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Maggie Smith, with her performance in California Suite (1978), became the only person to win an Academy Award for playing a person who loses an Academy Award. In Neil Simon's quartet of short comedies, unrelated except for all being set in the Beverly Hills Hotel, Smith plays Diana Barrie, a distinguished British stage actress not unlike herself who has "slummed" by playing a supporting role in a film. The surprise Oscar® nomination has brought Diana and homosexual husband Sidney (Michael Caine) to Hollywood, where they try to cope with Diana's pre-ceremony anxiety and then, after she loses, her drunken despair. Some of Simon's cleverest writing is contained in this sophisticated playet, called Visitors from London, with the couple exchanging barbed one-liners while working their way through some hard truths in their relationship. The two actors play off each other brilliantly, and in accepting her Oscar® a gracious Smith said, "I would very much like for Michael Caine to be here with me. It should be split down the middle."
Unlike the play on which it is based, the film version of California Suite intercuts among its various stories. The vignette Visitors from New York stars Jane Fonda and Alan Alda as a divorced couple bickering over whether their teen-age daughter should stay with her mother in New York City or move to Los Angeles to live with her father. The setup gives New Yorker Simon plenty of room to rib the shortcomings of L.A., with Fonda describing it as "Paradise with a lobotomy." The playet Visitors from Philadelphia casts Walter Matthau as a married man who awakens to find a prostitute unconscious in his bed and his wife (Elaine May) on her way up to his hotel room. The episode Visitors from Chicago has Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor as two doctors who bring their wives (Sheila Frazier and Gloria Gifford) on a vacation where everything that possibly can go wrong does.
Simon received an Oscar® nomination for this adaptation of his play, one of a long line of Broadway successes that also includes Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park, and The Sunshine Boys, all of which became hit films. His autobiographical trilogy of plays Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound won particular critical praise, and Simon won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Lost in Yonkers. California Suite follows the same formula as its predecessor, Plaza Suite, and the later London Suite, which reunites the characters of Diana and Sidney.
Herbert Ross, the director of California Suite, also directed the Simon films The Sunshine Boys (1975), The Goodbye Girl (1977) and I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982). Vincent Canby of The New York Times called California Suite "the most agreeably realized Simon film in years" and added, "Here is Mr. Simon in top form, under the direction of Herbert Ross, one of the few directors ... who can cope with the particular demands of material that simultaneously means to be touching and so nonstop clever one sometimes wants to gag him. It all works in California Suite, not only because the material is superior Simon, but also because the writer and the director have assembled a dream cast." Another Oscar® nomination went to the film's Art Direction/Set Decoration by Albert Brenner and Marvin March.
After winning her award, Smith said that, instead of making a prompt departure as her character in the film did, "I won't go back to London until next week; I want to enjoy the feeling of being a winner." When a reporter inquired if Londoners would celebrate her victory, she responded, "Oh, no, Oscar® doesn't mean anything in England. They don't know quite what they are."
Producer: Ray Stark
Director: Herbert Ross
Screenplay: Neil Simon
Cinematography: David M. Walsh
Production Design: Albert Brenner
Music: Claude Bolling
Film Editing: Michael A. Stevenson
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), Richard Pryor (Dr. Chauncey Gump), Bill Cosby (Dr. Willis Panama).
C-103m. Closed Captioning.
by Roger Fristoe