Friday, July 29, 2011


Films about young people's disillusionment with the American Dream were a staple of late '60s and early '70s cinema, but the New Hollywood had a decidedly Old Hollywood feel about the way America's youthquake was depicted onscreen. Anthropologists looking back on that era through its films might well assume that the most put-upon, oppressed members of American society were its males. White or Jewish, middle-class males, at that.  The Graduate, Five Easy Pieces, The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker,  The King of Marvin Gardens (and just about any film starring Elliot Gould or Richard Benjamin) all viewed the shifting zeitgeist through a decidedly male prism. The crisis of male existential torpor was treated with near-heroic solemnity; lampooning and satire were reserved for individuals and institutions daring to challenge the counterculture hero's quest to find himself. 
"I believed in all those square values...loyalty, fidelity."
On those rare occasions when the feminine perspective was considered at all, filmmakers, perhaps in subconscious deference to the presumed male gaze, often seemed at a loss to find an appropriate tone or distinctive point of view. As if lacking confidence in believing women's issues were really anything to get all worked up over, the results were either gloomily over-determined bummers like Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970) and Play it As It Lays (1972);  or stultifyingly arch satires in the vein of Stand Up & Be Counted (1972) and Up the Sandbox (1972).

At a friend's urging, I remember going to see the then-popular student-protest movie, The Strawberry Statement (1970) and being somewhat taken aback (even at 13 years of age) that in this film about counterculture revolutionaries, the only jobs these shake-up-the-system extremists could devise for women was to fetch food and work the copy machine! With few exceptions, women in the films of the New Hollywood were depicted as either sexually available embodiments of the "free love" movement or killjoy symbols of marital conformity.
To appropriate affect, the 1969 Allen Jones sculptures, "Hatrack" & "Table" make cameo appearances in a Diary of a Mad Housewife party scene.

Small wonder then, that Diary of a Mad Housewife stood out from the crowd. Here was a film that was a serious, considered look at America's changing values from a largely ignored perspective.  It was also a stingingly funny, spot-on satire of a certain breed of early-70s East Coast urban animal: the young Upper West Sider. Representing the flip side of post-hippie-era anti-materialism, these creatures attended protest rallies in their liberal, Ivy-League colleges, but, thanks to their parent's money, never served in the war and went straight into business after graduation. Quick to sell out whatever ideals they may have once harbored, they cultivated lives of status-climbing consumerism that left them lost and bereft of purpose.
The couple in question: Tina and Jonathan Balser. She, an educated, family-focused housewife, he, a socially ambitious young lawyer. They have two children and live in an 8-room apartment across from Central Park. Is it just coincidence that their lives are exactly the lives Rosemary & Guy Woodhouse aspired to in Rosemary's Baby? (Minus, of course, that nasty little business with the Devil.)
Carrie Snodgress as Tina Balser
Richard Benjamin as Jonathan Balser
Frank Langella as George Prager
Tina Balser, former Phi Beta Kappa at Smith College, is a privileged Manhattan housewife, married to an overbearing, pretentious, social climbing, name-dropping, bore of a lawyer who treats her like a personal assistant (and whose idea of a romantic come-on is "Teen, how about a little ol' roll in da hay?"). She shuttles her two bratty girls off to private school and spends the day in her sizable Upper West Side apartment smoking, developing an alcohol habit, navigating her Liberal fear of offending the "negro" housekeeper, and depressed to the point of inertia.

Oh, and Tina thinks she's going mad. Why?
Well, were she a male protagonist in the same scenario, she, like The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock, might engage in sullen brooding and take out her frustrations on the people around her in defiant rebellion against society's expectations. But, not being male, Tina takes the route typical of repressed, dissatisfied heroines throughout 19th-century literature (a theme explored in the book, The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar), she takes her anger out on herself and just quietly goes mad. Not stark-raving, howling-at-the-moon mad, just a slow, gradual retreat into paranoia, tractability, and the kind of sexual devitalization recounted in Germaine Greer's groundbreaking 1970 feminist text, The Female Eunuch. 

