The Odd Couple (1968): Let’s Put This Revisionist ‘Gay’ Angle to Bed

The Odd Couple (1968): Let’s Put This Revisionist ‘Gay’ Angle to Bed

There are many reasons why I started this blog. One of them is that as younger generations discover older films and TV shows, they are putting their own revisionist spins on what these classics are all about.

Let’s take, for example, Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, which later became the popular TV show of the same name starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. We have a sportscaster, Oscar Madison (played by Walter Matthau), who practically lives like a Bowery bum in a luxurious but incredibly messy penthouse suite. We have his best friend Felix Unger (played by Jack Lemmon), who is the total opposite–refined, fussy and a neat freak.

One night, Felix shows up at Oscar’s house, despondent over his recent separation from his wife Frances. All seems lost when Oscar–himself recently divorced–asks him to move in. Besides saving money, there’s another reason why Oscar wants Felix to bunk up. Now that both men have been freed from their wives, Oscar dreams of a life in which both he and Felix will become partners in crime as happy-go-lucky, freewheeling bachelors who’ll be able to drink as much as they want, gamble as much as they want and date and screw any readily available hot-blooded female that comes their way.

Everything seems fine in the beginning, but then things start to sour as soon as Felix moves in. Not only is he a total neurotic and hypochondriac, he is OCD about everything–cooking, cleaning and even what names to call things by. Oscar is no prize pig himself, as he’s completely inconsiderate, irresponsible and slovenly.

Sooner or later, tensions grow between the two men, with things culminating over a double date with the Pigeon sisters, a pair of very cute and bubbly Englishwomen who live in their apartment building. Looking forward to a thrilling night with the ladies, Oscar instead finds them fawning over Felix as he tells them of his marital woes. This leads to the famous fight scene later on in the movie, in which Oscar throws a plate of linguine at the kitchen wall and calls it “garbage,” culminating in a hilarious rooftop scene in which Oscar, sobbing his eyes out, begs to get an annulment from Felix.

Oscar and the Pigeon Sisters from The Odd Couple (1968)
Oscar and the Pigeon Sisters from The Odd Couple (1968)

Now, what on earth is going on in The Odd Couple? In other words, besides the one-liners, what is the actual joke behind the film? The joke is that we–the audience–are set up to think that Oscar and Felix, freed from the constraints of marriage (and annoying, nagging, controlling wives), are going to be happily partying it up as swinging bachelors. But what happens instead is that they wind up immediately falling back into the exact same pattern of married life. The reason why they revert is Felix. Like an alcoholic raiding the medicine cabinet looking for anything he can drink to stop the shakes, Felix is so hopelessly addicted to married life that he has chosen to pick anyone–even his male friend, Oscar–to recreate what he has now lost.

That isn’t even the kicker to The Odd Couple. The kicker is that Felix and Oscar not only act as husband and wife, they have the exact same stupid fights that married couples do. On top of that, they wind up recreating with each other the exact same toxic conditions from their previous marriages that had caused their wives to divorce them. So, Felix–with his hypochondria and fussiness– drives Oscar crazy in the exact same way he had driven his ex-wife, Frances, crazy. Oscar–with his thoughtlessness and sloppiness– does the same, driving Felix crazy the way he had driven his ex-wife, Blanche, crazy. This leads to the film’s ultimate punchline–the two men breaking up as if they were a married couple, right down to one spouse begging for a separation.

There are several key moments in the film where Simon sets up and later confirms that two swinging bachelors acting like a bickering couple on the verge of divorce is the joke behind The Odd Couple. The first moment happens in the first act. Oscar, as he’s leaving to go to bed, greets Felix with a, “Good night, Felix,” and Felix goes, “Good night, Frances,” referencing his wife. This is to let audiences know that married life is such an ingrained part of Felix’s DNA that he’s still not used to the idea of being divorced. In fact, he’s in such denial about it that he inadvertently substitutes Oscar in place of his wife.

Another key moment in The Odd Couple that plays out Simon’s joke is the poker night scene in the second act. Angered and frustrated by Felix’s neatness, most of Oscar’s poker buddies leave in disgust. However, two of them–Vinnie and Murray–leave more in admiration if anything, thinking that both men are living a charmed life as bachelors. As they exit, Murray goes, “Those two playboys sure got the life, huh, Vinnie?” “Yeah,” repeats Vinnie, “Some life those two playboys got!” Again, this is Simon underscoring the joke in which we’re led to think that Oscar and Felix are going to live it up as bachelors but wind up reverting to the miseries of married life.

The third scene in The Odd Couple that pretty much underscores Simon’s joke happens before the Pigeon sisters arrive for the double date. What happens is that Oscar promises to be home by seven o’clock and appears an hour later without calling Felix. This turns out to be a disaster for Felix because the dinner they were supposed to have eaten by eight o’clock has now been ruined. When Oscar finally comes home, he goes, “I’m home, dear,” referencing the classic, “Honey, I’m home,” phrase that husbands used to say all the time when coming home from work. Then a huge fight ensues, with Felix demanding to know where Oscar had been the entire time, finally calling him out on his lie that he had been at work instead of the local bar.

