Only When I Laugh (1981)


After a long stint in rehab, alcoholic stage actress Georgia Haines (Marsha Mason, The Goodbye Girl) returns to her Manhattan apartment. Georgia is determined to stay sober, but when Georgia’s teenage daughter (Kristy McNichol, Just the Way You Are) — who has been living with her father — moves in with her mother, Georgia begins to crack under the strain of being a working mother.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“You have a movie magazine mentality.”

Ah… The perks of being married to a talented and successful writer-producer! Only When I Laugh was Broadway darling Neil Simon’s (The Odd Couple and The Prisoner of Second Avenue) gift to his then-wife, actress Marsha Mason. This is essentially a one-woman show. Mason gives the kind of classic old-style Hollywood performance that we won’t see ever again (Cate Blanchett came close in Blue Jasmine).

Only When I Laugh began in 1971 as a Broadway play called The Gingerbread Lady, dramatist Simon’s first and only straight drama. It was also one of the few Simon plays that failed to attract an audience. A decade later, Simon dusted up the play and completely rewrote it for wife Mason as a comedy with moments of heavy drama — Only When I Laugh is a ferocious storm of humor and pathos. 

The movie isn’t perfect. Simon’s script is unrealistically wordy, and most scenes are unimaginatively shot. Simon is to blame for both problems. In order to protect his scripts from being changed, Simon always steered clear of strong-willed filmmakers. He preferred to hire talented craftsmen that stuck to the script. Glenn Jordan (TV’s Sarah, Plain and Tall: Winter’s End) directs well enough, but I’m completely sure someone like Mike Nichols (The Graduate) would have made a better movie.

In all fairness, I thought about the technical deficiencies only after the movie had ended. My eyes were firmly planted on Mason. Only When I Laugh is all about Mason. She laughs. She gets mad. She cries a lot too. Mason even sings a bit. It’s an epic-scale, diva-ish performance that runs the the whole spectrum of human emotions. 

Unfortunately, Mason falters a bit towards the end. Mason’s much-anticipated meltdown scenes fell a little flat. To her credit, Mason hams it up without ever slipping into camp — she comes close, very close, but she never quite crosses the line. Wrinkles and all, it’s a fearless, no-holds-barred, super-entertaining performance — Mason received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her work in the movie.

Although it’s Mason’s show, all of the film’s performances are pretty great. James Coco (Murder by Death), who plays Mason’s gay confidant, was nominated for both an Oscar and a Razzie, so I’m assuming people couldn’t decide if he was good or not. I thought he was excellent. Coco breathes life into a cliché role. I also appreciated the fact that Coco managed to avoid Hollywood’s “stereotyped” portrayal of a gay man. 

Joan Hackett (The Last of Sheila) also received an Oscar nomination. Hackett is superb as Mason’s vain but kindhearted upper-class friend. Ironically, she lost the Oscar to Maureen Stapleton (she won for Reds), the actress who played Mason’s role on Broadway. As expected, 19-year-old Kristy McNichol holds her own against the more seasoned actors in the movie. Kevin Bacon (Footloose) has a small role as a college kid. 

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

On an interesting note, Only When I Laugh was allegedly based on actress-singer Judy Garland and her relationship with daughter Liza Minnelli (by the way, Neil Simon denied the rumor). Anyhow, Only When I Laugh is a lot of fun if you don’t get too hung up on the film’s flaws. Some scenes are genuinely powerful. Plus, you don’t want to miss Marsha Mason’s marathonic performance. Color, 120 minutes, Rated R.

5 responses to “Only When I Laugh (1981)

  1. My wife and I watched this a few months ago and forgot how much we liked it….interestingly, I am currently reading the brilliant Mike Nichols biography, and the stories about how Simon figured out how to end “The Odd Couple” is fascinating…they didn’t have one that work even when in last minute tryouts before Broadway! He was a legend but could go offtrack…Mason also was mesmerizing in “Cinderella Liberty” with James Caan.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great article on a movie that is rarely covered. True, not a perfect movie by any stretch but the performances are really compelling, led by a strong Marsha Mason. (My favorite Mason performance of course is Goodbye Girl also by Simon.) Coco and Hackett are both excellent, and I have a soft spot for McNichol who I grew up loving on Family and onscreen with Tatum O’Neal in Little Darlings. Not a great film, but I watch this every time it happens to be on!

    Liked by 1 person

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