Frannie Michel as Liz Balser / Lorraine Cullen as Sylvie Balser 
"Personally, Vida's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young."
Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce - 1945

It all sounds pretty heady and serious, but Diary of a Mad Housewife is actually brilliantly funny. The film's offbeat balance of social commentary and dark character humor is established in the wonderful, pre-credits opening sequence. It's like a tragi-comic burlesque of 20th-century marriage as envisioned perhaps by Valerie Solanas in her SCUM Manifesto (remember her? She's the radical feminist who shot Andy Warhol in 1968).  In the space of 10 minutes, Richard Benjamin heaps what seems like an entire lifetime's worth of complaints and criticisms on the head of the mutely tolerant Snodgress as they go about their morning rituals. You sense somehow that this is a "new side" of her husband Snodgress is seeing (in the novel by Sue Kaufman, an unexpected inheritance is the catalyst for Jonathan's sudden obnoxious turn)  and her strained attempts to hold it together in the face of the onslaught is like a sly feminist take on the "Plastics!" party scene in The Graduate.

It's no wonder that everyone was hailing Carrie Snodgress as the new star of the '70s when Diary of a Mad Housewife was released. She was an original. Her unadorned naturalism, husky voice, and air of self-assured "smarts" made her a welcome relief from all the well-intentioned bimbos (Karen Black cornered that market) and lost waifs (Liza Minnelli) littering the movie landscape. Her performance here is a delight of small details. Check out the catalog of emotions she conveys in the party sequence when she meets up with Langella for a second time. She's absolutely fun and fascinating to watch. Carrie Snodgress never chased the stardom that was hers for the taking, and when she passed away in 2004, cinema lost one of its best.

As its title suggests, Diary of a Mad Housewife is told exclusively from Tina's perspective. And, as she is admittedly going mad (the film we're watching is actually Tina's disclosures to an encounter group) she is the quintessential unreliable narrator. In taking such a precise point of view, the film reminds us that we are seeing the world as Tina sees it, not necessarily as it really is. Richard Benjamin's broad-strokes caricature of the modern FDM (Forceful Dominant Male) is a lot easier to take under these circumstances.

Diary of a Mad Housewife came out at the height of the Women's Liberation Movement, which may explain why so many critics at the time expressed disappointment in the perceived passivity of the Carrie Snodgress character. Half felt the film amounted to little more than male-bashing, stacking the deck to make Snodgress the guiltless victim. Others complained that Snodgress' inaction in the face of so much abuse rendered her an anti-feminist heroine and only added another docile female character to the ranks of cinema leading ladies.
Both arguments have some validity, but seeing the film today, I'm actually grateful Diary of a Mad Housewife showed so much restraint. It has a lot on its plate, culturally speaking, but it never becomes a preachy polemic on feminism and always remains a character-fueled comedy/drama. I'm reminded of those awful final seasons of that TV sitcom Designing Women when the show took on an air of self-importance that had each show ending with a character serving as the mouthpiece for the creators' political views and launching into some windy monologue. Mercifully Diary of a Mad Housewife avoids that fate.
Yuppie Ennui
A group therapy member after Tina has told her tale of upscale angst: 
"I joined 'group' with the understanding that I would get help with my very real and terrible life's problems. She has a husband AND a lover AND an 8-room apartment on the Park!?!  Why does SHE need help?"

Diary of a Mad Housewife, a very funny and perceptive female alternative to all those 70s male-angst movies. It skillfully sidesteps becoming a single-minded political indictment of male oppression and chauvinism, and remains a look at one woman faced with her own inability to make anything meaningful of her existence. Tina isn't socially conscious, repressed, or even oppressed. She's too smart for that. She is incredibly lucid about the absurdity of the life her husband seems intent on pursuing, and, when she's really feeling attacked, she has a mouth on her and a quick, biting wit that gives as good as she takes.
No, Tina's problem stems from having lost her way in her pursuit of the American Dream (in this instance, home, family, and loving husband) and her questioning of the values she grew up believing in. Drifting into a pseudo-masochistic affair with a man arguably as insensitive as her husband, she finds little comfort and certainly no answers. In her own way, she's as spiritually adrift as the bikers in Easy Rider.
"I'm just a human being."

