Buddy Buddy

Buddy Buddy is a 1981 American comedy film directed by Billy Wilder that stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. The screenplay by Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond is based on the 1973 French language film L'emmerdeur, which screenwriter Francis Veber had adapted from his play Le contrat.

Buddy Buddy
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBilly Wilder
Produced byJay Weston
Screenplay byBilly Wilder
I. A. L. Diamond
Based onL'emmerdeur (1973) and the play Le contrat by Francis Veber
StarringJack Lemmon
Walter Matthau
Paula Prentiss
Klaus Kinski
Dana Elcar
Miles Chapin
Ed Begley Jr.
Michael Ensign
Music byLalo Schifrin
CinematographyHarry Stradling Jr.
Edited byArgyle Nelson
Distributed byUnited Artists (United States/Canada)
Cinema International Corporation (International)
Release date
  • December 11, 1981 (1981-12-11)
Running time
96 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$10 million[1][2] or $9.5 million[3]
Box office$7,258,543 (US)[4] or $2.2 million[3]

The film proved to be the last directed by Wilder, who in later years said, "If I met all my old pictures in a crowd, personified, there are some that would make me happy and proud, and I would embrace them ... but Buddy Buddy I'd try to ignore."[5] .


Hitman Trabucco has been hired to eliminate Rudy "Disco" Gambola before he testifies against fellow members of the Mob, but completing the contract becomes problematic once he encounters suicidal Victor Clooney, an emotionally disturbed television censor staying in the room adjacent to his in the Ramona Hotel in Riverside, California.

When Victor climbs onto the ledge outside his window, Trabucco convinces him not to jump by agreeing to drive him to the Institute for Sexual Fulfillment, the nearby clinic where Victor's wife Celia, a researcher for 60 Minutes, is gathering information for a segment on the program.

At the clinic, Victor discovers Celia has fallen in love with Dr. Zuckerbrot, who is concerned her husband's suicide will reflect badly on his practice. Trabucco accidentally is injected with a tranquilizer intended for Victor, who volunteers to fulfill the killer's contract when Trabucco's vision is impaired. After overcoming assorted complications, Victor completes his task. However, despite Victor's high hopes, Trabucco has no intention of sticking together and parts ways with him following their escape.

Trabucco retires to a tropical island, where he unexpectedly is joined by his nemesis after Celia runs off with Dr. Zuckerbrot's female receptionist to become a lesbian couple. Desperate to see Victor gone, Trabucco suggests to his native attendant to reinstate the old custom of human sacrifices for the local volcano ...




L'emmerdeur, a huge hit in Europe, had been released as A Pain in the A-- in art houses in the United States, where it had enjoyed moderate box office success. Jay Weston of William Morris, obtained the remake rights and pitched the project to Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, who suggested Billy Wilder direct.[2]

"I couldn't say no to Billy," Matthau said later, "and I didn't want to say no to being in a Billy Wilder picture. But this wasn't a Billy Wilder picture."[5]

"Iz Diamond and I were working on another project," said Wilder, " when William Morris came to us with this one. We looked at the French movie and saw possibilities in it. I would prefer doing an original story or screenplay. The most fun is working on a movie like 'Sunset Boulevard' or 'The Apartment,' where you start from scratch. Here I found myself with a ready-made thing, but there are certain advantages to that. I didn't have to audition for the studios and pass through Checkpoint Charlie before they would approve the project. We knew we had a starting date, which is rare enough these days."[6]

Wilder later recalled, "I hadn't been working enough, and I was anxious to get back on the horse and do what I do – write, direct. This wasn't a picture I would have chosen."[5]

Wilder and Diamond wrote the script in three months - "a record for us" said Wilder - but then they "sat on it" waiting for the Actors Guild strike to end, and for Lemmon and Matthau to become available.[7]

The film roughly followed the original, although the ending was changed.[2]

"I aim a movie at pleasing me and maybe 10 of my friends," said Wilder, adding:

That's the only way I know how to operate. The audience senses when you're doing something without any conviction ... To keep your sanity and your self-respect, you must believe that there will be an audience for what you want to do. It may not be the blockbuster of all time, but what is wrong with a modest success? Once you lose the belief that quality will pay off, you are lost. The next thing you know, you're doing a 'Tuesday the 11th' horror story. I could do that if I wanted to. After all, there are still about 360 days left in the calendar.[6]

"It's the funniest script since Some Like It Hot," said Lemmon. "It has no message - it's just fun."[8]

Wilder said the film would be "a bit like Some Like It Hot ... and hopefully it'll be fast and funny. But unlike Kiss Me Stupid this is a commercial movie - nothing arty in it, nothing very serious, somewhere in between Stir Crazy and George Bernard Shaw."[2]

