“Even when I didn’t like you, I loved you,” admits Paul – one half of the newlywed couple whose marriage gets put to the test in the beguiling “Barefoot in the Park” (1967.) I was a little concerned about revisiting this classic romantic farce because in 2006 I’d seen an ill-fated Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s play and had found the script dated. After having spent months unanticipatedly sharing close quarters for longs periods of time with my better half, I have found a renewed appreciation for this film. I laughed and cried while identifying with the seesaw of compromises and adjustments that a couple confronts which indeed prove at times comically challenging and strengthening. The fact that a young Jane Fonda and Robert Redford play that couple makes it irresistible.
Neil Simon – one of America’s most celebrated playwrights – debuted “Barefoot in the Park” on Broadway in 1963 and it brought him national attention. His comedies often include decent average people caught in everyday conflicts which are usually solved by the end. He mined those situations with physical and verbal comedy – and a barrage of one-liners and zingers. His characters are insecure and self-deprecating. He wrote over 30 plays including “The Odd Couple,” “The Sunshine Boys,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Lost in Yonkers.” He also wrote Academy Award nominated screenplays – including “The Goodbye Girl,” amongst many others. He was the theatrical poet of the middle class. His work can be compared to such classical playwrights as Moliere and Menander – finding humor in almost every difficulty as a way to heal and bring closure.
Corie and Paul Bratter have just married and spent six days at the Plaza Hotel without leaving the room. “If the honeymoon doesn’t work out, let’s not get divorced. Let’s kill each other,” she says. She’s picked their first home – an apartment on the fifth floor of a brownstone in New York City – without him seeing it. Corie is a free spirit and sees charm in every aspect of the place. Paul, the more conservative and realistic of the two, sees a hole in the skylight, a leaky closet, and a bathroom without a bathtub. “The radiator’s the coldest thing in the room,” he says. Even before the furniture arrives her mother shows up – and she knows how optimistic her daughter is about their living arrangements. “It’s unusual, like you,” she tells her daughter. Later that evening, while the couple is freezing, their eccentric neighbor, Mr. Velasco walks in for he needs to climb through their bedroom window to get into his apartment above them. Corie sees an opportunity to set him up with her mother who is lonely and needs love. Will Paul and Corie overcome the obstacle of their cramped one bedroom and learn to live with each other’s opposite temperaments?
Corie is a descendant from the screwball heroines of the 1930s and a precursor to Annie Hall. She may come across as neurotic or flighty, but when she sets her mind to something she is resolute. She is joyous and carefree and wants Paul to get loose and learn to walk barefoot in the park – and most importantly she wants their marriage to succeed.
Her mother, Ethel, is middle-aged, old fashioned and in need of a sexual liberation. Of course, she finds it in the avant-garde neighbor played deliciously by Charles Boyer. His apartment is Asian fusion décor – and he takes them all to an Albanian restaurant for an all-night binge of dance and Ouzo.
Mildred Natwick originated the role of Ethel on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony. She recreated it for the film and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting actress. She flutters and sputters through the role with great delight. Jane Fonda is playful, frisky, with great comic timing. She has this particular way of walking that is almost like a bunny rabbit. Redford, who retained his role from Broadway, is so handsome and disarming in this. This material needs a light touch to succeed – and both leading performers know how to handle it. Fonda and Redford work so well together — they’ve shared the screen in five films.
Another reason why I love this film so much is that it takes place in New York. The opening credits of the newlyweds on a horse carriage through New York had me swooning. And the final scene in Washington Square Park is just impeccable.
Corie: “There are watchers in this world and there are doers. And the watchers sit around watching the doers, do. Well, tonight you watched, and I did.”
Paul: “Well, it was a lot harder watching what you did than it was for you to do what I was watching!”
Available to stream on HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, Fubo TV and DIRECTV. Available to rent on YouTube, Apple TV, Google Play, VUDU, iTunes, Microsoft, Amazon, FandangoNOW and Redbox.
