“Bob was trying to impress everyone that he hadn’t gone Hollywood, so to speak, now that I look back on it. He had played Paul Bratter for so many performances on Broadway and, I think, come to hate the character, who had none of his sense of whimsy and humor. He might have tried to impress upon people a bit too hard that he was this wild, crazy guy, when he really wasn’t. Fun, yes, but not as zany as all that.”
( Gene Saks )
On August 26th, 2018, the world was left in mourning when legendary playwright, Neil Simon passed away at the age of 91. During his career that spanned sixty-two years, Simon was responsible for successfully penning several plays that would ultimately evolve into triumphant cinematic classics.
Audiences worldwide are familiar with most of Simon’s work, but it was his prolific efforts behind the 1967 film Barefoot in the Park that made the biggest impact on his career. At the time of the films release, Simon was still only a newcomer to the entertainment medium, though this was about to change. With the success of the production, Neil Simon was destined to catapult to the highest pinnacle.
Barefoot in the Park first originated on Broadway in 1963. The play was written by Neil Simon, and ran for a total of 1,530 performances before closing on June 25th, 1967 to critical acclaim. In the stage version, Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley donned the famous roles of Corie and Paul Bratter, but in the film, Ashley was replaced by Jane Fonda while Redford reprised his role on screen. The films supporting actress Mildred Natwick played the role of Corie’s mother on stage, and when it came to hiring cast members for the film adaptation, casting Natwick in the role of Ethel was a no-brainer.
From the onset, the film was expected to be financially successful at the box-office. Directed by Gene Saks, who was known for his professional association with Neil Simon, and written for the screen by Simon himself, Barefoot in the Park provided viewers with quality entertainment that was put together by stars of the highest magnitude.
Actress Jane Fonda was born into a family that was strongly anchored by fame and acting. Her father Henry Fonda was one of the brightest stars to ever come out of Hollywood’s golden age, while her mother Frances gracefully moved around in society circles. Both Jane and her brother Peter would inherit their fathers talent and would go on to pursue successful careers in motion pictures.
Jane Fonda’s co-star, Robert Redford is a highly revered member of the entertainment industry. Like many stars, Redford started out as an aspiring actor whose most pivotal goal was to achieve fame. His big break came in 1963 when he secured the role of the stuffy Paul Bratter in the stage production of Barefoot in the Park. After being steeped in acclamation, Redford continued to follow a road that would lead to even greater opportunities on stage and film. With the triumph of his latest performances, it was no surprise that Robert Redford was hired to reprise his role of Paul Bratter in the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s 1963 play.
Even though both the film and the play were expertly crafted with Neil Simon’s signature hallmark, the plot is simple yet intriguing. Set in the hustle and bustle of New York City, Barefoot in the Park tells of the story of Corie and Paul Bratter ( Jane Fonda and Robert Redford ), a newlywed couple who experience the turbulent side of marriage when they move into their first home, a fifth floor apartment in Greenwich Village, which is cramped and leaky with a broken skylight and a flight of steep stairs to reach it. The condition of the apartment creates many obstacles, but the free spirited Corie who finds adventure in everything, is determined to transform the dilapidated dwelling into a home for the two of them, while her stuffy husband, Paul struggles to come to terms with the occurring dilemmas.
Neil Simon was a playwright who preferred his stories to echo back to his past. In a large majority of his works, Simon depicts a more grittier side of life rather than looking through the lens at the idyllic world that is so often captured on celluloid. What Simon presents in Barefoot in the Park is an authentic character study of two human beings who deeply love each other, but are plagued with a set of difficulties that threaten to thwart their marriage.
Barefoot in the Park benefits from its representation of realism, but what really makes it succeed is the fact that the film is tinged with plenty of wit and banter. Neil Simon was adroit at infusing comedic elements into sordid tales or conditions and making them entertaining. This is clearly epitomized when Corie turns her dreary living existence into an adventure. The atmosphere of their new apartment is far from congenial. The place is small. The rain and the snow comes in through the broken skylight, and the five flights of stairs to reach their home is a huge inconvenience. In addition to all that, the neighbors are eccentric and mysterious, but despite all these burdens, Corie is determined to make the most of what they have.
Barefoot in the Park marks the second of four collaborations between Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. The two previously worked together in The Chase ( 1966 ) and would go onto make The Electric Horseman ( 1979 ) and Our Souls at Night ( 2017 ). In her autobiography, My Life So Far, Fonda states “I was very happy to be working with Bob Redford again and looking forward to our cuddling-in-the-cold-apartment scenes, something I hadn’t gotten a chance to do in The Chase. There’s something about Bob that’s impossible not to fall in love with. We’ve made three films together, and each time I was smitten, utterly twitter-pated, couldn’t wait to get to work, wouldn’t even get made when he was habitual one to two hours late. He never knew it of course. Nothing ever happened between us except that we always had a good time working together.”