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, July 22, 2011


Like most people my age (never mind), I harbor fond memories of that boom product of early '70s television that was the "made-for-TV-movie." Specifically, The ABC Movie of the Week series. For kids too young to experience firsthand the often "R"-rated revolution in cinema that was exploding on movie theater screens across the country, The ABC Movie of the Week offered a somewhat toned-down, parent-sanctioned taste of just what the New Hollywood was all about. Anti-heroes, counterculture politics, sexual liberation, violence, and the phenomenon of the  unhappy ending were gently ushered into American households thanks to the '70s TV movie.

Though many of these 90-minute or two-hour films were cheesy and interchangeable "B-movies" offering steady employment to marginal TV actors and not-ready-to-retire stars of yesteryear, an exceptional few were surprisingly accomplished motion pictures equal to and exceeding their theatrical counterparts.
It's not my intention to broaden the scope of this blog to include TV movies, but in any realistic examination of films that have been "the stuff that dreams are made of" in my life; there's no way I could not acknowledge this rarely seen, probably-forgotten, little masterpiece from the director of Saturday Night Fever 
Tuesday Weld as Vicky

Joan Hackett as Claire Elliott
Sam Waterston as Michael Elliott
Lance Kerwin as Chip
John Badham's  Reflections of Murder premiered on The ABC Movie of the Week in November of 1974 and simply floored me. I couldn't believe that this unsettling and atmospherically creepy thriller wasn't a feature film released to theaters. The splendid performances, sensitive characterizations, and deft handling of suspense were far more sophisticated than what I had come to expect from television films. Wasting no time in setting the cunning narrative into motion, the film nevertheless manages to carve out incisive moments wherein the relationships between the unconventional characters are explored and delineated.
The plot: The wife (Hackett) and mistress (Weld) of an abusive headmaster at a boy's school (Waterston) conspire to murder him and have his body discovered in a manner suggesting accidental drowning. Things swiftly go awry when the body fails to materialize and the presumed-dead man is not only observed around town by others, but possibly baiting the would-be-murderesses in a revenge plot of his own.
Claire: "Well, I can't do it and I won't!"
Vicky: "You will surprise yourself."
Those familiar with the work of French director Henri-Georges Clouzot will recognize Reflections of Murder as an updated remake of his influential 1955 French thriller, Les Diaboliques. I hadn't seen that classic film at the time, so the twists and turns of plot that were undoubtedly familiar to some took me completely by surprise. Understatement. I was devastated. I didn't see ANY of that coming and the shock of it blew me away.  Even with the annoyance of commercial interruptions, Reflections of Murder (a truly terrible, lazy, meaningless title that sounds like one of those straight-to-DVD sex thrillers of the '90s) was one of the most effective suspense thrillers I'd seen since Rosemary's Baby and Wait Until Dark. Even now, after having seen the Clouzot original many times and loving it as I do, Reflections of Murder still remains my favorite adaptation of the source novel, Celle qui n'était Plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (the authors of the novel upon which Alfred Hitchcock based his film, Vertigo).  
"I fear for my life when you two sit down together."

Subtext, intentional or otherwise, is often one of those things that can make the difference between a film being one that's merely entertaining to one that you never forget. In Reflections of Murder the unlikely friendship between a wife and a mistress—which, in the French context, had a decadent, continental air—takes on a tone both sinister and dangerously sexy when viewed from the American perspective which, as a rule, tends to be less forgiving of the husband/mistress arrangement.
There's an empathetic intimacy shared by the wife and mistress, notably absent from the film's male/female encounters, that fuels a subtle lesbian subtext (exploited to tedious effect in the abysmal 1996 Sharon Stone remake). Reflecting the times, a women's lib subtext is introduced in that, save for the sweetly doting attentions of a serious-faced student (Lance Kerwin), the school's all-male faculty and student body consistently relate to Vicky and Claire in scornful or sexualized terms. In the face of both physical and emotional abuse, Vicky & Claire's homicidal solidarity looks like feminist survival.

An actress arguably more famous for the high-profile roles she's turned down ( Lolita and Bonnie & Clyde, to name a few) than the films she's made,  I can't recall ever paying much attention to Tuesday Weld before this film. In fact, in looking over a list of her early credits: Sex Kittens Go to College, Bachelor Flat, I'll Take Sweden, it's more likely I avoided her. But I fell in love with her in Reflections of Murder. And it's not because she looks so terrific with that fetching short haircut. She gives an assured performance that plays on so many levels of manipulation and unanticipated forcefulness that you are no more sure of her motives than the characters in the film. I've since grown into a genuine respect for her talent and number her among my favorite actresses...although I don't always "get" her choices in roles.
Tuesday Weld, Roman Polanski's original choice to star in his horror classic Rosemary's Baby, sports a short haircut in Reflections of Murder that provides a curious glimpse of what the actress might have looked like in the role that made Mia Farrow a star.

