I have a certain nostalgic fondness for the original 1972 Elaine May-Neil Simon comedy, THE HEARTBREAK KID (available on DVD), which goes beyond the darkly hilarious film itself, because at the time of its making and release I was living with one of the stars, Cybill Shepherd. This warm feeling only increased with the publication of Cybill’s memoirs (Cybill Disobedience), in which there are numerous revelations—-to me, too—-about her various doings during our nine-year relationship (and, of course, before and after). It turns out that on The Heartbreak Kid, there were no extracurricular encounters, though things might have gone a bit differently if Cybill hadn’t reacted so disbelievingly when Charles Grodin told her in a bed scene not to touch his hair because it was “a rug.” (Some years later, there was a delayed reaction of sorts when the two shared a one-night stand, Cybill tells in her book, the single night only because she found Chuck was then going with someone else.)
When I now see Cybill Shepherd and Chuck Grodin playing out their scenes with such an extraordinarily real quality on actual locations in Miami and Minneapolis, I remember happily visiting her in those places. And watching Elaine direct the actors brilliantly. Indeed, this is the only Neil Simon screenplay or play ever shot—-and there have been over twenty—-that’s a real movie, the emphasis being visual rather than verbal. Although the script (based on the fine Bruce J. Friedman short story, “A Change of Plan”) is more than excellent, a great deal of the enduring humor of the picture lies in how Elaine May has observed and interpreted the material through her superb performers.
Cybill nearly didn’t get the part, although Doc Simon later would tell her that he’d written it with her in mind. Elaine had been turned off Cybill when she saw her on some talk show—-a forum Ms. Shepherd readily admits she wasn’t good at in those days—-and another actress was cast. A brunette. Her hair had to be stripped to get it blonde; then it started falling out. On top of that, in rehearsals she turned out not to be good enough. Cybill and I happened to be in New York together at the Plaza Hotel when she got the call to go over and see Elaine May and Neil Simon right away: The picture was in rehearsal and they had fired the woman playing a key role.
Cybill had been despairing of ever getting any part in a good picture since the success of our The Last Picture Show the year before. About twelve hours before the call came on The Heartbreak Kid, I had repeated again my conviction that “the perfect part will come along when you least expect it.” The character of Kelly Corcoran was a kind of more likeable, Mid-Western, and wealthier variation on her Jacy role in The Last Picture Show, based, of course, on Larry McMurtry’s third novel. Another fond memory I have from The Heartbreak Kid is of sitting with Larry on a terrace overlooking the Olympic-size pool at the Hotel Fontainebleau in Miami Beach and watching Cybill swim laps. Larry and I started writing there an original Western screenplay which, because John Wayne turned it down, became a novel thirteen years later called Lonesome Dove. The character of Lorena in that Pulitzer Prize-winning best seller was first written for Cybill, with whom Larry as well would eventually have a brief affair.
Since Picture Show had been in black and white, The Heartbreak Kid was the first time big-screen audiences had seen Cybill in color. Her character’s striking looks and allure are essential requirements of the plot. Which is why Blake Edwards also wrote 10 with Cybill in mind the year after The Heartbreak Kid, though studio politics kept him from making it for another six years, at which point Ms. Shepherd had become momentarily dè classè before returning to grace with Moonlighting. (There’s a veiled reference to Mr. Edwards in Cybill’s book which no doubt only he will get.)
Seeing The Heartbreak Kid again today, after nearly forty years, I was most impressed by its continued freshness, the oddball honesty and eccentric timing of the way the scenes are shot, paced and played. And Chuck Grodin is uproariously funny—-an absolute genius of a performance that never for one instant seems tricky or facile or predictable. His work—-and Elaine May fought hard to have this virtual unknown in the lead—-gives the picture its extremely vital spine. Jeannie Berlin, Ms. May’s super-talented daughter, also gives a flawless comic portrayal. As the bride who gets dumped on her honeymoon, she is realistically funny and strangely heartbreaking both at the same time, and was justly nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar. As was Eddie Albert, doing a classic slow-burn deadpan turn as Cybill’s rich dad. Audra Lindley, later of Three’s Company fame, is wonderfully bland as her mom.
Actually, if there’s one thing wrong with the film, it’s that the Mexican stand-off achieved between the Albert and Grodin characters is breached too quickly and off screen, leaving a slight sense of disappointment just at the end. However, this certainly does play into the definitively dispirited conclusion the director’s emphasis achieves. As if to echo—-despite the overly easy happy ending—-Oscar Wilde’s famous remark that there’s only one thing worse than not getting what you want, and that’s getting it. According to Cybill’s autobiography, I’d say that would probably hold true a number of times for her and me, too.