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Everybody Knows Me: An Interview with Walter Matthau

October 1, 2014 | by

Matthau would be ninety-four today. The poet Aram Saroyan, his stepson, spoke to him in 1974 about the vagaries of fame.

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Matthau, left, with Maureen Stapleton and Jack Lemmon in a 1974 production of Juno and the Paycock at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum. Photo courtesy of the author

This interview took place at the kitchen table in the Matthau household in Pacific Palisades between two and three thirty in the morning on Monday, December 17, 1974. I was staying overnight in the guesthouse and had returned a short time earlier from a concert in Century City when I happened to catch Walter up and in a talking mood.

I’d known him since I was fourteen and he was thirty-seven, a well-established Broadway actor with a string of rave reviews in a succession of commercial flops. After his marriage to my mother, Carol, in 1959, I knew that he made occasional trips to Hollywood for movie or TV work, but understood that he was a “New York actor” and made the trips for money. After the Broadway smash he had in The Odd Couple in 1965, he began the move West and the transition from stage to screen, which, culminating in the screen version of The Odd Couple, established him as a movie star. During the transition, he had very nearly died of a coronary, an experience he was never noticeably reticent about.

Older than most stars—in his fifties by the time the dust settled again—Walter seemed to take fame in stride. But seeing him for the first time ensconced in his Pacific Palisades home with the high-powered trappings of Hollywood success, after having known him in what was by comparison a New York artistic bohemia, I couldn’t help being struck by the magnitude of the change. One felt that he relished being a movie star and at the same time regarded it with a certain skepticism, which extended to the business and his colleagues in it at large. When a movie he’d starred in received bad reviews, he sighed and said to Carol, We’re going have to start being nice to people again.

You’re back on the stage again in Juno and the Paycock. What’s that like, after ten years in the movies?

It’s very satisfying. Doing a good play on the stage is like eating a good meal at home—assuming your wife is a great cook, or that she’s hired a great cook. Doing a movie is like eating five hundred canapés at a cocktail party—you’re never really full. You don’t feel as though you’ve eaten a meal, and yet you can’t eat anymore. You’ve had a little hot dog here, and you’ve had a little caviar there, and a fish here, and a sardine. The feeling is just marvelous, especially if you’re good at what you’re doing, and I think I work much better on the stage because I have things to offer a stage that don’t show up in movies. Read More »

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Ah, Bless, and Other News

April 30, 2014 | by

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Heinrich Zille, Die Witwe, 1929.

  • The winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Awards: in fiction, László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet; in poetry, Elisa Biagini’s The Guest in the Wood, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky.
  • Jenny Diski, bless her, on aging, or something like it: “I must accept that I was old because my hairdresser says, ‘Ah, bless,’ in response to whatever I say in answer to her questions. ‘Are you busy today?’ ‘Just regular working.’ ‘Ah, bless.’ ‘How was the weekend?’ ‘A friend came to stay.’ ‘Ah, bless.’ The other day, when she asked, I said: ‘I’m being interviewed by a journalist from Poland.’ ‘Ah, bless.’ … The ah-bless alters or confirms whatever it’s responding to, and in my mind’s eye (altered and confirmed) I see a small, nondescript old lady going bravely about her business. There are other signs that I am no longer young, but the ah-bless is the most open and public.”
  • In 1968, Charles Simic witnessed a group of disgruntled poets settle things the old-fashioned way—with fisticuffs. “I stood on the porch watching in astonishment with the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra and the French poet Eugène Guillevic. They were delighted by the spectacle and assumed that this is how American poets always settled their literary quarrels; I tried to tell them that this was the first time I had seen anything like that and it scared the hell out of me, but they just laughed.”
  • A series of photos compares public spaces in North and South Korea. (The shot of the Pyongyang Metro is especially poignant.)
  • Guillaume Nicloux discusses his new film, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, starring, yes, Michel Houellebecq: “He is also really annoying to the captors. He is always asking for wine and cigarettes, he asks for another visit from the prostitute, he is really tiresome for them. He gets angry. He begs our sympathy, but at the same time he behaves really badly.”

 

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