We, the audience, are supposed to laugh twice during this scene–first, out of recognition of an annoying argument we’ve probably had ourselves with our spouses dozens of times; two, because it’s two bachelors having this argument instead of a husband and wife.

Why does this joke work so well? Because of how cleverly Norman Lear set up both the Oscar and Felix characters. How? Well, if the punchline to The Odd Couple is that two men act like man and wife after moving in together, one character had to act like a husband and the other a wife in order to make the joke work. So, Oscar was written as an inconsiderate, loutish husband, and Felix was written as a typical fussy, finicky and refined housewife.

Just so the braindead slobs didn’t get it, Simon even had Felix wearing an apron and holding a ladle in one scene, as if to say, “Haha, get it now? If Oscar is the stereotypical 1960s husband who’s irresponsible with money, lies about why he comes home late and always forgets important dates, Felix is the stereotypical 1960s housewife who’s constantly bitching and complaining about always having to pick up after her slob of a husband and how little he appreciates the amount of work she puts into the cooking!”

Incidentally, this joke–of two straight men being made to act as if they were a hetero couple–is nothing new. One of the oldest variations of this joke is in the Laurel and Hardy short, Their First Mistake (1932). In this short, the boys wind up adopting a baby. However, Stan decides to have no part of the adoption. This kickstarts an argument that used to break out in real life whenever a woman had an “accident” and the father tried walking out on her and the baby. Just like in The Odd Couple, the humor stems from watching two men role playing a typical conflict that happens between men and women. In this case, Ollie is written up as the poor mother being left in the lurch and Stan the reluctant father refusing to own up to his responsibilities of taking care of their illegitimate child.

Okay, so you’re probably wondering by now why I’m going to such lengths to explain the joke behind The Odd Couple, especially if you felt it was obvious enough to not need explaining. But rest assured, I’m not doing it as a form of humble bragging to show off how clever I was for having gotten the movie. I’m doing it because unfortunately, the movie–as I said earlier–is now being twisted by way of revisionism, which I go into more detail about below.

Revisionist History, By Way of Old-Fashioned Homophobia and Gender Stereotypes

When The Odd Couple was first released, it was celebrated as a clever farce about marriage, divorce and bachelorhood. Fast forward decades later, and all of a sudden a newer generation discovering both the The Odd Couple movie and the TV show have written absurd screeds about how both were really trailblazers in depicting gay men and gay relationships. According to some circles, Oscar and Felix were really a coded gay couple and Felix straddled the line between gay and straight.

What’s ironic about this PC take on The Odd Couple and the Felix Unger character is that it stems more from age-old homophobic stereotypes and antiquated notions about masculinity than an enlightened, modern day view of both gayness and what it means to be a man. Why do I say that? Because before the 1990s, men who were the very opposite of macho were labeled as “sissies,” which sometimes was a put down of a straight guy who wasn’t considered masculine but when it came to gay men, was often used as a softer, more polite version of the slur, “fag.”

What did it mean to be a sissy? It meant being into anything a real man was not. So, if real men were into rugged sports like baseball and football, sissies were into ballet and opera. If real men were into beer and pretzels, sissies were into really refined things like champagne and caviar. If real men listened to country or rock, sissies listened to classical music. If real men didn’t know how to cook or clean, sissies knew how to cook and clean better than any woman.

But the biggest, tell-tale sign that a man was a sissy? Whereas a real man held his feelings in and never showed any emotion if he could help it, a sissy was “sensitive.” He wore his heart on his sleeve and wasn’t afraid to cry.

This was the Felix Unger character in a nutshell–a straight man, to be sure, but a “sissy” by 1960s standards. And yet Neil Simon definitely did not write him up to be maligned as one. If anything, Simon used Felix to kind of call out what passed for toxic masculinity back in the 1960s, the type that Oscar Madison represented. Oscar may have been a “real man” with his love of sports, poker playing and loose women, but he was also thoughtless, inconsiderate, a slob, short-tempered and completely unable to manage his finances. Felix by all means was a neurotic nut and overly sensitive fusspot, but Simon is actually in his corner. We know this because in the end, who gets not one but both Pigeon sisters? Not Oscar, but Felix. Why? Because as it turns out, they prefer his finer sensibilities and willingness to share his feelings over Oscar’s loutish behavior.

So, was Felix Unger the first gay male in cinema and later on, in television? Of course not. If anything. Felix was the forerunner of two types of “new men” that were finally able to emerge after the 1960s–the “Sensitive Male” of the 1970s (whose patron saint was Alan Alda of MASH fame) and the Metrosexual of the 1990s, which was best embodied by the TV characters, Niles and Frasier Crane. If Felix is being understood as “gay” today, it’s not because of more enlightened sensibilities but of a much older, ignorant one, in which any male who was sensitive and refined was immediately deemed a sissy and therefore gay.

