The Fortune Cookie
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When the subject of great screen teams comes up, the names Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau usually leap to mind immediately. Over the course of three decades, the two established themselves as a peerless comic duo, playing Lemmon's nervous Everyman off Matthau's slow-burning blusterer in seven films - nine, if you count uncharacteristic films like The Grass Harp (1995) and JFK (1991). The most famous of these, of course, is The Odd Couple (1968), but The Fortune Cookie (1966) was their first and considered one of the best for its biting satire on television, sports and greed.
The Fortune Cookie also boasts one of the most successful behind-the-camera screen teams, director Billy Wilder and his longtime screenwriting-producing partner I.A.L. Diamond. The two made 13 films together, ranging from the Audrey Hepburn romance Love in the Afternoon (1957) to the controversial sex comedy Kiss Me Stupid (1964). Several of their most acclaimed and popular movies were with Jack Lemmon, including Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960) and Irma La Douce (1963). And the collaboration with Lemmon and Matthau in The Fortune Cookie proved so successful, the four went on to make two more films together - The Front Page (1974) and Buddy, Buddy (1981).
Despite his long success teaming with Diamond, Wilder once characterized the two of them as "the parents of an idiot child" who had to stop and think before they worked together again, wondering if they should be allowed to "reproduce" once more. The remark says less about their partnership than about Wilder's well-known caustic wit and often darkly humorous outlook on the world. In filmmaker Cameron Crowe's book Conversations with Wilder (Knopf, 1999), the Austrian-born director brushes The Fortune Cookie off as a movie made under contract, not one he particularly cared about. He even calls it "the beginning of my downfall." At the same time, however, he notes with pleasure the comic chemistry of Lemmon and Matthau and lists Matthau's character, "Whiplash" Willie Gingrich, as one of the characters he was most reluctant to let go of upon completion of filming.
So it's probably better not to take Wilder's statements too seriously and enjoy the movie as a wickedly black comedy. Harry Hinkle (a perfect Lemmon name) is a TV cameraman run down by a football player during broadcast of a game. He isn't injured, but his ambulance-chasing lawyer brother-in-law (Matthau) convinces him to pretend he's badly hurt in order to pursue a big lawsuit. Matthau won a supporting actor Oscar® for his dead-on portrayal of a character described in the script as "a tall, loose-jointed man - with a brain full of razor blades and a heart full of chutzpah." On the subject of the actor, Wilder is again not to be entirely trusted. In Crowe's book, he claims to have brought the relatively unknown Matthau from the New York theater. It's true Matthau was a respected stage actor and not exactly a household name in 1966, but The Fortune Cookie was actually his 20th film since 1955, including roles in Elvis Presley's King Creole (1958), Fail Safe (1964) and Ensign Pulver (1964), the sequel to Mr. Roberts (1955), in which Lemmon created the Pulver character.
Keep a sharp eye out for a change in Matthau's appearance in some scenes. The actor suffered a heart attack during filming, and production had to be shut down for several weeks. The scenes he shot on his return reveal a much-thinner Whiplash Willie.
A couple of additional points in the argument that The Fortune Cookie is not the disappointment Wilder claimed it to be: The film is remarkable in its use - innovative at the time - of inter-cutting between television and film footage. And as Boom Boom Jackson, the sweet-natured player who crashes into Lemmon, Ron Rich is cast in one of the first major black roles in American movies that doesn't depend on race as a story issue or plot point.
Director: Billy Wilder
Producers: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, Doane Harrison
Screenplay: I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Art Direction: Robert Luthardt
Music: Andre Previn
Cast: Jack Lemmon (Harry Hinkle), Walter Matthau (Willie Gingrich), Ron Rich (Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson), Judi West (Sandy Hinkle), Cliff Osmond (Purkey), Lurene Tuttle (Mother Hinkle).
by Rob Nixon