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Burnett and Matthau Shine in Deeply Touching Tragi-Comedy
on February 17, 2002
This is a warm, witty, ingratiating film that many viewers can identify with. It's about two not particularly compatible people (Pete and Tillie) who meet, marry, have a child, then attempt to make sense of each other and their unhappy marriage. They become strangers, torn apart as much by his marital infidelities as by their opposite outlooks on life. After ten years of a very shaky domestic situation they face one of the worst parental nightmares imaginable - the loss of their child to a terminal illness. The maddening pain of this event brings them together but, at the same time, highlights their very different philosophical attitudes. Walter Matthau in the role of the cynical, non-religious, philandering husband is given the wittier lines in the script which he spuns with impeccable timing and perfect ironic intonation. Carol Burnett plays the soul-searching, self-agonizing wife who needs to find the meaning of her son's death. Was it divine retribution? Some viewers feel that Matthau and Burnett deadpan their way through the entire movie. Their response very likely stems from having anticipated an uproarious domestic situation-comedy (something like an "I Love Carol"), which this film is definitely not. With the notable exception of one hilarious scene in which Tillie and a bitchy friend (played to comic perfection by Geraldine Page) have a brawl, this is essentially a tragi-comedy. Moreover, the two super charismatic stars of the movie empty themselves to play their rather ordinary characters with straightforward, self-effacing honesty. By 1972, when this film was released, Matthau was a celebrated oscar-winning screen character actor. However, Burnett's transformation from the slapstick queen of TV variety shows to the fine dramatic actress of subtlety and detail seen here is astonishing. Some critics and viewers were not prepared for it but quite frankly that was their problem, not hers. Burnett delivers a tearful scene (in which Tillie vents all of her anger at God and the Virgin Mary) with overwhelming conviction, yet her acting remains beautifully controlled. It is the most deeply affecting moment in the movie, one that will haunt viewers long after the end credits have passed. "Pete 'n' Tillie" was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Screenplay.