Director Billy Wilder’s work in the 1960s, post-The Apartment, is often maligned. It’s said by some (coughQuentinTarantinocough) that Wilder should have retired after the success of that feature, but he didn’t. And, really, I think the films he made into the 1960s and ’70s reflect not just a change in the director himself but are reflective of the transformation of Hollywood and the world.
Case in point, 1966’s The Fortune Cookie, a cynical tale of greed that’s as far away from the elegant world of Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) as it gets. And yet, The Fortune Cookie feels like it perfectly belongs in Wilder’s canon, especially when looking at The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard (1950), and even The Seven Year Itch (1955).
Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is a sports cameraman who, while filming a Cleveland Browns game, is tackled by football player Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich). Harry ends up having no injuries but his lawyer brother-in-law Willie (Walter Matthau) uses the opportunity to embark on a major lawsuit on Harry’s behalf. Harry is not only forced to act disabled; he also sees his ex-wife (Judi West) return to him in the hopes of securing her own payday.
It’s remarkable to realize that this was the first film to pair Matthau and Lemmon together. They would star in 11 features over their career and from the first minute they’re on-screen together here you know you’re seeing magic. Where Lemmon is quick to go along with Matthau’s scheme, it’s really Matthau who is the person you’re drawn to. As Willie Gingrich, Matthau enters the pantheon of the most heartless hucksters you’ve seen.
I’d say if this wasn’t more comedic, we’d place Willie Gingrich alongside the likes of Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry. You know everything about him the minute he gives his kids a dime for the unwed mothers fund — “I’m for that — only to break into the box to take his dime when he needs to make a phone call. And yet, for how horrible Willie is, Matthau makes him so funny, especially when he’s playing opposite the kids playing his children. He doesn’t hide the fact that he hates them — at one point yelling at them to play in traffic.
For how taciturn and manipulative Willie (and Matthau) are, he’s complemented by the easygoing Lemmon. Lemmon was always able to take characters who were dopes or doormats and make you empathize with them, especially considering how often the world took advantage of them. His Harry Hinkle is a little like C.C. Baxter, although instead of his desire for upward mobility in his job he just wants his wife back. His pathetic drive to make her love him again sees him going through all manner of tests, and yet the purest relationship Harry has is with Boom Boom.
Make no mistake, this may be Matthau and Lemmon’s feature, but Ron Rich steals the entire feature. In a plot where Willie and Harry are trying to get one over on everybody, Boom Boom is just a pure soul, a nice guy who genuinely feels horrible about what he’s (supposedly) done to Harry. While all the hijinks are happening with Harry, real consequences are being levied, by proxy, on Boom Boom. He admits to Harry that his father struggled with alcoholism, and as the football star continues to fail on the field he starts to drink. The movie could deter into serious nihilism, but it’s always tempered by the awareness that at some point Harry will have to make a choice on his actions.
I’m actually surprised that, on the poster, Matthau, Lemmon, and Judi West (who is “introduced” in this feature) are displayed so prominently and Rich isn’t at all. Where all three of those performers play such venal characters, you seriously want Rich’s character to succeed. I’m not going to say Hollywood’s penchant for ignoring actors of color was at play here….but it’s hard not to think that. I’m gonna say it: I love that Matthau won the Oscar but Rich damn well should have been nominated too.
The story certainly feels like a commentary on life. The Vietnam War was raging and that, coupled with the racial strife that would also come to a head just two years later makes The Fortune Cookie feel more like a movie about a society that’s lost itself. Harry and Willie are out for themselves, whether monetarily or personally, and they use an accident (and Boom Boom) as a scapegoat to walk away with fast cash. Poor Boom Boom, like many Black men at the time, are just punted to the side. When Sandy arrives back in Harry’s life the first thing she asks him is to dump the football player who has been acting as cook and nursemaid for him.
That final scene in the movie, wherein Harry and Boom Boom play football is interesting because this is a movie that seems to lack resolution, and maybe that’s because life at the time provided no easy answers. For the two men, all they can do is work on getting back to where they were. And for Wilder, he just wanted to tell stories that seemed to reflect what he (and others) were feeling.
The Fortune Cookie is a deeply complex feature that I think, because it doesn’t feel like a Wilder film, gets forgotten. The characters are rich and frustrating, and you need to see what should have made Ron Rich an A-list star.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.