In the wake of Charles Grodin’s recent death, many fans of the deadpan comedy legend have taken to looking back on some of his most notable films. His impressive career, spanning 53 years, is marked mostly by filling supporting roles with unforgettable performances, such as impeccably playing off Robert De Niro in the buddy crime-comedy Midnight Run; portraying the slowly undone uncle to Martin Short’s psychotic, titular 10-year-old Clifford; or dominating scenes with quiet composure as the scheming secretary of billionaire oil mogul Leo Farnsworth in the Warren Beatty-led Heaven Can Wait. Though rarely a leading man, Grodin made the art of scene-stealing look easy, and often traded in his comedic chops with effortlessness for characters that are unironically conniving—like the double-crossing Dr. C.C. Hill in Rosemary’s Baby, or shady businessman Fred Wilson in the 1972 adaptation of King Kong. Grodin took the old saying of “there are no small roles, only small actors” to the utmost heart. But one of Grodin’s greatest performances was a rare instance where he was allowed to lead the film, in Elaine May’s second directed feature, The Heartbreak Kid—a film that is now virtually impossible to watch.
When I watched what I thought was my first-ever film with Charles Grodin—Clifford, towards the end of last year—I was certain that I’d already seen him in something. He has that look to him, a well-to-do everyman appearance whose face could’ve popped up in any number of films one might’ve seen through the years; a face that might’ve blended seamlessly into the background, becoming anyone and everyone. It makes it that much more interesting when I realized that I had indeed seen him in something before, in his brief turn in Rosemary’s Baby, only his third credited feature film role. For a moment, I could’ve sworn that the Wikipedia listing was incorrect. Without looking it up, I would never have suspected that the man screaming about Dinosaur World in that very instant on my television screen was the same cool, collected obstetrician who led Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) to believe he would protect her from the Satan-worshipping cult of the Castevets—that is, until it is revealed that he’s only taken her to be delusional. It’s a testament to Grodin’s chameleonic nature that he could slide into such a role with ease, simultaneously standing out and disappearing into the fabric of the film. And standing out is what he does best in The Heartbreak Kid.
The Heartbreak Kid was the first of three instances in which acclaimed writer/director Elaine May and the comedy actor would collaborate, succeeded by Heaven Can Wait in 1978—which May co-wrote alongside director and star Warren Beatty—and 1987’s Ishtar. In The Heartbreak Kid (based on “A Change of Plan,” a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman), Grodin plays the hapless, self-absorbed Lenny Cantrow—newly married and suffering from intense second thoughts during his honeymoon with wife Lila (Jeannie Berlin). Suddenly, while en route to Florida, Lenny becomes more aware than he ever was during their decidedly brief courtship of his wife’s many quirks: Her unrefined, boorish behavior, slovenliness, needy nature and other various ticks and minor flukes that lead Lenny to believe that he might’ve made a mistake in marrying this woman entirely.
While relaxing on the beach, he meets the beautiful young Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd). Funny, sophisticated, easy-going and down to earth—everything that Lila isn’t, and now Lenny is all that more certain of his nagging doubts about his marriage being true. He begins pursuing Kelly while on honeymoon with Lila with the intention of eventually leaving his wife, forcing himself into awkward situations with Kelly and her parents who are vacationing with her, and concocting ludicrous excuses to Lila as to why he can’t spend time her (such as getting into a car accident with an old war buddy who happened to roll into town).
The black comedy examines marriage and masculinity through a decidedly cynical yet nonetheless hilarious lens, drawing comedy from the absurdity of the situations May puts her characters into rather than crafting straight jokes. This is all the more enhanced by Grodin’s performance as the initially well-to-do Lenny, who goes to progressively gratuitous lengths to insist to his wife that nothing’s wrong. We can’t help but laugh and simultaneously feel the utmost dread. Eventually, Lenny gets the divorce he desires and further worms his way into Kelly’s life—much to the chagrin of her wealthy, Christian parents. In the end, Lenny’s swapping of Lila for Kelly is a very obvious satire on Jewish identity; the nebbish Lenny trading in his stereotypically nagging, Jewish wife for his perfect WASPy dream girl, only to end up defeated and unfulfilled once again, this time as a crucifix hangs tauntingly nearby.
It’s the perfect role for Grodin’s particular brand of deadpan comedy acting, whose parade of dead-eyed, blank expressions in response to the increasingly annoying Lila fester quietly with resentment—like his head could bubble over with the feeling and explode at any moment, but instead only continuing to simmer. And any chance he gets to express irritation towards his wife, even if entirely affected, allows him to let these sentiments out with overexaggerated ease. When Lila stays out in sun too long and gets burnt to a crisp, Lenny feigns exasperation at her discomforted body as an excuse so he can go down to the hotel bar by himself and get away from her. Shallow yet abruptly passionate and insistent when it suits him, Lenny renders the otherwise most mundane lines as hysterical (such as when Lila asks him “Did you meet anyone at the bar?” to which Lenny replies quite plainly, that same emotionless expression on his face: “Who would I meet at the bar? There’s just a bunch of jerks here”).
It is, then, a true indignity that such a sidesplitting film (which even got the remake treatment from the Farrelly brothers in 2007) has been rendered almost completely inaccessible. This is made further maddening in the fact that it makes up one of only four films in May’s tragically short directing career. You can buy a secondhand physical copy of the film on Amazon or eBay for a minimum of $75, or you’re pretty much out of luck. The confounding nature of the film’s inaccessibility has to do with who currently owns its rights. Though the film was distributed by 20th Century Fox, the distribution rights fell into the ownership of pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb. At one point, the company had their hand in buying entertainment properties, acquiring Palomar Pictures International. The production company was originally a subsidiary of ABC but it severed ties in 1969, which allowed Bristol-Myers Squibb to swoop in and take up a majority stake in 1972. Along with May’s The Heartbreak Kid, some of the films produced while owned by the pharmaceutical company included Sleuth, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and The Stepford Wives. But only two years after creating this entertainment arm, Bristol Myers-Squibb dissolved it.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and The Stepford Wives are seemingly more accessible, however. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three can currently be streamed on HBO Max, probably due to the fact that the film was a co-production between Palomar and a now-defunct company called Palladium. The Stepford Wives had to have its rights briefly released for the remake, which was made in 2004, and the distribution rights to the original film went to Paramount—possibly why it’s currently available to stream for free with ads on Tubi. But much of this is speculation, and many other titles lay in limbo since the company as of yet has no interest in looking into the media they’ve subsumed, leaving The Heartbreak Kid with a heartbreakingly murky future. As explained by video editor Travis Weir for GQ: “[It’s a case of] no one knows who’s allowed to sign off on this being allowed back into the world. Sometimes it’s easier not to have that conversation.” It’s somewhat black comedy that what is perhaps Grodin’s finest performance would be tied up indefinitely in the arms of a pharmaceutical company—on par with the ironic misfortune of Lenny Cantrow.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.