And then there is the late Joan Hackett. From the time I first saw her in The Group (1966) she has always impressed me with the gentle, fragile vulnerability she brought to her roles. Forgetting that she was also a very gifted comedienne (Support Your Local Sheriff), studios unfortunately tended to type her as a victim. Here she gives what I consider one of her best performances, her trademark hesitations and nervous, darting movements a perfect foil to Weld's steely efficiency. Maybe it's because of their diverse acting styles, but Weld and Hackett's scenes together are really electric. They are so good that they drive each scene exclusively with the intensity of emotional interaction; you almost forget they're setting the serpentine plot along its course.
Vicky: "Why am I suddenly the enemy?"
Claire: "You're not always were."

During its final act, Reflections of Murder may ultimately tip its hat to the genre conventions of deserted mansion, diaphanous bedgown, and a night full of thunder and lightning, but preceding that, the film has made moodily picturesque use of the lushly dank forests and overcast skies of the Puget Sound area of Washington. Damp, fallen leaves carpet every surface and the skies themselves seem to be burdened with an ominous, oppressive weight. The all-important water motif is echoed in the island locale, the ceaseless drizzle, the murky pools of standing water, and the haunting musical score (an adaptation of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavichord) that eerily recalls trickling rain.

As previous posts have asserted, I think I'm drawn to scary and suspenseful movies for the thrills. But if the film is somehow also able to capture a sense or tragedy and emotional loss, they usually have me in their hip pocket before the end credits. Reflections of Murder is a masterfully crafted thriller, certainly among the best I've ever seen, but it's the care given the depiction of the relationships that lends the film distinction. To me, the power of the dramatic denouement is not due to mere surprise, but the heartrending preceding sequence where Chip, the aforementioned  serious-faced little boy, expresses to Claire the depth of sorrow he would feel should anything happen to her. Not a time goes by when I can ever watch that scene with dry eyes. 
The scenes between Lance Kerwin (James at 15) and Joan Hackett provide the film with a touching humanity that make the chilling circumstances of plot more than just mystery/suspense fodder
I've read that a DVD release of Reflections of Murder has been held up in a rights and licensing battle, so, for the time being, I have to content myself with my murky VHS copy. I've been told, however, that there exists a copy available for viewing on YouTube. If so, it would well be worth your while to give it a look. It's the kind of taut, finely executed thriller rarely seen these days. A real killer.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, July 15, 2011


It's a common practice in movie star autobiographies to blame one's career stasis on rigid typecasting imposed by myopic producers and a narrow-minded public. Hypothesizing extravagantly (while never having to actually make good on the assertion), said movie star diverts attention away from a monochromatic body of work by insisting that the untapped wellspring of versatility and range that lies deep within them has been grossly overlooked & underutilized.

Which brings us to the topic of the magnificent Raquel Welch. She, of course, was the reigning, uncontested cinema sex siren of the '60s and '70s, but, like many a sex symbol before and after, Welch spent a great deal of her offscreen time publicly venting her frustration at not being taken seriously as an actress. Finally, in 1974, Ms. Welch's long-held ambition was realized when an offer came from the burgeoning art-house team of Merchant/Ivory (A Room with A View, Howard's End) to star in their film adaptation of Joseph Moncure March's 1928 blank-verse poem of jazz-age debauchery: The Wild Party.
Raquel Welch is Queenie
James Coco is Jolly Grimm
Perry King is Dale Sword
Tiffany Bolling is Kate, Queenie's best friend and the girlfriend of matinee idol Dale Sword.
David Duke is James Morrison, Jolly's film editor and the author/narrator of the poem "The Wild Party"

With the film's locale switched from Manhattan to early sound-era Hollywood and the narrative tweaked to suggest the notorious Fatty Arbuckle scandal of 1921, The Wild Party casts Raquel Welch as Queenie, a former vaudeville dancer, now the ornamental mistress/punching bag of mercurial silent screen comic, Jolly Grimm (James Coco). Once the king of Hollywood, Grimm is in a career decline brought on by too much booze and too many bad films. So in a pathetic, last-gasp effort to resuscitate his flagging career, Grimm throws a lavish bash at his Hollywood mansion to launch his already-dated comeback vehicle, "Brother Jasper" - a misguided comedy biopic about Franciscan Brother Junipero Serra.

