His talent's for life itself

Heart and hope in human comedy

Published: Jun 03 2014, 01:01:am

Friday, February 20, 1981.
TRIBUTE. Written by Bernard Slade, based on his stage play. Music by Ken Wannberg. Directed by Bob Clark. Running time: 121 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: occasional nudity, coarse language and swearing.
JACK LEMMON IS A perfect gentleman. Suggest [as I did in an interview] that Bernard Slade, the playwright and screenwriter responsible for Tribute, is more gifted than Neil Simon, and the actor reminds you that Simon is a long-time friend.
    Suggest that Slade is less acid than Billy Wilder, and Lemmon recalls that he's starred in six Wilder pictures. Wilder is directing his next movie, he says, and Lemmon is looking forward to being reunited with his old friend Walter Matthau, with whom he has played in films written by both Wilder and Simon.
    Gentleman Jack. Unlike many actors, he'd rather be courteous than quotable. After all, the Simon-written pictures — including 1968's The Odd Couple, The Out of Towners (1969), and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) — and the Wilder comedies — 1959's Some Like It Hot, The Apartment (1960), Irma La Douce (1963), The Fortune Cookie (1966), Avanti (1972), and The Front Page (1974) — are part of the chemistry that is Jack Lemmon.
    That's important because, as it turns our, Tribute was designed for just such an actor. Says Slade, "Jack Lemmon kept popping up in my head," and so the writer ended up offering the performer the ultimate tribute, a play custom-tailored to his talents.
    Lemmon was lucky. Slade, author of Same Time Next Year, is more gifted than Neil Simon. Although Simon has mastered the art of the quick quip, he is less successful with his serious moments.
    Slade, on the other hand, has genuine heart. Simon's equal as a comedy writer, the St. Catherines, Ontario-born Slade goes beyond him to create characters and situations full of poignance and truth. Remember "1966," the fourth act of Same Time Next Year?
    The scene's humour is based on a generational confrontation, hawk versus dove, over Vietnam. It was shrewdly set up and wildy funny, building to a sudden, credible emotional punch that left me (and most 
of the audience) in tears.
     Slade makes us care about the characters in his comedies. He makes us care (and perhaps cry a bit) about Scottie Templeton (Lemmon), a Times Square press agent who pops around to the hospital for a few not-so-routine tests.
    Scottie is one of God's fools, a grasshopper among ants whose only real talent is for life itself. According to his boss, Lou Daniels (John Marley), Scottie "has misused his talent, avoided responsibility all his life, loused up every chance he ever had, squandered his money — and there's never been a time I didn't look forward to seeing him."
    Everybody loves Scottie. He's the life of the party, and the patter is flowing along nicely when Dr. Gladys Petrelli (Colleen Dewhurst) asks him to step into a quiet hospital lounge.
    The door closes between the audience and the actors, cutting off the sound. Through the glass, we can see Scottie's face, and he's no longer smiling. He's wearing the uncomprehending "why me?" expression common to just-informed cancer patients.
    At first, Scottie attempts to ignore the whole thing. He escapes from the hospital, picking up young model Sally Haines (Kim Cattrall) along the way. He's going to hide out at home.
    Reality keeps intruding. His son Jud (Robby Benson), who was supposed to spend the summer with him, has other plans.
    Examining Jud's problem — the kid is what today's teens would call a wimp — he decides that what he really needs to pass on to the boy is his own zest for life.
    Scottie misses the point.
    Jud's real problem is the fact that he both hates and loves his 
father. He's hung up on the fact that Scottie walked out on his mother, Maggie (Lee Remick), years before. His resentment is palpable.
    Talk about Tribute, and you find yourself discussing cancer. See it — hundreds did during the recent [Vancouver] Arts Club presentation of the stage version — and you come away with a better understanding of the phrase "human comedy."
    Slade writes marvellously funny stuff, and the playwright was lucky. Lemmon loved his play, and made the role his own on Broadway. Now, he brings his finely-tuned performance to the screen, a balance of comedy and drama that puts the actor in the unique position of being a contender for both the U.S. Academy's Oscar (for best actor) and a Canadian Genie Award (for best foreign actor).
    Lemmon's award-worthy performance notwithstanding, Tribute's screen version does have two problems. One is co-star Robby Benson, sadly miscast as Scottie's son. Benson lacks the warmth that must be obvious beneath Jud's whining, the genuine human potential that reignites Scottie's will to live.
    The other problem is behind the camera. Bob Clark, with such films as 1974's Black Christmas, Breaking Point (1976) and Murder by Decree (1979) to his credit, is not a comedy director. His natural thriller style — quick zoom-ins to underline dramatic moments — goes against the grain of Slade's dialogue, and dilutes rather than enhances the impact.
    On the plus side, Lemmon's reunion with Lee Remick (his screen wife in 1962's Days of Wine and Roses) produces some of the film's 
finest moments. There is love between Scottie and Maggie, and their scenes together are guaranteed to generate both laughter and tears.
     The supporting players, all solid, include Colleen Dewhurst, as Scottie's more than understanding physician, and Gale Garnett, as his gold-hearted friend the hooker.
    Worth special note is Kim Cattrall, who demonstrate's a perky insouciance and an unerring sense of comic timing that is particularly impressive opposite the stolid Benson. Altogether, Tribute is a film full of heart and hope.
*   *   *
THERE ARE A LOT of hopes riding on Tribute, a film nominated for 11 Academy of Canadian Cinema Genie Awards (including best picture) and that Oscar (for best actor).
    If Bob Clark wins the direction Genie, it will be his second in as many years. (He took home the 1979 trophy for Murder by Decree.)
    Producers Garth Drabinsky and Joel Michaels are hoping for a hat trick. The Toronto-based filmmakers won the best picture Genie last year (for The Changeling), and the year before (The Silent Partner).
    Tribute is also nominated for best foreign actress (Lee Remick), supporting actor (John Marley), supporting actress (both Colleen Dewhurst and Gale Garnett), adapted screenplay (Bernard Slade), music (Kenneth Wannberg), sound editing, and over-all sound.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1981. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Although he was an also-ran for the Oscar, Jack Lemmon did collect the 1980 Genie Award (as well as a Silver Bear at the 1981 Berlin International Film Festival). Though nominated for ten other Genies, Tribute's other artists were all shut out of the winner's circle. Bob Clark, obviously stung by my declaration that he was "not a comedy director," made his next feature project the trend-setting teen comedy Porky's (1982), a movie that he also wrote. Rude in all the right ways, the picture was fast, funny and, in the ultimate "so there, critic guy," it remains to this day the highest-grossing Canadian film of all time. Should any doubt remain, one year after that, Clark gave us the seasonal classic A Christmas Story (1983).