Of course I’ve been dying to see The Fortune Cookie (1966). Who wouldn’t want to view the first pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, the two whose seamless chemistry led to almost 30 years of hilarious cinematic repartee?
Matthau won his only (!) Oscar for the role of Willie Gingrich, an ambulance chaser who capitalizes when his brother-in-law, sports cameraman Harry Hinkle (Lemmon), gets injured by a football star running a play. Look at the people Gingrich can sue! The TV station! the Cleveland Browns! Of course, Hinkle was barely hurt, but an old injury might appear new, and thus enriching. If only Gingrich can get his brother-in-law to go along, he’ll be a millionaire! Of course, there are obstacles: his brother-in-law’s stupid scruples, for example, are holding up the path to gold.
Luckily, Gingrich has an ace up his sleeve: Hinkle never got over his ex-wife, Sandy (Judi West), and she’s an anxious for the dough as Gingrich is.
Gingrich is a magical character, a monstrous anti-hero whose avarice is fascinating to witness. He’s Saul Goodman with an even darker sense of humor. I particularly love when he calls Sandy, saying he’s glad to have her as part of the “organization” conning the Browns (not to mention fooling her ex with fake affection). His children interrupt the call, prompting Gingrich to yell out (with a straight face), “Why don’t you kids go play on the freeway?”
Gingrich’s reaction to love getting in the way of profit is typical of him:
His hope to avoid his kids is displayed from the start of the film; his face dims when they’re present, but glows when opportunity arises. He’s only animated when they skate away:
With Gingrich on the screen, you can’t look away, and he’s in nearly every scene. Why he was considered “supporting” and Lemmon the star is one of those mysteries of Oscar nominations no one outside of the industry ever understands.
In terms of plot, not much else happens. Hinkle agrees to fake a grave injury to win back his wife, who pretends better motives for her return in order to get at the money. ‘Boom Boom’ Jackson (Ron Rich), the player who hit Hinkle, slowly falls to pieces about what he thinks he’s done, to Gingrich’s delight (verisimilitude!) and Hinkle’s growing horror. What happens by the end of the movie, most viewers could predict, but given that Billy Wilder is the director and cowriter (with I.A.L. Diamond), there are wonderful twists along the way.
What’s notable about Lemmon’s performance is its generosity. Lemmon can play, often did play, a ham. His first Oscar, over a decade before, was for his scene-stealing, exuberant character in Mister Roberts. Yet here he is, ceding every scene to Matthau, and letting the latter’s role glitter just enough for his supporting Oscar. A less confident, thoughtful, or serious actor would have made Hinkle showier. But not Lemmon. When Hinkle finally stands up to Gingrich, we do see the dam of the character’s (and Lemmon’s) restraint burst, but only briefly, and even then, the goofiness pales in comparison to Matthau’s darkly funny turn as Gingrich. And as we all know, Lemmon only pales when he feels like it. Hinkle’s character is a subdued, passive one, and Lemmon never forgets it.
When I decided to join the Lemmon blogathon hosted by Crítica Retrô and Wide Screen World, I wondered which Lemmon I would see in The Fortune Cookie: the desperate and dark type he captures in Glenglarry Glen Ross, but this time played for humor? The sarcasm he spins in The Out of Towners? The nearly shrill silliness of his role in Some Like It Hot? How many actors has Lemmon been, just as a comedian?
Given how fun his banter typically is with Matthau, I expected to see the two out-goofing one another here. But I find it charming to discover something else: a realism to their dynamic, a sort of half-tolerant contempt that rings true for two characters joined by a marriage rather than by love or blood. A willingness (in real life) for one artist to help out another—in this case, Lemmon aiding Matthau with his one and only Oscar win. Their dynamic is definitely less fun than at the height of their powers in the wonderful Grumpy Old Men. Yet there’s something sublimely sweet about where it all started, and–though I didn’t think it possible–that makes me love Lemmon all the more.