The Wild Party takes place over the course of an increasingly desperate 24-hour period fraught with unheeded dark omens (Hollywood power couple Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks just happen to be throwing a party that same night) and humiliating setbacks. Tensions ultimately reach the boiling point with the arrival of a Valentino-like matinee idol (Perry King) who catches Queenie's eye...and vice versa.

The film jumps in and out of voiceover narration and straight-to-the-camera, fourth-wall-breaking exposition, using the March poem to provide backstory for the events occurring onscreen (the poem, in rhythm and language, lamentably recalls the doggerel poetry of Bonnie Parker in Bonnie & Clyde). In fact, abrupt shifts in tone become something of a leitmotif in The Wild Party due to the film trying to be many things (drama, tragedy, comedy, romance, musical) yet failing to arrive at a single stylistic method by which to make any of them work.
 Raquel Welch fans were dismayed to find The Wild Party was more of a somber character melodrama than the sensual frolic its title promised. Those who anticipated an art film from the Merchant/Ivory team were thrown by the exploitation-film cheesiness of its original US release edit.

Happily, a movie doesn't have to be good for me to like it; it just can't be bad. So what's a bad film? A bad movie is one bereft of ideas or a point of view. A lazy creation that panders to the obvious & coddles the established. It's a demographic-driven, corporate-committee product designed to fill seats, sell merchandise, and reap profits...period. On the other hand, a movie like The Wild Party at least has...flaws and all...something on its mind, something it wants to express, and is inspired by a creative impulse. So I find it difficult to dismiss it entirely out of hand. My experience has been that if one searches hard enough, you're likely to find tiny flashes of brilliance and imagination in movies that (putting it in the most charitable terms), on the surface, appear to have fallen far short of their ambitions.
In one of the film's many musical sequences, Queenie steals her best friend's date (that's Tiffany Bolling boiling in the background) while dancing into our hearts performing "The Herbert Hoover Drag"

Though too stylistically discordant to be considered a really good film, The Wild Party is nonetheless very entertaining simply because the core dramatic construct of its plot (the one they should have focused on) is so effective. A  palpable sense of emotional jeopardy and conflict is forged in having a socially innocuous event like a Hollywood party occasion the bringing together of several disparate, desperate characters with at-odds desires.
The Wild Party is built on a dramatically provocative premise, but the screenplay and a good many of the performances have a naïf quality about them which prevents the film from saying anything really significant about the moral decay that lies beneath Hollywood's glamorous image of itself. I think John Byrum's Inserts, a small, forgotten film about pre-sound Hollywood also released in 1975, is the decadent, despairing image of lost fame and hopeless desperation that The Wild Party sought to be.
The Party Finally Gets Wild
Sunday Morning Blues

By rights, the role of Queenie should have been Raquel Welch's turnaround role, like They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was for Jane Fonda, or Carnal Knowledge for Ann-Margret. It's a great part affording the actress several introspective monologues, a broad range of emotions to play, and even an opportunity to sing and dance. And in portraying a wounded character whose great beauty has proved both a blessing and a curse, Welch even gets to mine that "blurs-the-line-between-fantasy-and-reality" quality that audiences usually eat up.
Well, as much as I'd love to report that Welch rises to the occasion in The Wild Party (it is her best screen performance, but I think that might be faint praise), she elicits from me a response similar to the one I have when I see an Ali MacGraw movie: I get angry and frustrated that she doesn't try harder.

