy
A New Leaf
I.Q. (Albert Einstein)
JFK (Senator Long, from Louisiana) 
The Neil Simon Walter:
The Sunshine Boys (Golden Globe-winning and SAG and Oscar-nominated performance as Willy Clark, burlesque partner of George Burns)
The Odd Couple (Golden Globe-nominated performance as Oscar Madison)
The Odd Couple II
Plaza Suite
California Suite
The Grumpy Old Walter:
Grumpy Old Men
Grumpier Old Men
Dennis the Menace
Bad News Bears
The Serious Walter:
Charade (along with Cary Grant, playing Audrey Hepburn in a charade to recover money)
Lonely Are the Brave (sheriff hunting down Kirk Douglas)
The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (in the original, the transit police guy dealing with the subway hijackers)
The Laughing Policeman (San Fran cop after a serial killer targeting bus riders)
Fail-Safe (a scientist dealing with a nuclear crisis, with Henry Fonda as the President)
King Creole (a New Orleans mob boss, with Elvis)
Charley Varrick (bank robber trying to outwit both the Mob and the police) 
The Real Walter Matthau:
The Odd Couple

Originating the role of Oscar Madison on Broadway, for which he won the acting Tony, Matthau asked author Neil Simon if he could play Felix instead, because Oscar was too close to his own real life. Simon, of course, told him he was nuts for even asking. The poker scenes are especially true to life as Matthau estimated he lost over $5 million to gambling in his lifetime.
Acting Style:
The great unlikable. Did we ever side with Walter in any of the Jack Lemmon buddy comedies? Maybe a little in "Odd Couple," when Felix would get unbearably metro. No, Matthau was, as much as he couldn't stand it, a comic actor, and one who, for all his skill, played the same curmudgeon over and over. It was especially entertaining when he ventured into the comically unscrupulous, which, from the very beginning, was his well-staked claim.
Bits and Quirks:
The slouchiest slouch of all. Working the wrinkles, particularly in the sideways talk, and the twinkle-eyed grin. The unique walk, again slouched, with long gait, and arms dangling. A lot of lines spoken with his mouth full. The hang-dog look, like a human hound. A particularly quick roll of the eyes.
Great Scenes:
Sunshine Boys

> Practicing the skit and "the finger"
> Performing the skit
> The audition and the lecture on "what's funny"


> The stand-off between him and Cary Grant, among the pillars, with Audrey Hepburn


> The tête-à-tête with CIA chief Ned Beatty
> Blowing up Ned's summer house
> The biplane ruse
> The bookstore at the end, with Glenda Jackson
> The wordplay over wine, with Glenda
> The switch of the files
> Meeting with his protégé, Sam Waterston

The Front Page

> The ending, about the watch
> In the newsroom, on the phone to Duffy
> Dealing with Benzinger and his desk
> Dealing with the sheriff

The Odd Couple

> You know them all too well: that's the problem.
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