Matthau said that "in farce, the object of the film is to be very funny - not just funny, but very funny. So it's easy. You either are funny, or you're not. The audience has to suspend disbelief totally, and presumably they get some pleasure in return."[9]

The budget was $10 million which Wilder said was "less than the average advertising campaign".[2]

Wilder gave a key role to Klaus Kinski calling him "an extraordinary actor ... a funny Nosferatau. There hasn't been a face like his since Conrad Veidt."[2]

MGM had rejuvenated its filmmaking under David Begelman. Wilder had not made a film there since Ninotchka in 1939. He said:

They've been renting out so much of their studio space to outside people that now they have to find studio space outside for their own pictures. But there seems to be a drive toward it becoming a full studio again. I just regret how the whole thing dissolved by selling off the props and art when Jim Aubrey was hired to supervise the graves here. In the mid-Thirties, studios had a personality. You could recognize an MGM movie from a Paramount movie from a Warner's movie.That's gone ... Every time you saw white living rooms, white beds, white décor, you knew it was an MGM movie. It's like the hotels now. It doesn't matter whether you're in Paris or Istanbul, you're in the same place. Pride is gone, confusion is rampant. People who are in power today and make the decisions couldn't be my second assistant. On the plus side, there is a push to come back. It's not all mercenary. There is enough confidence from Begelman and Frank Rosenfelt to leave us alone and not breathe down our backs.[10]

Wilder met Veber on the MGM lot when the latter was in Hollywood working on Partners. Wilder gave him a copy of the script and Veber said "I thought then that I saw flaws in it and wanted to tell him about them but I didn't dare. I have too much respect for that man. And who was I, a little Frenchman, to say anything? So I just said 'Very good' and left it at that."[11]


Principal photography began on February 4, 1981,[12] and from the start Wilder had problems with both the screenplay and casting.

"Wilder the writer let Wilder the director down," he stated. "We had to write too fast. The script was done in three months. We always took much longer, but the wheels were rolling, and we had to go forward." Two weeks into filming, the director realized, "It didn't work to have two comics together. I needed someone serious like Clint Eastwood as the hit man instead of a comedian like Matthau."[5]

Veber agreed saying Wilder "made the same mistake I made when I wrote the story as a play in Paris. It was not a great success because I did not make the killer tough enough. I changed that when I wrote the film. Lino Ventura played the part as a really hard killer. Billy Wilder cast Matthau in the part and that was a mistake. You cannot be frightened by him. He would have been better off with someone like Charles Bronson."[11]

Lemmon on set told a reporter that making the film was "a dream ... Not only do Walter and I know what each of us is going to do. We also had the advantage of three days of rehearsal, something Billy hasn't done before. This movie is like The Odd Couple,' with much of it scenes between Walter and me."[13]

Matthau was injured during filming while shooting a scene where he felt down a chute.[9]

Lemmon later said he sensed a change in the director's approach to filmmaking. "Billy seemed more tense. He seemed to be pushing harder, forcing it ... It was something I couldn't put my finger on exactly. He had always been open to suggestions I had for my part ... but this time, I didn't feel as welcome with my ideas, so I didn't say anything. Who am I to tell Billy Wilder what he should do?"[5]

Wilder said, "If you are an experienced director today, you are old-fashioned. If you don't know where to put the camera, you are a revolutionary nouvelle vague cinematic genius. The only things that seem to do well today are garbage. You pile up cars in a wreck. However, as those pictures are keeping the companies alive and permitting them to subsidize our pictures, I suppose I shouldn't complain. But I complain."[10]

Wilder added during filming, "This is my 53rd year in the industry and in that time I've seen a lot of ebb and flow - lately there's been an inordinate amount of ebb. But to paraphrase a line of Simon Wiesenthal's, 'A movie maker who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.' All I know is it's nice to be working."[14]

The film was a critical and commercial failure, and in later years Klaus Kinski denied being in it. "The best thing for me about Buddy Buddy was that not very many people saw it," Wilder said. "It hurts to strike out on your last picture." Anxious to bounce back from the unhappy experience, he and Diamond immediately went to work on what they hoped would be their next project. "Iz and I had so many ideas, we'd work on one for four weeks, and then we'd start another. We'd been burned; we chose wrong with Buddy Buddy, and we didn't want to make another mistake. We'd had some failures, so our confidence wasn't as good." Although the writing team continued to collaborate until Diamond's death in April 1988, none of their subsequent work ever reached the screen.[5]

