In 1966, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau starred in their first film together. Jack Lemmon was known as the definitive comedy actor and Walter Matthau was a relatively unknown actor when they set met on the set of The Fortune Cookie. Initially bonding over football, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau formulated one of the most famous Hollywood friendships of all time, subsequently starring in eleven more films together throughout their careers. While a vast majority of their films are well known, The Fortune Cookie is a somewhat obscure and borderline forgotten film. This is unfortunate considering the comedic excellence that this film delivered.
The Fortune Cookie stars Jack Lemmon as Harry Hinkle, a sports cameraman who is accidentally knocked down by a football player while filming a game. While suffering a mild concussion, his brother-in-law and ambulance-chasing lawyer, Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau), concocts a plan of having Harry fake a serious injury in order to sue and gain a settlement out of the situation. Harry is initially against the scheme, especially since Luther, the football player who initially injured him, is continually visiting and attempting to befriend him out of guilt. It is not until Willie suggests that a settlement may lure back Harry’s ex-wife who had left him for another man. Harry reluctantly accepts to be part of the scheme, but his conscience keeps nagging at him more aggressively as he realizes the level of guilt Luther is experiencing since he believes Harry is actually injured.
When it comes to writer/director Billy Wilder, it is almost impossible to uncover a film of his that can be associated with the term “average.” Yet again, Billy Wilder was able to take a simple plot and expand it into a series of circumstances that was both dramatic and hilarious at the same time. The primary accolade that ought to be handed to Wilder for this film was his discovery of the Lemmon-Matthau duo, which would continue for the remainder of their lives. It is remarkable to realize this is the first film Lemmon and Matthau starred in together considering their chemistry is close to perfection within the film.
However, The Fortune Cookie is truly Walter Matthau’s film more than it is Jack Lemmon’s. Matthau was the epicenter of the film, who not only invented the film’s various situations, but also delivered the vast majority of the film’s laughs. Matthau struck a perfect chord as Willie by using his witty banter as a method to avoid seeing him as sleazy or even obnoxious. Instead, Matthau made the character memorable and colorful enough that the viewer looks past his scheming and actually becomes excited to see if he is capable of pulling off the seemingly impossible. Therefore, it is no mystery as to why Walter Matthau won his only Oscar for Supporting Actor for this role. However, much of his success is due to Billy Wilder’s witty and funny script that never veered too far from the bounds of reality, but still danced on the line enough to make the audience laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Furthermore, Billy Wilder’s script often contained discreet themes within his films and The Fortune Cookie is no exception. Tucked deep into the humor of the film was the theme of morality and having the courage to tell the truth. The Fortune Cookie suggests that maybe it is true that ‘nice guys finish last,’ but it’s still better to be a nice guy. The heart of the film is in its subtext and The Fortune Cookie reminds us all that truth is always preferred if the latter option is deception.
The Fortune Cookie was interesting in its construction in that the film was comprised of chapters and within these chapters were mini-interactions and events that somewhat gave The Fortune Cookie the feel of a novel brought to life. However, as a result of filming the movie in such a manner, the writing shifted to having preferential treatment towards a single character being the center of the plot. That character was Walter Matthau’s Willie Gingrich, meaning all other characters were reactionary to him. Jack Lemmon, while offering a good performance, was completely reactionary to his co-star’s performance. In fact, there is no scene in the entire film that Jack Lemmon’s character is alone, which would have allowed for him to give his character an opportunity to establish his own persona. Instead, the character is relegated to behaving in a manner that appeals to the person nearest him, which may have been the point of the character, but it still limited Jack Lemmon’s performance.
The only arc Jack Lemmon’s Harry Hinkle has is his moral complex, but it is not until the film’s third act when this component becomes truly relevant in the film, especially considering the character finally breaks from the shackles of being controlled by all those around him. Yet there were still some fundamental flaws with the performance, such as his relationship with his ex-wife (Judi West) who eventually comes to be his caretaker. In the earlier sections of the film, Lemmon laments how he hates yet loves his ex-wife, which is how he is persuaded to fake his injury: To lure her back to him. Once she is back in his life, the chemistry between Lemmon and West was close to none, which was a glaring flaw of the film considering it was their reunion that permitted the fraudulent scheme to occur. The film frames his ex-wife as being motivated by money, which gave Judi West a little flexibility with portraying a passive character, yet Lemmon was almost too restrained in his scenes with her, which made it difficult to believe he ever was truly head-over-heels for her. For Jack Lemmon, his best scenes were with Walter Matthau. Whether they realized it during filming or not, their stellar on-screen chemistry was the product of their starting a remarkable friendship that would continue onwards for another thirty-four years.