Written by Neil Simon and based on “Barefoot in the Park” by Neil Simon
Directed by Gene Saks
Starring Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Charles Boyer and Mildred Natwick
About Playwright and Screenwriter Neil Simon
Born on July 4, 1927, in the Bronx, Marvin Neil Simon was the son of a garment industry salesman, Irving Simon, who abandoned the family more than once during his childhood, leaving Mr. Simon’s mother, May, to take care of Neil and his older brother, Danny. When the family was intact, the mood was darkened by constant battles between the parents. The tensions of the family, which moved to Washington Heights when Mr. Simon was 5, would find their way into many of his plays, notably the late trilogy but also the early comedies, including his first play, “Come Blow Your Horn” (1961), about a young man leaving home to join his older brother, a bachelor and ladies’ man. And when the family finally broke up for good, the young Mr. Simon went to live with cousins while his brother was sent to live with an aunt, circumstances reflected in “Lost in Yonkers.” “When an audience laughed, I felt fulfilled,” Mr. Simon wrote in “Rewrites.” “It was a sign of approval, of being accepted. Coming as I did from a childhood where laughter in the house meant security, but was seldom heard as often as a door slamming every time my father took another year’s absence from us, the laughter that came my way in the theater was nourishment.” Danny Simon, older by eight years, was the signal influence on Neil’s career. “The fact is, I probably never would have been a writer if it were not for Danny,”…Mr. Simon graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and attended New York University as an enlistee in the Army Air Forces Air Reserve training program. He continued his studies at the University of Denver while assigned to a base nearby. (His military experience inspired the second play in his late trilogy, “Biloxi Blues.”)
At the time, Danny had begun working in publicity at Warner Bros. in New York. Neil joined him there as a clerk after his discharge from the Air Force. Together they began writing television and radio scripts, eventually making $1,600 a week providing gags and sketches for Mr. Silvers, Jerry Lester, Jackie Gleason and Mr. Caesar on “Your Show of Shows” and later “Caesar’s Hour.”…The Simon brothers also wrote weekly revues for Camp Tamiment, the summer resort in the Poconos… “Come Blow Your Horn,” the play Mr. Simon wrote to escape the slavery of gag writing for television comics, ran for 677 performances and gained him connections and notice. But it was with “Barefoot in the Park,” a comedy inspired by his and his young wife’s experiences living in a fifth-floor walk-up in Greenwich Village, that Mr. Simon became a Broadway name. It was the first Broadway show directed by Mike Nichols, then best known for his comedy work with Elaine May. Mr. Nichols would go on to become one of Mr. Simon’s most frequent collaborators, credited by Mr. Simon with helping to shape his early plays through the tryouts and rehearsals. Mr. Nichols won his first Tony Award for directing “The Odd Couple.” He also directed “Plaza Suite,” with George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton, and “The Prisoner of Second Avenue”…“Barefoot in the Park” made a star of Robert Redford, who was cast alongside Elizabeth Ashley. It played for close to four years and made a hot commodity of Mr. Simon in Hollywood. His agent, Irving Lazar, better known as Swifty, sold the movie rights for $400,000. (Mr. Lazar asked Mr. Simon whether he’d be willing to sell the play for $300,000. Mr. Simon jumped at the offer, and Mr. Lazar kept the rest.) The movie, with a screenplay by Mr. Simon, and with Mr. Redford and Jane Fonda in the starring roles, became a hit when it was released in 1967 at Radio City Music Hall, breaking the box-office record. That record would be smashed by the movie version of “The Odd Couple.” Both movies were directed by Gene Saks, who would direct many of Simon’s later plays, including the “Brighton Beach” trilogy and “Lost in Yonkers.”