Critical reception

Of the mainstream critics, only Vincent Canby of The New York Times liked the film. Calling it "slight but irresistible," he observed it "doesn't compare with the greatest Wilder-Diamond films, including The Fortune Cookie, which launched Mr. Lemmon and Mr. Matthau as a team, but it is the lightest, breeziest comedy any one of them has been associated with in years." He added, "There's something most appealing about the simplicity of the physical production and the small cast. I suspect that one of the reasons Buddy Buddy is so congenial, even when a gag doesn't build to the anticipated boff, is because you never feel intimidated by it. It doesn't attempt to overwhelm you with the kind of gigantic sets, props and crowd scenes that made farces on the order of 1941 and The Blues Brothers so oppressive. Buddy Buddy travels light, unencumbered by expensive special effects, fueled only by the talents of its actors and its director's irrepressible sense of the ridiculous." He said of Lemmon, "Not in a long time has [he] been more appealing," and he described Matthau as "extremely comic – perhaps our best farceur."[15]

Far less enthusiastic was Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, who stated, "This movie is appalling. It made me want to rub my eyes. Was it possible that the great Billy Wilder ... could possibly have made a film this bad? Buddy Buddy is very bad. It is a comedy without any laughs. (And, yes, I mean literally that it contains no laughs.) But it is worse than that. It succeeds in reducing two of the most charming actors in American motion picture history to unlikable ciphers. Can you imagine a film that co-stars Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and yet contains no charm, ebullience, wit, charisma – even friendliness? This whole movie is like one of those pathetic Hollywood monsters drained of its life fluids ... Basically, we are invited to watch two drudges meander through a witless, pointless exercise in farce ... Buddy Buddy is incompetent. And that is the saddest word I can think of to describe it."[16]

Channel 4 said, "Wilder helming the classic comic pairing of Matthau and Lemmon is always going to be difficult to dismiss, but it has to be said that all involved had seen better days at the time this got made ... There's the recognizable chemistry between the two leads, but little else here to recommend. It would be foolish to come to this movie expecting The Odd Couple or The Apartment, but you do expect something a little better than this."[17]

Wilder later reflected, "In this Donner Pass expedition known as Hollywood, many fall by the wayside. People eat people. Very few make it. Lately I've been going to more funerals than openings of pictures. Sometimes you have a funeral and an opening on the same day, and you don't feel very good when you see a comedy after you've put somebody to rest or watched the Neptune Society blow his ashes into the Pacific Ocean ... Sometimes I feel the way you feel when you find yourself at a dinner party with an uncongenial group of people and you say, 'I've got a great story, but I'm not going to tell it to them tonight. I'm not interested in entertaining them.' A lot of energy goes into it, and sometimes it doesn't seem as if it's worth the trouble. I've been doing it now for over 50 years."[6]

See also


  1. Nat Segaloff, Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors, Bear Manor Media 2013 p 318-320
  2. Walk on the Wilder side The Guardian 15 Apr 1981: 10.
  3. Boyer, Peter; Pollock, Dale (28 March 1982). "MGM-UA AND THE BIG DEBT". Los Angeles Times. p. 11.
  4. BoxOfficeMojo.com
  5. Chandler, Charlotte, Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster 2002. ISBN 0-743-21709-8, pp. 299–304
  6. WILDER: A CYNIC AHEAD OF HIS TIME; LOS ANGELES: Farber, Stephen. New York Times6 Dec 1981: A.1.
  7. HOLLYWOOD, AS VIEWED BY BILLY WILDER Warga, Wayne. Los Angeles Times 29 Mar 1981: m2.
  8. Tempo: Tower Ticker Gold, Aaron. Chicago Tribune 1 Jan 1981: a8.
  9. WALTER MATTHAU: 'I'M SERIOUS WHEN I DO COMEDY' Farber, Stephen. New York Times16 Aug 1981: A.1.
  10. Leo Roars Again Drew, Bernard. Film Comment; New York Vol. 17, Iss. 5, (Sep/Oct 1981): 34-40,80.
  11. 'A LITTLE FRENCHMAN' TRIES HIS LUCK IN AMERICA Los Angeles Times 19 Jan 1982: g4.
  12. Garner takes a shot at solving J. R. mystery Daly, Maggie. Chicago Tribune 6 Nov 1980: b18.
  13. BILLY WILDER'S CLASS IN FILM ECONOMY: Bob Thomas Boston Globe 0 July 1981: 1.
  14. BILLY WILDER Mann, Roderick. Los Angeles Times 27 Nov 1981: h1.
  15. The New York Times review
  16. Chicago Sun-Times review
  17. Channel 4 review
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