Under the direction of Herbert Ross, Neil Simon adapted a screenplay from his 1976 Broadway play California Suite as a picture for Columbia. His play received mixed reviews and so would the movie. There are many good bits, but the film is hindered by a lack of continuity and connection (even if a marginal one). A theater man, Simon was evidently unaware of the differences in the medium of film and his screen adaptation’s biggest problem is its inability to detach from its theatrical presentation. The result is an interesting failure recounting the misadventures of four groups of guests at the Beverly Hills Hotel that, due to the absence of linkage, feels like four entirely different movies.
California Suite has a good cast, including Alan Alda in his M*A*S*H heyday, Michael Caine, and Jane Fonda, and perhaps it could have made a really good sitcom with interloping storylines in a Hollywood setting. It could have been winning as a prototype to Entourage or 30 Rock but, because some of the stories are more interesting than others, as a movie, the material works unevenly at best.
After introducing the four groups of guests, California Suite focuses first on the story of Hannah Warren (Jane Fonda), who flies from New York to collect her seventeen-year-old daughter who has flown to California to be with her father Bill (Alan Alda). Divorce was a fairly new social phenomenon in the 1970s. Tellingly, when the American Girl doll makers created a character from the 1970s, they gave her divorced parents. California Suite may have been one of the first movies to explore this and opened the door for Kramer vs. Kramer the following year, also focusing on the aspect of a custody battle. There is some sharp dialogue between Jane Fonda and Alan Alda and the story of Hannah and Bill could have made a good movie on its own.
Fonda delivers one of the two best performances in the movie as the belligerent Hannah, too proud and snotty to allow her daughter to live in a place like California, away from the great schools of the East and where people’s idea of great literature is a map to the star’s homes. Alda also does well as the easy-going Bill. He’s laid back to the point that it is not hard to imagine why their personalities clashed and their separation was inevitable. Indeed, it’s surprising that they lasted as long as they did. By the end of their story, three things are certain. Hannah and Bill still have a faded affection for each other, in their own way both had the best interest of their daughter at heart, and both retreated to a place that suited them better: Hannah to the busy and energetic New York, and Bill to the soothing and relaxing land of surfers in sunny California.
The best story in California Suite involves the two guests from London: Maggie Smith as Diana Barrie, a vain actress and Oscar contender for the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony (appropriately, Maggie Smith really did win the Best Supporting Actress award for this movie) and her partner Sidney Cochran, played by Michael Caine. Caine and Smith are both delightfully out of character. Caine adopts an atypical upper-class accent and it’s weird to hear Maggie Smith without her Scottish brogue as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies.
Diana and Sidney clearly have an estranged relation and at first it seems to be because of Diana’s narcissism and suspected love affair with her director. Still, it is clear that deep down they care for each other but this buried love works better here than in the Bill and Hannah story. It is not as obvious and presented more subtly with plenty of dry British wit. Their feelings for each other are genuine and not schmaltzy and their story is superior to everything else going on in this movie.
After Diana loses the award at the ceremony, Sidney becomes upset too…for his partner. As the secrets of their relationship unfold, the movie offers great acting from both actors and their story becomes one of a complex relationship with little insinuations thrown in.
Sidney is revealed to be gay. This was relevant in the 70s when the gay movement was just beginning to get off its feet. Outing himself would have been career suicide for an actor like Sidney and so he married Diana to create a smokescreen. But he does love her platonically and it is a very deep love, more so than the stereotypical gay best friend.
After these two absorbing stories, the two comedy segments feel strangely out of place. Walter Matthau’s bit as Marvin, a married man staying at the hotel to attend a Bar Mitzvah, is amusing and could have worked on its own. Matthau is funny when he tries to hide a prostitute delivered by his meddlesome brother from his wife (Elaine May). With his ‘70s-style glasses, Matthau seems like a curious cross between Peter Sellers and Henry Kissinger. In the context of this movie, however, this arc—along with the second comedic addition, the Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor segment—feels like a somewhat inappropriate inclusion.
It is always a pleasure to see the late Richard Pryor in the movies and Bill Cosby is immensely likable. But as two quarreling doctors on vacation with their wives whose arguments escalate into a full-out war, their story doesn’t work. The Three Stooges gags that dominate their segment don’t fit in with the naturalistic style of the movie. Along with Walter Matthau’s story, the Cosby and Pryor sequence is rather unkind to women. In the Walter Matthau story, one woman is a hooker and the personality of the wife played by Elaine May is not developed enough. In the Cosby and Pryor story, the women are portrayed as inept and unable to drive, causing a car crash. Overall, Maggie Smith is the best representation of women in the movie.
Some serious intercutting would have really helped this movie. The stories need some sort of linking besides the place where the characters are staying. The Beverly Hills Hotel is not the strong connecting character like the eponymous cities in Paris, je t’aime or New York, I Love You. It is precisely this lack of connection that makes California Suite end so terribly. Even the Maggie Smith and Michael Caine story is sort of ruined with a thrown in sitcom-like gag in which they are watching her Oscar-nominated movie again on the plane. As for the Jane Fonda and Alan Alda story, after a poignant closing, it is dropped for much of the movie only to be brought back briefly and sappily at the end. California Suite is such an untidy way to tell interesting stories.