California Suite (1978)

screenshot from California Suite

Directed by: Herbert Ross
Screenwriter(s): Neil Simon
Starring: Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jane Fonda, Alan Alda, Walter Matthau, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor
Genre: Comedy / Drama
Country: USA
Running time: 1h 43m
Rating: 9 out of 10

California Suite features four overlapping stories about five couples who are all visiting one Beverley Hills hotel over the Oscars weekend and the film explores marriage, love and divorce through their experiences. Simon’s script keeps the pace moving briskly, spitting out one liners and observations at a rate and quality that reminds us why he was once considered among the top playwrights in the world.

Sidney Cochran (Caine) and his wife Diana Barrie (Smith) are in town because Barrie, a celebrated Shakespearean actress, has been nominated as Best Actress for a throwaway comedy. Caine’s Sidney loves his wife deeply, but is bisexual and has countless afternoon affairs while his wife is filming.

Diana: Let’s do something naughty. You always think of such good naughty things to do.
Sidney: I was naughty all day yesterday.
Diana: Not with me, you weren’t.
Sidney: You’ll just have to learn to show up on time.

Hannah Warren (Fonda) has flown in from New York to visit her ex-husband Bill (Alda) because their daughter has run away from New York to be with her father. As the divorced New York couple who still care for each other but cannot live together, they get all the best lines in the film, perhaps because their sharp, witty schtick is closest to Simon’s own taste:

Hannah: You look like the sweetest, young, 14 year old boy. You’re not spending your summers at camp, are you?
Bill: Just three weeks in July.

The best physical comedy falls to the peerless Matthau as a happily married man whose skirt-chasing brother buys him a prostitute the night before his wife (essayed stylishly by comedy writer-director, Elaine May) arrives. Watching the scene in which he tries unsuccessfully to get the dead-drunk girl out of his room before his wife catches him is funnier than the combined mirth of a hundred teen comedies.

Just like at the Oscars themselves, not everyone can be a winner and it’s the Cosby-Pryor storyline which finds itself smiling and clapping as someone else takes the prize. As the sublimely named Dr Chauncey Gump (Pryor) and Dr Willis Panama (Cosby), they are the two most competitive doctors in Chicago on the final leg of the vacation from hell with their wives, but their constant bickering becomes tiresome despite the best efforts of both performers.

Ironically, while Maggie Smith’s character is unsuccessfully nominated for Best Actress (‘You’ve gotta have a sentimental reason for them to vote for you. Any decent actress can give a good performance. But a dying husband, that would have ensured everything.’), Smith herself won Best Supporting Actress for this film.

There was actually a TV-movie sequel of sorts, Neil Simon’s London Suite, in which only Caine and Smith’s characters return. Set 8 years after California Suite, it features indie darling Patricia Clarkson as Diana (now down-graded to a TV actress) and Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) as Sidney. It’s not good.