March 11, 2018
California Suite (1978)
Grade: 59/100

Director: Herbert Ross
Stars: Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda

What it's about. Four unrelated storylines take place in a posh Los Angeles hotel. 1) Jane Fonda and Alan Alda are a divorced couple who bicker over possession of teenaged daughter Dana Plato. 2) Maggie Smith is Oscar-nominated, and takes out her frustrations on husband Michael Caine. 3) Walter Matthau's brother Herb Edelman sets him up with drunken easy-going prostitute Denise Galik, who passes out cold in his hotel bed with wife Elaine May about to arrive. 4) Competitive doctors Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor encounter endless troubles on a vacation together with undeserved hottie wives Gloria Gifford and Sheila Frazier.

How others will see it. California Suite is best known for its Best Actress Oscar win by Maggie Smith, her second trophy following the superior The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Ironically, Smith's character is nominated for an Oscar and loses, something that Smith also knew well, given her losing Academy Award nominations in 1966, 1973, 1987, and 2002.

Smith also won Best Actress at the Golden Globe, and was nominated for Best Actress at BAFTA, losing even though she was British. Nobody seems to have noticed that Smith was more like a supporting actress, third-billed behind Fonda and Alda.

Despite the contemporary praise for California Suite, the movie is less highly regarded at The user rating is only 6.2 out of 10, and the user vote total of 5,500 is also underwhelming. The headline for the top user review is "Mediocre Simon is better than none." Viewers like the witty Smith-Caine dialogue but the other segments are generally criticized.

How I felt about it. California Suite had much going for it. An engaging, unconventional jazz score by Claude Bolling. A script by famous playwright Neil Simon (The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl. Direction by Herbert Ross, whose preceding seven films were well received and had racked up a total of 27 Academy Award nominations. And a stellar cast: the two leading black comedians (Cosby and Prior), the leading television dramatic actor (Alda), four Hollywood legends (Fonda, Smith, Caine, Matthau), and even ill-fated Dana Plato, then in her first season on "Diff'rent Strokes."

And some of the lines are exceptional, especially early in the movie. Caine takes off his in-flight headphones and remarks, "Somewhere on this plane is a wonderful orchestra." Alda comments on the progress of his latest book: "I found all the words in the dictionary. I just have to put them together."

The problem is, two of the stories don't work. Fonda and Alda's dialogue is wordy and unconvincing, and they have no screen chemistry together. The Cosby-Prior subplot has infrequent amusing moments, but mostly it is wince-worthy: even characters as egotistical and competitive as these do not deserve the heap of misfortune and physical pain inflicted upon them.

Matthau is funny enough to pull off his preposterous but entertaining segment, but couldn't he have told his wife that he first found the woman in his bed stumbling drunk in the hotel hallway and allowed her to sleep it off in his bed? The wife just might believe it.

The Caine and Smith segment is certainly the best of the four segments. Simon would have been better off ditching the other three stories, or at least moving them into a different play. That way we could have enjoyed 100 minutes worth of Caine and Smith's mock bickering.