The making of Barefoot in the Park was memorable for Jane Fonda. The actress later recalled that she liked the intimate working environment and the amicable relationship she shared with her co-stars.
“You’re almost nearly perfect.”
“That’s a rotten thing to say.”
The close relationship between the two stars shines through in their performances. Both Fonda and Redford have that luring and magnetic chemistry that makes them appear credible. A lot of this has to do with Redford’s reluctantness and Jane’s willingness to film love scenes. In all honesty, it actually makes their on-screen romance appear more authentic.
Initially, Barefoot in the Park was designed as a starring vehicle for Natalie Wood, who had previously worked with Robert Redford twice before in Inside Daisy Clover ( 1965 ) and This Property Is Condemned ( 1966 ). However, Wood had different ideas. She was planning to take a long hiatus away from filming and therefore would not be available to fulfill the role of Corie Bratter. This created a few difficulties for the studio who was still adamant about casting Natalie Wood, but were forced to consider other actresses for the role, including Yvette Mimieux and Sandra Dee. Finally the search was over when producer Hal B. Wallis hired Jane Fonda, who he thought was the only star that could curb Redford’s insecurities.
In addition to Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, the film features stellar performances from Charles Boyer and Mildred Natwick, who lend solid support to the production. This was to be one of Boyer’s final film credits. After Barefoot in the Park, he would go on to appear in seven more pictures, but none of these vehicles left much of an impact on his career.
On the other hand, Mildred Natwick continued to work prolifically after Barefoot in the Park. Her last film role was in Dangerous Liaisons ( 1988 ), where she played Madame de Rosemonde. The picture was a commercial success and was the perfect way for Natwick to take her final bow. The actress died six years later on October 25th, 1994 at the age of 89.
What makes the presence of Charles Boyer and Mildred Natwick so captivating is their chemistry. Although Boyer was past his prime, he still had the power to spawn magic and forge a beautiful romance with Natwick. It’s always a delight when the movies augment a blossoming relationship between two older people. Most films tend to focus on the young or teenage love affairs, but in Barefoot in the Park we are given a glimpse into two different types of romances – the relationship between Paul and Corie Bratter as well as Victor and Ethel’s developing friendship.
“I feel like we’ve died and gone to heaven – only we had to climb up.”
Although Victor and Ethel are not entirely compatible, they are well suited to each other and they work as a great support team. Despite being polar opposites with Victor leading a bohemian lifestyle while Ethel lives in loneliness, Corie feels that Victor just might be the cure for her mothers solitary existence. In many ways she is right. I personally see Victor as being Ethel’s pillar of strength. He breaks her boredom and provides her with comfort and helps her find much deserved happiness. For her performance, Mildred Natwick received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Estelle Parsons, who attained the Oscar that year for Bonnie and Clyde.
After the success of Barefoot in the Park, Jane Fonda catapulted to great heights. Before donning the famous role of Corie Bratter, Fonda was mostly cast in menial films that did nothing to enhance her box-office appeal. Now, the public began to recognize her as an actress instead of Henry Fonda’s daughter. This was a huge achievement, and it’s one of those pictures that Fonda herself is most proud of.
It is believed that Neil Simon based the play on his first marriage to Joan Baim.
Robert Redford loathed wearing a suit and tie all day which was required for his character. During breaks between filming, Redford wore western boots and a black cowboy hat.
This is one of Jane Fonda’s favorites of her own films. She once tweeted, “too bad we never got Neil Simon to do a sequel… those characters 40 years later”
When Jane Fonda is shown going up the stairs to her apartment, they used the same footage of her for every floor she climbs. As she nears the top of the stairs, every hallway flooring (right beside the spindles), has the exact same damage done to it, and a wrinkle or tear in the hallway carpet runner is in the exact same place on every level.
Jane Fonda: Born, Jane Seymour Fonda on December 21st, 1937 in New York City.
Robert Redford: Born, Charles Robert Redford Jr. on August 18th, 1936 in Santa Monica, California.
Charles Boyer: Born, Charles Boyer on August 28th, 1899 in Figeac, Lot, France. Died: Auguust 26th, 1978 in Phoenix, Arizona. Aged. 78.
Mildred Natwick: Born, Mildred Natwick on June 19th, 1905 in Baltimore, Maryland. Died: October 25th, 1994 in Manhattan, New York. Aged. 89.