|Neil Simon is perhaps the best known playwright of the last forty years. While Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, The Crucible) and Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire) have created works that will last the ages, Simon created comedies that attracted audiences, which means a long run on Broadway, many repeat productions not to mention the thousands of dinner and community theatre productions, a film sale, and money for the studios. I confess to not being a fan of Simonís work as I find most of it repetitious and ordinary. However, he did in the seventies write a couple of plays that became films that I quite like. The first is this comedy The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975); the second is The Sunshine Boys (1975) which I review next week. Though Simon was hugely popular in the seventies both for his stage and film work, he never did write the great American play, and I do not understand the canonization of him in American theatre circles. There is a similar rhythm to his writing that is present in nearly all of his work that becomes the same after a while, and quickly wears out its welcome.|
† Yet in fairness, when Simon had the courage to slip beneath the veneer of the laughter and explore darker areas, as he did with this film and The Sunshine Boys (1975) he offered audiences the chance to see a slice of life as it really was, and actors strong roles that they could not possibly turn down.
†† In The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1974), Mel (Jack Lemmon) loses his job as an executive and is faced with unemployment. Instead of rallying and finding work, he slips into a deep depression, and then rages at the state ofAmericawhen he cannot find work. His wife, Edna (Anne Bancroft) watches in horror at what happens to her beloved, finally taking a job to make ends meet. Yet even with Edna out making a living for both of them, Mel cannot come out of his depression. He sulks around the apartment, obsesses about the man upstairs who soaked him in water, and grows angrier by the minute at his lot in life. When help comes, it comes in the most unlikely form, Melís jealous older brother, who resents the love Melís sisters have for the baby of the family.
Jack Lemmon was the perfect choice to play Mel because no other actor could capture Melís hysterical agony and make it both funny and deeply moving. This is a man on the edge, who could just as easily jump out his window as return to normal, and Lemmon is the master at the type of performance. There is a hysterical sequence as he describes what he is going to do the person who dumped water on him that must be seen to be believed. We have all been in this place at one point in our life, and Mel is simply not going to take it anymore.
Anne Bancroft is Lemmonís perfect foil, making Edna both a sounding board, but also somebody who is becoming fed up and frightened by her husbandís behaviour. She is at her wits end and plays it that way, giving a complex performance that like Lemmon is both touching and often very funny. Both Lemmon and Bancroft were snubbed for Academy Award nominations despite the fact there was strong speculation both might earn nominations.
The disc offers the film in widescreen with an interesting little documentary about the making of the film. All in all, The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) represents Neil Simonís deepest and most powerful work.