Monday, April 6, 2020

Kotch: Lemmon Directs and Matthau Acts

Walter Matthau as Kotch.
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau had acted together in two films when they made Kotch in 1971. This collaboration was a very different one, however, as Lemmon was the director and Matthau the star.

For his directorial debut, Lemmon chose to adapt Katharine Topkins' novel about Joseph Kotcher, an elderly man who lives with his son (Charles Aidman) and daughter-in-law (Felicia Farr, Jack Lemmon's wife). Kotch (Matthau) spends most of his day caring for his baby grandson Duncan. His world gets turned upside down when his daughter-in-law decides he is no longer a suitable babysitter--especially after another mother makes a complaint about Kotch. First, Wilma hires a teenage babysitter to care for Duncan and then she convinces Gerald that his father would be "more comfortable" in a home for the elderly.

Kotch has no intention of moving into the Sunnydale retirement community ("for the sunset years"). Instead, he goes on a road trip along the West coast. When he returns home, he decides to look up Duncan's former babysitter, who departed after getting pregnant. Kotch learns she has moved to Palm Springs, so he heads there to find her. It's a decision that will change his life.

Deborah Winters as Ricci.
The beauty of Kotch is that it's one of those films that takes off in an unexpected direction. When the lead character is essentially rejected by his own family, he unintentionally decides to form a new one. The film's central relationship becomes the one between Kotch and Ricci, the pregnant former babysitter (well played by Deborah Winters). They are an unlikely duo, but they need each other for different reasons and that forms a strong bond.

Walter Matthau was 51 when he starred in Kotch, but he's quite convincing as a much older man who delights in regaling stories from his past. It would be easy to turn Kotch in a stereotypical curmudgeon, but Matthau finds the loneliness, hopefulness, and humor in the role. Ultimately, the film is about its title character's transformation from a man searching for his place in the world after his wife's death to an individual secure in his new life and newfound self-reliance.

Larry Linville, pre-M*A*S*H,
as Ricci's brother.
Director Jack Lemmon shows a deft understanding of his source material. However, he struggles to keep the plot moving at times; the film's first half seems downright sluggish (even the opening credits seem to go on forever). The pace picks up once Kotch relocates to Palm Springs, though, and the closing scenes end the film on a high note. It's a promising directorial debut, but it would also turn out to be Lemmon's only outing in the director's chair.

Kotch earned Walter Matthau the second of his three Oscar nominations. He lost the 1972 Best Actor Oscar to Gene Hackman for The French Connection. Kotch also earned Oscar nominations for Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Song. Frankly, I found the song, "Life Is What You Make It" by Marvin Hamlisch and Don Black, to be too saccharine. Instrumental snippets are repeated ad nauseum throughout the film.

Here's a clip from Kotch, courtesy of our YouTube Channel:


  1. I like the way not-there-yet Matthau handled Kotcher as well as Willy Clark. Your breakdown of Lemmon's directing is fair and promising. It is a shame he didn't find something (I assume) that interested him further.

    The older I get the more I know that there are no old people - inside.

  2. I can't believe I haven't seen this yet. Excellent article!

  3. It sounds worthwhile, even if it is a bit slow in places. Thanks!