…Mr. Simon’s screenwriting career included dozens of titles, among them many adaptations of his plays. In addition to “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple” (with the original stage star, Walter Matthau, and Jack Lemmon replacing Art Carney), he wrote the screenplays for “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” with Mr. Lemmon and Anne Bancroft, and “The Sunshine Boys,” with Mr. Matthau and George Burns, as well as “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Lost in Yonkers,” among others. He also wrote original movies, including, “The Out-of-Towners,” the period spoof “Murder by Death,” “The Goodbye Girl,” “The Cheap Detective,” “Max Dugan Returns,” “The Slugger’s Wife,” “Only When I Laugh,” based on his play “The Gingerbread Lady,” and most notably “The Heartbreak Kid,” a black comedy, based on a story by Bruce Jay Friedman, directed by Elaine May and starring Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd. Richard Dreyfuss won an Oscar for his performance in “The Goodbye Girl” as an impish, irritating actor with whom an unemployed dancer played by Marsha Mason moves in. The movie received a total of nine Academy Award nominations, including one for Mr. Simon’s screenplay. (He received four Oscar screenplay nominations in his career but never won.) …Mr. Simon married the actress Elaine Joyce in 1999. She survives him, along with his daughters Ellen Simon and Nancy Simon from his first marriage and his daughter Bryn Lander Simon from his marriage to Ms. Lander. He is also survived by three grandchildren and one great-grandson…(nytimes.com)
About Actor Mildred Natwick
Miss Natwick, who was called Milly by friends and associates, was born in Baltimore on June 19, 1905, to Joseph Natwick, a businessman, and the former Mildred Marion Dawes. She graduated from the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore and also from Bennett Junior College in Dutchess County, N.Y., where she majored in drama. She began performing at the age of 21 with the Vagabonds, a nonprofessional group in Baltimore. She soon joined the celebrated University Players on Cape Cod, trading lines with such other young performers as Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Joshua Logan. She made her Broadway debut in the melodrama “Carry Nation” in 1932…Miss Natwick was a familiar figure on the Broadway stage, where she appeared in some 40 productions. Among other roles, she played an idiosyncratic secretary in George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida,” an extroverted medium in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” and a shrewish wife in Jean Anouilh’s “Waltz of the Toreadors.”…Among Miss Natwick’s films were four directed by John Ford. She appeared as a prostitute in “The Long Voyage Home,” a doomed mother in “The Three Godfathers,” a hard-bitten Army wife in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and a sly widow in “The Quiet Man.”…Miss Natwick concentrated her career on Broadway, saying she had always preferred plays to movies because “on the stage, you’re in control for two hours, while in a film, you do bits and pieces, usually out of sequence.”…She received an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actress for her work in the 1967 film version of “Barefoot in the Park.” She also received several Tony and Emmy nominations and was awarded an Emmy for “The Snoop Sisters,” a 1973-74 television series in which she and Helen Hayes played successful mystery writers who were obsessed with solving real crimes…Miss Natwick’s comic brilliance in Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” prompted Walter Kerr to acclaim her in 1963 as “the most hilarious woman in the Western hemisphere.” She further confirmed her versatility in 1970 in Harold Pinter’s “Landscape” and in 1971 when, at the age of 62, she made her debut in a singing role in a John Kander-Fred Ebb musical, “70, Girls, 70,” as the disarming leader of a circle of elderly people seeking self-esteem by stealing furs. …Among her films were “The Enchanted Cottage” (1945), “The Late George Apley” (1947), “Cheaper by the Dozen” (1950), “The Court Jester” (1956), “If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium” (1967), “Daisy Miller” (1974) and “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988.) (nytimes.com)
About Director Gene Saks
Born in New York City, Saks attended Cornell University and served in the Navy during World War II — including participation in the Normandy Invasion. After his discharge from the military, he studied acting at the New School for Social Research and the Actors Studio in Manhattan. Before his transition to directing in the early 1960s, he worked as an actor, primarily on stage and on television. His TV resume included roles in such series as Kraft Theatre, Bachelor Father, The United States Steel Hour and Law & Order. He also appeared in the feature films “Nobody’s Fool” and Woody Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry,” in which he played the father of Allen’s title character…Gene Saks was a director and actor who was best known as a theater director — especially his frequent collaborations with Neil Simon. He won three Tony Awards: for the Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart musical “I Love My Wife” and Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Biloxi Blues.” His final Broadway production, “Barrymore,” won a Tony for Christopher Plummer in 1997…Saks directed the film versions of several of Simon’s plays, including “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” In addition, he directed Julie Andrews and Marcello Mastroianni in “A Fine Romance” and Goldie Hawn in “Cactus Flower,” for which she earned the Oscar for best supporting actress. And in 1974 he directed Lucille Ball in the film adaptation of “Mame,” after helming the Broadway musical version starring Angela Lansbury. His final directing credit came in 1995, with the television movie version of “Bye Bye Birdie,” starring Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams. (emmys.com)