Plaza Suite (Hiller, 1971) and a Second-Story Man review

Before I talk about Plaza Suite a quick note: Second-Story Man got its first official review today and in a pretty big publication: Variety.

Check it out here: http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117944891/

My favorite Arthur Hiller film is The Hospital.  It’s maniacal, features an outstanding performance by George C. Scott, and was written by the great Paddy Chayefsky.  Plaza Suite is, in many ways similar.  It’s maniacal, features an outstanding performance by Walter Matthau, and was written by the great Neil Simon.  Plaza Suite consists of three vignettes, each starring Matthau in a different role opposite a new female lead.  It’s this structure that leads to the uneven feeling of the film.

Matthau plays adulterous, straight-laced husband, over-sexed Hollywood producer, and stressed wedding-day father over the course of the nearly two-hour film.  This is the type of script written to show an actor’s range, and Matthau doesn’t fail.  I particularly enjoyed his final turn.  His Roy Hubley – the father of the bride who has locked herself in the bathroom and won’t come out – scowls and growls his way through a hilarious and well-staged sequence, mostly taking place in, as with the rest of the film, room 719 of the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

Neil Simon’s writing is sharp as always.  His screenplay is a look at the evolution (or de-evolution) of love and marriage, though taken in reverse.  The first couple (Matthau opposite Maureen Stapleton) in 719 is in or nearing their 50s as they joke and argue their way through a deteriorating marriage.  The second couple (Matthau and Barbara Harris) in 719, in their 30s-40s, have an awkward and lascivious go at rekindling a lost love.  The third couple (Matthau and Lee Grant) in 719, in their 50s, sweatily attempt to convince their young daughter to go to the altar.

Reverse this order and you have: marriage beginning amidst doubt (the bride’s worry is “what [she] will become.”  Read: her parents), marriage at a crossroads, and marriage crumbling.

Plaza Suite succeeds in the written word.  Simon’s jokes crackle and his commentary is strong.  His is one that can be read as negative (see the reverse order) or positive (the final narrative shot is of the young bridge and groom zooming away on a motorcycle).  Where Plaza Suite doesn’t always succeed is via Hiller’s blocking and camera.

It’s difficult to watch the first vignette and not think of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Both are based off of plays, rely heavily on performance and camera, and look at a marriage that may or may not be falling apart.  In the latter film, Mike Nichols’ uses his camera expertly – spaces become claustrophobic, close-ups grotesque, movement frantic.  Hiller is no match for Nichols’ expertise (strangely enough, Nichols’ directed the stage version of Plaza Suite).

Hiller’s camera in this first vignette drags.  It follows and doesn’t become cinematic until a critical reveal of the infidelity.  Here’s a relic-of-a-technique that I hate, that is prominent in this first section of Plaza Suite: two actors are framed in a medium wide shot.  One walks closer to camera and stops – let’s say for clarity’s sake that this is Walter Matthau.  His stop can be for any reason – a line stops him, he sees something, etc.  Stapleton remains in the background and now we have a differently framed 2-shot, Matthau in medium close-up, Stapleton still in full-shot, with some depth to the image.  Okay, I like the new composition.  This is the problem: Matthau remains facing away and they have a “conversation.”  He looks to or beyond camera.  She looks at his back.  He is clearly standing on a mark – i.e. a pre-determined spot for him to stop – and he feels glued to it.

Stagey?  Yes.  The looking away character in the foreground conversation feels like playing to the audience.  It also feels unnatural.  A gifted director can make this work.  Give the actor a reason to not only stop, but continue looking away.  Maybe there’s something on TV that he’s looking (tangible, POV).  Maybe if he turns he’ll know he has to stay (intangible, emotional).  Who knows?  Anything.  Maybe he suddenly gets paralyzed.  I hate the shot where this occurs and the character continues to stay on his mark, looking away, for the sole reason that we as an audience can see his face.  It’s overplayed and unnecessary.

This is one of those techniques that really pulls the first vignette down. Luckily, the final five minutes or so of it rebound as Hiller’s camera becomes more exploratory and his blocking more natural (sitting, moving to the room service tray for coffee, etc).

Hiller’s second two vignettes are much more successful for one main reason, which sounds quite obvious, but is really a great challenge in directing: he gives the actors more real reasons to move.  Pouring a drink, trying to leave, trying to entice someone into a bedroom, climbing out a window, breaking down a door, answering a phone, etc.  These simple actions, most, if not all, written into the script, are used cleverly by Hiller in the final 2/3 of the film to make the action and movement feel less laborious, more believable and less stagey.

Couple these aforementioned points with the fact that the final vignette is laugh-out-loud funny, and one actually leaves Plaza Suite with a good taste in their mouth.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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