Hangdog. Sardonic. Grumpy. If you're a member of the generation that was introduced to Matthau during the 1990s, in the twilight of his career, those words might be the first to come to mind. 'Grumpy Old Men' and its sequel, 'Grumpier Old Men,' showcased Matthau as a charming curmudgeon, snarling at "those darn kids" and the unfairness of life in general, yet always with a bemused expression at the ready.
Those roles built on a template originally created by Neil Simon for 'The Odd Couple' and enacted by Matthau, first on stage and then in the 1968 film version. Matthau the actor fused with Oscar Madison the character, a jocular, terminally messy sports writer, driven to wit's end by the fussy, ultra-orderly Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon). Matthau and Lemmon enjoyed fabulous chemistry, first seen in Billy Wilder's 'The Fortune Cookie' in 1965, which earned Matthau an Academy Award for his portrayal of a greedy lawyer. 'The Odd Couple' put their personality differences into even greater relief, seemingly cementing Matthau's reputation as a grouch.
It was a great part and it must have been tempting thereafter for Matthau to restrict himself to pale imitations. That would be too easy, however. Those who first saw the actor on screen in the early 60s had already witnessed Matthau's ability to transform himself and may have suspected that he had far greater range than his embodiment of Oscar Madison may have suggested.
Suave. Sophisticated. Debonair. Witty. Deadly serious. Those are words you might use to describe his roles in Stanley Donen's 'Charade' (1963) and Sidney Lumet's 'Fail-Safe' (1964). In the former, he menaced Audrey Hepburn with sinister charm and deadly intent; in the latter, as a professor of political science serving as a civilian adviser to the Pentagon, he forcefully argued in favor of war in a time of crisis. In both films, he stood ramrod straight, surveying the scene from his full height of six feet, three inches tall. He gestured and moved through rooms with precision, clarity and confidence.
Watch how Matthau uses his left hand in this scene from 'Charade' as he tries to con Audrey Hepburn.
His body language and demeanor changed in 'The Odd Couple.' He slouched when standing and made extravagant, theatrical gestures. Some of those moves may have been left over from his stage performances, but in the context of the film, they still worked, well expressing the frustrations of Oscar Madison. A little later, in 'Cactus Flower' (1969), he was more restrained, which fit the lecherous dentist he played, desperate to hold on to his youth and freedom. He was a heel with a heart of gold.
Elaine May's masterful 'A New Leaf' (1971) pushed that idea to the nth degree. On the surface, Henry Graham is loathsome. He's wasted away his inherited wealth and cannot conceive of a life that involves hard work. The only solution he can imagine for his dilemma, other than suicide, is to marry a rich woman and murder her. He seizes upon the idea with determination and thinks he has found the ideal victim in a painfully shy and clumsy botanist, played by May. She's oblivious to his true intentions; Henry is exasperated by her flaws and then, to his rising horror, becomes strangely protective of her. Matthau makes us feel sympathy for a lazy Lothario with murder in mind and it's almost entirely accomplished through his eyes. They uncannily shift from piercing intensity to soft empathy in a single blink.
In the scene below, his eyes move quickly from abject boredom to lively engagement, all because he senses a momentary lull in the conversation.
With an arsenal of tools at his disposal, Matthau chose exactly what was needed. He could provoke laughter solely with his body language, a rare gift that he shared with the finest comic actors of the silent film age. He could slouch through scenes like an overgrown chimpanzee (no disrespect intended), his long arms and legs at variance with his head and torso, marching to different tempos yet still somehow in step with one another.
Even when he is sitting down and has no dialog, he commands attention. During his first appearance with Glenda Jackson in Ronald Neame's 'Hopscotch' (1980), he sits with her at an outdoor cafe. She's talking and he's studying her face, apparently memorizing every inch. A moment later, we realize that he's known her for years and what he's actually doing is remembering, marveling at her appearance, pleased to be in her presence again.
Or watch him with Jill Clayburgh in 'First Monday in October' (1981), also directed by Neame. (Her recent untimely death adds a poignant accent to the movie.) They play two Supreme Court Justices who are sitting down to eat in a Chinese restaurant. Clayburgh argues a point of law while Matthau struggles to stab a dumpling with his chop sticks. He's not trying to be funny; he's just an older gentleman who is intensely focused on the task at hand, too proud and stubborn to admit he doesn't have the physical coordination to work the chop sticks. He tries again and again, even after Clayburgh elegantly guides a dumpling into his mouth with her chop sticks. Finally he gives up in disgust.
Perhaps the key is that he didn't try to be funny in his comic roles and didn't take himself too seriously in his dramatic appearances. He had a marvelous run in the early 70s with a trio of terrific, charged dramas: 'Charley Varrick,' 'The Laughing Policeman' and 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.' Each took different approaches to familiar material; one was a chase picture, one a police procedural, one a suspense thriller.
Matthau varied his approach as well. He played, respectively, a bank robber, a San Francisco police detective and a New York transit police lieutenant. In the hands of another, they could have been played the same way, a leader of men on one side of the law or the other. In the hands of Matthau, each performance was shaded to match the character's place in life and attitude toward his work. In each, he was completely convincing.
Matthau calmly reacts to demands made by Robert Shaw in 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' in the clip below.
He dived back into full-bore adversarial crankiness with three comedies in a row after that, tackling Billy Wilder's remake of 'The Front Page' with Lemmon, returning to the land of Neil Simon against George Burns in 'The Sunshine Boys,' and facing off against a flock of kids in 'The Bad News Bears.' He was irascible, foul tempered and very, very funny.
Matthau made several other memorable pictures in the 70s, including 'Kotch,' which earned him an Academy Award nomination, 'House Calls,' his first teaming with Glenda Jackson (especially fun for watching him storm through hospital hallways), and 'Casey's Shadow,' in which he played a Louisiana horse trainer raising three rambunctious boys with a firm, loving hand.
By the mid-80s, as he was aging gracefully, he was passing out of favor as a leading man. He made strong impressions in 'Movers & Shakers' and 'JFK' before re-emerging in 1993 with 'Grumpy Old Men.' Reunited with his old pal Jack Lemmon, he bickered and bantered and insulted like nobody's business. He and Lemmon rose above the often stale and overly sentimental material, making us wish that they were young again so that their careers could stretch forward another 50 years, so that we'd never have to say goodbye.
After battling medical ailments for many years, Walter Matthau passed away on July 1, 2000, at the age of 79. To say he is missed only begins to tell the story.