Walter Matthau received his third and final Oscar nomination for portraying Willie Clark in The Sunshine Boys.
Walter Matthau has an odd Oscar history in that his two lead nomination are for portraying characters who are supposed to be quite older than what was his actual age at the time. He did it in Kotch quite poorly, but here he does it considerably better. Willie is suppose to be old, and Matthau looks old enough to be believed in the role, unlike in Kotch. He also is quite crotchety and senile in the role. I will say his old man portrayal he is amazing, but it is adequately convincing.
Matthau portrays Willie Stark the vaudevillian as a rather temperamental and fussy showman. He also wants things his way, as well as will never admit he is wrong, but say that someone else did the wrong thing. Willie annoys basically everyone, and causes the most pain to his hard working agent/nephew Ben (Richard Benjamin) who tries everything to try to get Willie a job.
Willie troubles come from his obnoxiousness and here is the pivotal question about this performance, due you find the way Matthau plays Willie behavior funny, or just completely annoying. Well I personally find him just slightly enjoyable, but also still annoying. It just his shtick gets a little repetitive, as he goes from one situation to another.
I was not particularly amused by him when he bothers a mechanic (Played by F. Murray Abraham, what a performance!!!!), or when he bothers a commercial director, as well as gives his nephew a hard time. I just always sympathized with the person he was annoying more than with Stark, which would be fine if I found him really funny but I don't.
Not all hope is lost for this performance though because he has his pivotal scenes with George Burns as Willie's old vaudevillian partner Al Lewis. They can't stand each other, and their dynamic together makes their scenes together are the best scenes of the film.
I do like how Matthau plays it with constant obvious anger, and annoyance at Lewis, well Burns is always absolutely deadpan. It works quite well, and I do find these scenes very enjoyable. I think this is because of largely Burns' perfect reactions because unlike the other people annoyed by Stark he does not just get upset instantly.
They have the right timing together, in both the scene where they are doing their doctor sketch, as well as just their fights, to make their scenes together work. I would say it is both of them even though Burns' is even more important, they have just the right feuding chemistry that indicates their characters' history, and current relationship quite well.
Matthau mostly just does his thing for most of the film, except for a few dramatic moments at the end of the film when Willie becomes ill. Matthau is able to show a little bit quieter of side of Willie, and it is fairly well done. It is not amazing, but Matthau keeps it within his character, I think again in particular his last scene in Burns really has an odd poignancy where despite not being able to stand each other they do shows that they do care for each other.
This performance is not amazing by any means, I wish Matthau frankly readjusted a little bit to the scenes with anyone besides Burns, simply to be more amusing and less annoying. His scenes with Burns though are quite successful though, and I think they alone make this a successful performance, even though it is a flawed one.