Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #33: California Suite

Cast: Jane Fonda (Hannah Warren), Alan Alda (Bill Warren), Maggie Smith (Diana Barrie), Michael Caine (Sidney Cochran), Walter Matthau (Marvin Michaels), Elaine May (Millie Michaels), Herbert Edelman (Harry Michaels), Denise Galik (Bunny), Richard Pryor (Dr Chauncey Gump), Bill Cosby (Dr Willis Panama), Gloria Gifford (Lola Gump), Sheila Frazier (Bettina Panama).

Crew: Herbert Ross (director), Ray Stark (producer), Neil Simon (writer), Claude Bolling (music), David M Walsh (cinematography), Michael A Stevenson (editor), Albert Brenner (production designer).

Synopsis: Five couples arrive at the Beverly Hills Hotel in California. New York journalist Hannah Warren is meeting her ex-husband Bill. Their seventeen-year-old daughter Jenny ran away to California to stay with Bill. Hannah wants her daughter to come home but eventually relents. Diana Barrie is nominated for best actress at the Academy Awards. She arrives at the hotel with her bisexual husband, Sidney Cochran. Diana does not win the Oscar and gets drunk. In the aftermath she and Sidney have a bitter argument, but manage to renew their love for each other. Marvin Michaels travels to Los Angeles for his nephew’s bar mitzvah. Marvin’s brother Harry pays for a prostitute to spend the night with Marvin. Next morning Marvin’s wife Millie arrives and discovers the hooker. Millie forgives her husband but vows to spend all his money. Two doctors from Chicago and their wives drive across the country on what is supposed to be the holiday of a lifetime. But the vacation is one long argument that finally turns violent…


Playwright Neil Simon has great success in 1968 with Plaza Suite, a collection of one-act plays all set in the same New York hotel room. The play became a successful film in 1971, starring Walter Matthau. Five years later Simon returned to the formula for California Suite, this time relocating events to the Beverly Hills Hotel. In 1978 director Herbert Ross collaborated with Simon on adapting that play into a film. Rather than simply presenting the stories one after the other, they opted to intersperse events from the four tales.

The project attracted a high calibre cast with six of actors having won or been nominated for Oscars. Caine played Sidney Cochran, his first performance as a gay man on film. ‘It was quite a difficult role but fascinating,’ he told the Daily Mirror in 1979. ‘I really don’t know what it will do to my image. The homosexuals will probably say, “I always knew he was one” and the heterosexuals will say, “I always wondered about him.”’

In a 2002 interview with Venice magazine, Caine recalled an encounter with Neil Simon on set during shooting. ‘One day he said to me, “You can really do my stuff. I’ve been watching the rushes.” I said, “Yeah, do you know what the secret to doing Neil Simon is? You can never stop moving.” You can’t do it standing still. It’s like Groucho Marx.’

California Suite received its US premiere in December 1978, rated PG. The picture got mixed reviews, with the sequence starring Caine and Maggie Smith getting the best notices. But the film still grossed nearly $30 million, aided by a strong showing at the awards ceremonies. Smith won for best actress in a musical or comedy at the Golden Globes, and the picture was nominated as best musical or comedy film. Smith was also nominated at the BAFTAs. She won an Oscar as best supporting actress – ironically for playing an actress who doesn’t win an Oscar. The film was received nominations for Simon’s screenplay and art direction. In her acceptance speech Smith thanked Caine, saying he deserved half her statuette: ‘It should be split down the middle.’

The film opened in the UK during March 1979, rated AA. Again, reviews praised Caine and Smith. In 1980 Caine considered the performance in California Suite among his best. ‘The timing was everything,’ he told Film Comment. ‘Doing that character was like walking on a razor blade. Very, very difficult and enervating.’ The film was released on video in the UK with a 15 rating in 1988. This was subsequently lowered to a 12 by the BBFC in 2001. California Suite is available on DVD in Britain and the US.

In 1994 Simon wrote London Suite, completing his trilogy of hotel-based plays. The characters played by Caine and Smith in California Suite returned in the new stage show. Caine declined an invitation to perform in the play, but offered his services if London Suite ever became a film.

Reviews: ‘The only story that is remotely successful is that concerning an Oscar nominated actress coming to terms with her husband’s bi-sexuality, touchingly conveyed by Michael Caine who’s better than he has been for many films…’ – Sunday Telegraph
‘Neil Simon and Herbert Ross have gambled in radically altering the successful format of California Suite … veering from poignant emotionalism to broad slapstick in sudden shifts.’ – Variety

Verdict: Transferring a successful stage play to the screen is a tricky business. Taking a show made up of four small plays and turning that into a movie is even harder. Despite having a great cast, an acclaimed writer and an Oscar-nominated director, California Suite doesn’t work as a cohesive movie. Cutting the four stories together simply heightens the disparities between them, rather than creating a meaningful contrast. Best of the quartet are the pairing of Caine and Smith as husband and wife, their scenes together both funny and moving. While Alan Alda and Jane Fonda get funnier dialogue in their segment, the British duo display far greater finesse. The bedroom farce with Walter Matthau is mildly amusing but the slapstick antics of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor are just annoying. California Suite is the filmic definition of something being less than the sum of its parts.

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