Alan Alda from M*A*S*H

I know some will argue that I’m wrong about all this, in that I’m not understanding that the gay angle didn’t start with the movie; it started with the TV show, starring Tony Randall as Felix. But again, this is just blindly ignoring the TV show’s humorous premise in favor of an ignorant belief that says that Felix must have been gay because he was refined, fussy and emotional.

What was this humorous premise, you ask? Well, in contrast to the movie version, the humor behind the TV show was watching two men of two very distinct social classes clash on a regular basis. Initially, this may not make sense, considering that both men were well-off white collar professionals living on Park Avenue. But it’s clear that they came from two very distinct socio-economic classes. Oscar (as depicted by Jack Klugman) may have been a well-off sportswriter, but he was nevertheless of blue collar, working class immigrant stock. You could imagine a guy like that with immigrant parents living in a run down, predominantly Italian, Jewish or Russian community filled with tenement houses, where kids played stickball and kick the can, didn’t graduate past high school and ended up in construction, law enforcement or some other type of blue collar job.

Felix Unger (as played by Tony Randall) was clearly a middle class WASP who had probably grown up in the suburbs in a quaint house or maybe a tasteful townhouse in the better part of town. During the summer, kids like him weren’t out playing stickball, playing in open fire hydrants or skinning their knees; they were stuck inside the house practicing for an upcoming piano or violin recital. Also, like a lot of middle class kids, Felix was probably also very sheltered by overprotective parents, as evidenced by his neurotic behavior, sensitivity and OCD-like compulsion to not have anything out of joint. Lastly, because of his stuffy upbringing, Felix grew up to become what people used to call a “square”–i.e., a complete nerd, or someone so hung up on tradition and living a stuffy, straitlaced life that they’re completely out of touch with anything that is hip and youthful.

Again, what does this all have to do with being gay? Nothing. And if the original movie had nothing to do with gayness, that was even more true of the TV show.

I Get It, But It Doesn’t Do Anyone Any Favors

People from traditionally-maligned groups often look to mass media for any positive role models or characters they can claim, and it would seem that a character like Felix Unger would be a natural choice for gay males. But not only was Felix Unger not gay, I personally don’t see how claiming him would do the gay male community any favors. Felix was written to be fussy, sensitive and fastidious for two specific reasons–to play out a joke in which two red-blooded straight males recreate the married life they left behind, as well as to broaden the public’s very rigid ideas about what it meant to be a “real” man. By claiming Felix as a gay male icon, a younger generation is actually reintroducing age-old homophobic and gender-based stereotypes by way of Trojan Horse. Worse yet, because Felix was based on a stereotype of the 1960s housewife, claiming him as gay also implies that gay men are really just fussy women, which they clearly are not.

2 thoughts on “The Odd Couple (1968): Let’s Put This Revisionist ‘Gay’ Angle to Bed

  1. Actually, “gay-coding” in film media dates from the Hayes Code’s founding in the 1930s, which censored LGBT characters and relationships. Cis/het or closeted LGBT directors and writers created stereotyped “sissy” and “butch” characters to get the former past the censors, even after the MPAA Rating System ended the Hayes Code in the late ’60s, making such characterization unnecessary. “Queer-baiting” is when TV or movie creators falsely advertise two same-sex straight sidekicks as a gay or lesbian couple to attract an “all lifestyles” audience, without offending homophobic conservative viewers. “The Odd Couple”(1968) was made one year before both the Stonewall Rebellion (a riot that launched the Gay Rights Movement) and the above movie rating system. Try comparing “Odd Couple” with other ’60s queer films, such as “The Boys in the Band,” “The Children’s Hour,” etc. The former was a comedy with “gay-coded” characters in a “queer-baited,” “butch/femme” relationship also common in 1950s same-sex couples and convicts even today, while the latter two were dramas with tragic or bittersweet endings and more realistic, rounded characters, since “Boys” had real gay men and self-generated stereotypes such as the “gym bunny” (gay athlete), “himbo,” (male dumb blonde), “reading” (insult humor), “Vitriolic Best Buds,” “closet case,” bisexual, “Armored Closet Gay” (gay man in denial), “Experimented in College” (same-sex affair at university) and “straight-acting gay” (conventional gay man) in the cast and crew., despite its “war movie” style cliches, such as an integrated cast. It depicted gays as regular guys who like other men, rather than prissy hairstylists and interior decorators. “Children’s Hour” showed a lesbian crush and ended in a stereotypical queer suicide, as required by the Hayes Code. It likewise depicted lesbians as regular women who love other women, rather than the “butch” or man-hating stereotype, seen in “women-in-prison” movies. The above “gay-coding” and “queer-baiting” continue even now, hence Boomer, Gen-X, and Millennial LGBT audiences are desperate for representation and read ambiguously written straight characters as “One of Us”, because LGBT people look like anybody, unlike other ethnic groups distinguished by skin tone. They are still subject to ethnically incorrect casting, or queer characters played by cis/het actors.

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