"Every actor looks all his life for a part that will combine his talents with his personality...'The Odd Couple' was mine. That was the plutonium I needed. It all started happening after that." - Walter Matthau
"It's hard enough to write a good drama, it's much harder to write a good comedy, and it's hardest of all to write a drama with comedy. Which is what life is." - Jack Lemmon
Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon are probably best remembered for their films together, but both were clearly established actors in Hollywood by the time they appeared in their first film together. The great film director Billy Wilder once noted of Jack Lemmon that Lemmon "was my everyman", and Lemmon did indeed represent a great everyman to American audiences during the latter half of the 20th century. For rich, poor, and working class audiences alike, Lemmon was an accessible leading male, someone certainly less stately than Cary Grant or Laurence Olivier and seemingly more approachable even than archetypal leading men such as Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda. Viewers may not have known Lemmon on a personal level, yet his easygoing demeanor made it easy for the American public to feel as if they knew Lemmon. His wide appeal is summarized nicely by Richard T. Stanley, who noted that he "had the personality and versatile talent to star in any era," and Lemmon became intimately associated with other famous figures of Hollywood, including Billy Wilder and Matthau.
Before his movies with Lemmon, Matthau most often played shady criminals in dramatic films, and his character in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd (1957) offers one of the best examples. Matthau's major breakthrough did not occur until 1965, when he starred in the stage production of The Odd Couple, which was later adapted into the film that might be the duo's best known movie together.
In several of their movies, viewers witness all of the core elements of the Lemmon-Matthau dynamic. Lemmon plays the straight man to Matthau's shadier, conniving character, and a sharp contrast exists between the two: Lemmon is relatively short and conventionally handsome, while Matthau is far taller and appears far more clownish, and the contrast would grow starker as they aged and Matthau became rather stocky. Even though Lemmon is invariably tempted by Matthau's schemes, he denounces them at the conclusion but doesn't reject or condemn Matthau as a person. A romantic plot often develops between leading ladies and the two actors, but the chief relationship is usually between Lemmon and Matthau, whose comedic value as a team is greater than the sum of its parts.
It is all the more noteworthy that while Lemmon and Matthau are often mentioned in the pantheon of legendary male comedy teams, they were not natural comics in the manner of Laurel and Hardy or Abbot and Costello. Instead, they became great comics when acting alongside their comic foil, and while it is Matthau who took primacy in The Fortune Cookie (he did win an Academy Award, after all), in The Odd Couple, Saul Austerlitz argues that the opposite occurs in the subsequent movie: "Matthau has the showier role as gruff, sloppy sportswriter Oscar Madison, but Lemmon steals the show as the prim...Felix Unger."
In an act of homage toward their legendary partnership, Lemmon was buried near Matthau, who died about a year before Lemmon, and upon Matthau's death, Lemmon stated, "I have lost someone I loved as a brother, as a closest friend, and a remarkable human being. We have also lost one of the best damn actors we'll ever see." Lemmon may have put it even more aptly when he said, "Death ends a life, not a relationship."
Hollywood's Odd Couple chronicles the lives, careers, and partnership between the two actors. Along with pictures and a bibliography, you will learn about Lemmon and Matthau like never before.