Chapter Two was based on Neil Simon's hit Broadway play of the same name which opened in 1977 and ran for 857 performances. It starred Judd Hirsch as George and Anita Gillette as Jennie. It was no secret that Simon had based the story on his own life. Simon had lost his wife of 20 years, Joan, to cancer in 1973. Without giving himself time to fully grieve the loss, Simon met and fell in love with actress Marsha Mason later that same year. After knowing each other only three weeks, the two married. Although their professional collaboration during their years together yielded several hit films including The Goodbye Girl (1977), The Cheap Detective (1978) and Only When I Laugh (1981), it became clear early on that there were serious problems in the marriage. "Before I could write the play Chapter Two...I felt I had to go to Marsha to get her consent...," said Neil Simon in his 1999 memoir The Play Goes On. "If this was too personal to go public with, despite the fact that I would try to give the characters their own personalities separate from ours, I would still have to adhere to her wishes. When I finally asked her, she said, 'It's fine with me because what you'd be telling is your story, not mine. You'd write about what was going on in your head and could only presume what was happening to me. If I want to tell my story, maybe I'll put it in my own book one day.' I was enormously grateful for her consent and encouragement, and although I knew I'd made no promises to her, I would have to treat the story as truthfully as I could."
There was one particular pivotal episode in their marriage which inspired the play's (and film's) most famous scene. As Marsha Mason explained in her 2000 memoir Journey: A Personal Odyssey, "There's a lot of pain in Neil and a lot of anger too. Perhaps he doesn't want to control his feelings, because he's a writer. He likes drama...The drama left me exhausted, scared, and unable to put two intelligent sentences together, but once in a great while I'd find the words and say something that was like connecting a bat with a ball and hitting a home run. One such home run is on film, in Chapter Two. It's the big speech toward the end of the picture; that scene was taken from life, more or less."
"Marsha put up with my dissatisfaction as long as she could," said Neil Simon in The Play Goes On explaining the episode, "then suddenly one day an explosion came. After some stinging words from me, in which I threatened to leave, to get out, Marsha came to me with a torrent of words that flowed out with such anger, but such truth, that she never missed a beat, never tripped over a single syllable or consonant. Each thought was fully formed, each one following the other as if she had learned it, practiced it, rehearsed it - but I knew it was spontaneous, that it was coming from the bottom of her heart and soul, her one last chance to save something good. She always knew I was the better one with words...But on that day, during that speech, I sat silently looking at her, amazed at her breathtaking demonstration of someone saying something that she knows to be so right, so honest, so truthful, that she has tossed away the possibilities of the consequences and fired away. Two things happened to me at the same time. One I was grateful for; the other I was almost ashamed of. I was grateful for her bravery, her intelligence and her love. I was ashamed because I knew that what she said was so powerful, I was going to put it in the play. It was so organic it needed to be in the play, needed to be said so that my couple could save their marriage...There was no way I could remember exactly what she said, of course, but I paraphrased it, remembering the essential thoughts. If it sounds well written, it's not. It was a gift of words and feelings that I did not invent."
Marsha Mason chose not to play Jennie on the Broadway stage since the role hit too close to home at the time. However, she changed her mind when she had the chance to make the film version. "...she felt that so much time had passed before the picture was made," explained Neil Simon, "she could separate herself from Jennie and simply think of the role as a character she'd like to play." Simon wrote the screenplay for the film, gently shifting the focus more towards the character of Jennie while the play had centered more on George. James Caan was cast as George, while Joseph Bologna and Valerie Harper played the comic supporting roles of George's brother and Jennie's best friend.
Reviews of Chapter Two were positive, most singling out Marsha Mason's luminous portrayal of Jennie. "Miss Mason gives a vibrant, appealing performance that minimizes the movie's troubles and encourages the audience to sit back and enjoy the scenery," said the New York Times. "Miss Mason, who has been acting more confidently and looking prettier with each successive movie, is this time every bit as sunny and intelligently appealing as Mr. Simon's screenplay means her to be; the material rests the weight of the movie upon her shoulders, and she carries it ably." Variety said, "Chapter Two represents Neil Simon at his big-screen best. Film version of his successful and loosely autobiographical play is tender, compassionate and gently humorous all at once. Marsha Mason's tremendous performance under Robert Moore's sensitive direction gives the pic another boost."
The speech that Mason gives in the film inspired by her own marriage generated strong responses. "When she said it...audiences in film theaters often applauded her when she finished," said Neil Simon, "grateful that she was a spokeswoman for wives who might have had the same trouble in their own marriages." Mason was rewarded for her work by receiving her third Academy Award nomination as Best Actress.
Although Neil Simon and Marsha Mason ended their marriage in 1984, Chapter Two remains a highlight of their long and successful professional collaboration together on the silver screen.
Producer: Ray Stark
Director: Robert Moore
Screenplay: Neil Simon (screenplay and play)
Cinematography: David M. Walsh
Art Direction: Pete Smith
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Film Editing: Michael A. Stevenson
Cast: James Caan (George Schneider), Marsha Mason (Jennie MacLaine), Joseph Bologna (Leo Schneider), Valerie Harper (Faye Medwick), Alan Fudge (Lee Michaels), Judy Farrell (Gwen Michaels), Debra Mooney (Marilyn), Ray Young (Gary)
by Andrea Passafiume