California Suite – US, 1978
Herbert Ross’s California Suite feels like two films unwisely wrapped into one. The film tells four stories, all involving people who are staying at a particular hotel on the eve of the 1978 Academy Awards. Two of the stories are more dramatic that comedic and emphasize people’s fears of failure, loneliness, and death. The other two, perhaps as a result of the actors that make up their casts, are played for laughs, and the script requires the actors to overreach in often futile attempts at slapstick comedy. The film jumps back and forth between these four story lines, and often serious moments are interrupted by comic ones. The switch can be quite jarring, and I suspect that most filmgoers will enjoy the film’s more dramatic story lines much more than its ill-fated attempts at humor.
The first story involves Diana Barrie (Maggie Smith), a British actress most known for her serious roles in Shakespearean adaptations and dramas. As the film opens, she is traveling to Los Angeles to attend the Oscars, where she has the chance of winning Best Actress for her role in what seems to be a very light comedy. Barrie is accompanied by her husband, Sydney Cochran (Michael Caine), who is both a source of strength and the cause of a great deal of angst. If anyone has ever wondered just what some nominees go through just before the Oscars and just immediately after a loss, California Suite is the film to watch, and Maggie Smith’s performance may just make people ponder the fragility of celebrities.
The second story made me recall Baz Luhrmann’s hit song Everyone’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen). This is the song that includes a line about New York making you hard and California making you soft. The story involves a formerly married couple, Bill and Hannah Warren, that reunites in Los Angeles after their daughter Jenny, played by a very young Dana Plato, runs away from her mother in New York and flies to California to be with her father. The conversations between the two ex’s fluctuates between being bitter and caustic and being rather heartfelt. The film gives us a peek at a mother who is fearful of the growing divide that exists between her and her daughter and her growing worry that once her daughter turns 18, that chasm will only increase. I have no doubt that many viewers will understand Hannah’s sentiments. We also see evidence of the resentment that can come about when one part of a former couple is happier than the other. In one of the most intriguing exchanges in the film, Hannah asks Bill if being in love is better now. He says it is simple because it is now.
The other two stories have less going for them primarily because they lack emotional back stories. In one, two long-time friends are on vacation with their wives. It is clear from the very get-go that they have spent far too much time together. Situations like this happen more often than people would like to admit, and there is indeed opportunity for something real in this story line, something about how familiarity can breed contempt. However, it appears that with Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor playing the two men, comedy was placed over drama, and in no time at all, their behavior begins to resemble that of characters from asinine slapstick comedies. The film goes even more overboard with its final story, which involves a man named Marvin Michaels (Walter Matthau) trying to get a sleeping prostitute out of his hotel room before his wife arrives. I suspect that what takes place in the scene would work better on a theatrical stage, as long stretches of characters talking to themselves and reacting in an overly animated way are more common in plays. Here it just doesn’t work, and while some of the dialogue is clever, it feels slightly contrived, as if screenwriter Neil Simon wrote a series of clever lines and then didn’t bother to ask whether the audience would believe a particular character would speak them.
That said, there are moments of real truth in California Suite, and there are moments of real untruth, moments so silly that it is hard to see the messages behind them. Yet they are there. A later conversation between Diana and Sydney is heartbreaking because it reveals what many people are often unwilling to admit: that sometimes people stay in relationships not because they are getting what they need from them but because they hope that the other person will notice just how hard they are trying to make the relationship work and appreciate them. Maggie Smith won Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Diana, and it is easy to see why. A case could also have been made for Jane Fonda. She is able to play Hannah Warren in such a way that we feel for both her and her ex-husband (Alan Alda), who bears the brunt of her endless stream of caustic remarks. It can’t be easy to be civil under the circumstances that Hannah finds herself in. In fact, California Suite is worth watching just for these two storylines. If only they had been expanded and the other two eliminated. A mixed bag indeed (on DVD)