Walter Matthau won his Oscar from his first nomination for portraying William 'Whiplash Willie' Gingrinch in The Fortune Cookie.
I do not want to be misunderstood from my first two reviews of Walter Matthau's lead performances that were nominated. One which I really did not care for and the other I thought was only okay. I like Walter Matthau, but he strangely was only nominated in the lead when he played a character much much older than himself for whatever reason, and I am not crazy about Matthau old man mannerisms which strangely drove both of those performances. Walter Matthau though here portrays a character that is suppose to be basically his actual age, and there are no unneeded mannerisms to be seen.
Matthau portrays the brother in law shyster lawyer who pushes hard for the lawsuit. Walter Matthau has sometimes been argued as a lead in this film, and there certainly can be a case for that as he is the driving force of the film, and there are plenty of scenes where he is the central character. I do not mind this placement though as there is another identifiable lead in Jack Lemmon, and there are certainly many scenes where Matthau does not appear. He could really be placed in either category and I really would not mind. I really do not mind though because part of the reason Matthau even stands out the most in scenes where he is not even the focus is because just how good he is as Whiplash Willie.
Matthau is another Oscar winning performance that disputes the idea that the academy never rewards comedic performance, or at least never rewards straightly comedic performances. As with the likes of Peter Ustinov's second win, and Kevin Kline's win, Matthau is another winner who never stops going for laughs with his performance. Matthau absolutely makes the film with his performances as the lawyer who comes up with the trumped up lawsuit to make himself rich. Matthau never tries for a moment to show that old Willie is anything more than a shyster, he wants to make a buck and that is all there is to right down the line.
Matthau simply is hilarious in the role from beginning to end. From his first scene Matthau is comedic gold as the rather amoral lawyer. Much of the humor that comes from his performance are some of his small reactions especially his brilliant look he makes after hearing that Lemmon's character had a previous injury that he could use for his own purposes in a new lawsuit. Matthau has a perfect devilish smile here as Willie that shows Willie's way of finding someway to benefit and exploit just about anything that comes his way anyway that he can. Even though Willie is completely amoral Matthau can't help but make Willie likable, there is just something absolutely endearing about Matthau's portrayal.
Matthau has a constant energy in the role that makes him the best part of every scene, even when has only a couple of lines Matthau still steals the scene, that is simply how enjoyable he is as Willie. Every moment Matthau is an enthusiastic presence and coming out with a terrific line, or reaction every chance he gets. Matthau is hilarious in his whole realization of every part of Willie's plan in every advance and set back Matthau never stops being funny in showing every trick that Willie has up his sleeve. What I like about Matthau's performance is that he always shows that Willie is the smartest man always in the room, even if he uses his intelligence so poorly.
I must say actually that I don't know if Matthau are a great pair actually since in both this and the Odd Couple Matthau absolutely steals the show, not that Lemmon is bad he is good as well actually, but Matthau definitely is the one that you remember from their scenes together. I suppose it really is not Lemmon's fault so much here because Matthau absolutely controls their scenes together, and I suppose one could attest it to Matthau just being absolutely on in his performance here. Matthau never has a wasted scene, or moment in his performance every scene he brings the humor he needs to in the role. As I watched the film I only wanted more of Matthau as Willie he just that entertaining in the role. It is a great performance that always succeeds.