Thursday, September 27, 2018

Walter Matthau Makes House Calls With Glenda Jackson

Walter Matthau as a widower.
Relationship comedies were all the rage in the late 1970s. Jill Clayburgh played a woman who becomes suddenly single when her husband of 16 years leaves her in An Unmarried Woman (1978). Burt Reynolds was a divorced man struggling to get over his ex-wife in Starting Over (1979). And in the film we're discussing today, Walter Matthau starred as a recently-widowed surgeon in House Calls (1978).

He plays middle-aged Charley Nichols, who returns to work after three months to find that women suddenly find him irresistible. Initially, the newly-single Charley embraces his situation, even though the one-night stands seem to be based on physical attraction only (at least, from his side). That changes when he meets Ann Atkinson (Glenda Jackson), a bright, opinionated divorcee.

Glenda Jackson as Ann.
He first encounters her in the hospital when he suspects her condition has been misdiagnosed by Dr. Willoughby, the senile chief of staff. Charley takes over her case--though it proves costly. To avoid an ethics charge, Willoughby forces Charley to nominate him for another five-year term as chief of staff.

A few weeks later, Charley and Ann meet again on a public television panel show about healthcare. Sparks fly between them and they soon enter into a trial relationship--but Charley isn't sure he wants to make a long-term commitment.

There's nothing surprising about House Calls, a predictable romantic comedy from start to finish. Thus, it's up to the stars to make it entertaining and, in this case, the unlikely casting of Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson is pure genius. Matthau made a career of playing slobs, con artists, and villains in the 1960s, but he was not a novice as a romantic lead. He proved in Cactus Flower (1969) and Pete 'n' Tillie (1972) that he could appeal to the opposite sex as a gruff, but likable and decent guy.

Matthau and Jackson have chemistry.
Glenda Jackson also dabbled in romantic comedy prior to House Calls (e.g., A Touch of Class with George Segal). Still, her career was noted for dramatic performances in challenging films like Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) and Women in Love (1969). A great actress defies genres, though, and Glenda Jackson could have made a career as a comedienne. One of the best scenes in House Calls is a delightful display of physical comedy as Ann and Charley try to prove--after watching an old movie--that a couple can make love on a bed with each partner keeping one foot on the floor.

Carney as Dr. Willoughby.
House Calls is basically a four-character picture, with Art Carney and Richard Benjamin in the other two roles. Carney has fun as the aforementioned Dr. Willoughby, whose fading memory causes him to get almost everyone's name wrong. Benjamin plays Matthau's chum, delivering an understated (for him), effective performance.

Of course, the reason to see House Calls is to watch Matthau and Jackson together. They paired up again two years later in Hopscotch, which I recall liking quite well (I plan to watch it again soon). Incidentally, the politically active Jackson quit acting in 1992 and was elected to Britain's Parliament. I once e-mailed her about a possible interview about her film career. One of her staffers sent a polite response, stating that she doesn't discuss her movies any more.

7 comments:

  1. I've never seen any of Matthau-as-romantic-lead films. House Calls looks like a good place to start. Plus, Art Carney, whom I adore.

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  2. The day that Glenda Jackson left acting was a sad day for movie lovers everywhere! She was smart and often very funny!

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  3. Walter Matthau is certainly at first glance a bit of an odd choice for a romantic lead, but I think it works just fine. I actually haven't seen House Calls but I love love love Hopscotch which I've seen many times.

    I'll try to track down House Calls.

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  4. Wayne Rogers and Lynn Redgrave filled in the shoes left by Matthau and Jackson in the series television version of House Calls.

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    1. Never knew about that. I only remember Wayne Rogers from MASH.

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  5. I enjoyed “House Calls” because of the chemistry between Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson.

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