Sure, Welch is let down by a weak script that has her talking about her feelings more than showing them. Still, after so many years of claiming that she had never been given a chance to "show her stuff," dramatically speaking, Welch should have nailed her characterization despite the poor writing. Unfortunately, in place of a sustained performance, we see brief flashes that are so good they only leave you wondering what could have been possible had she really let herself go. 
Drama Queen: Raquel gets serious

One characterization problem that stands out for me is that there's just no vulgarity to Raquel Welch's Queenie. Without a touch of crass earthiness to offset her incredible beauty (think Sophia Loren), Welch's Queenie comes across as far too self-assured and lacking in the kind of vulnerability that would have made her character touchingly tragic. Instead of being the kind of raucous, life-of-the-party that would captivate a manic-depressive like Jolly, Welch's Queenie is far too regal. 
There's an awkward self-consciousness to her attempts at appearing carefree or tough (the scene where she threatens to hit Coco over the head with an art-deco clock is so embarrassingly amateurish that it looks like an outtake that somehow made it into the movie) that rob her character of any real depth. I really wanted to buy Welch in the role, and she has it in her to be better than she's allowed herself to be onscreen. But here, I think she needed a stronger, more talented director or she simply needed to give herself permission to let go and trust.
Queenie- "He was the first guy that ever asked me what I thought."
My favorite scene: The dynamics of Queenie & Jolly's entire relationship are captured in this sweet sequence that takes place at a breakfast table. It didn't appear in the film's original cut and yet it's the most fully actualized scene in the entire film.

It's perversely fascinating to me that The Wild Party (which already has its hands full just being a drama) is also a musical! The songs, by the over-extended Walter Marks (composer of that enduring Sammy Davis, Jr. anthem, "I've Gotta Be Me!" Marks also makes his debut as a screenwriter with "The Wild Party" ) are a mixed bag. Too frequently, they kill the mood or render poorly-staged scenes comical, but I have a soft spot for song and dance, so the silly musical numbers are among my favorite parts of the film.
Raquel performs "Singapore Sally" atop a bar in a truly bizarre dress designed by then-boyfriend Ron Talsky. The bartender in the mandarin collar is none other than gay porn auteur ("Mechanic on Booty") & John Travolta PR headache, Paul Barresi - whom I had the pleasure of appearing with (as a dance extra) in that forgettable Jamie Lee Curtis aerobics epic, Perfect.

The Wild Party was just one of the many period film releases that came out during the nostalgia craze of the '70s ( Paper Moon, The Great GatsbyThe Day of the Locust ).  I was a teenager working as an usher at the Alhambra Theater in San Francisco when The Wild Party premiered, so with near-empty houses daily, I got to watch the film many times.
From the That-Dress-Gets-Out-More-Than-I-Do files: A consequence of my seeing The Wild Party so many times was noticing that a gown worn by an extra in that film (top photo), was the same gown first worn by Julie Andrews in the 1968 movie musical, Star! (below).

Even in its butchered, American-International Pictures form, I enjoyed the film very much, although it never engaged me very deeply on an emotional level. A better film, I think, than the multimillion-dollar GatsbyThe Wild Party is beautifully shot and, if not involving, certainly intriguing in its employment of cringe comedy for dramatic effect. It's fascinating to see the film now, some 36 years later, with the "director's cut" version of The Wild Party available on DVD. With footage restored and re-edited, The Wild Party is a significantly different and improved film than the one I saw back in 1975.
And even if it still falls shy of being what I would call a really "good" film and didn't provide Ms. Welch with the breakthrough role I wish it had, I can't complain. After all, Raquel Welch being Raquel Welch isn't all that bad.

In 2024, the Ron Talsky-designed costume Raquel wears
throughout The Wild Party was sold at auction for $5,850

James Coco autograph from 1980. Signed at Crown Books on Sunset Blvd. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2011

Friday, July 8, 2011

WHAT'S UP, DOC? 1972

Getting two people to agree on what is, or is not, funny, is as difficult as finding even one person who actually laughed at any of Bob Hope's jokes.

I've never been much of a fan of the kind of 1930's screwball comedy Peter Bogdanovich pays homage to in What's Up Doc? (I find them exhausting), so it surprises me that this film ranks so high on my list of all-time favorite movies. Well, it's not that much of a surprise. For no matter how you categorize it, What's Up Doc? is one of the most consistently funny movies I've ever seen. And it remains so after multiple viewings. Mercifully, What's Up Doc? owes merely a polite nod to the screwball romantic comedy genre and is stylistically closer in tone to the absurdist, anarchic slapstick of The Marx Brothers and Bugs Bunny. 
Comedy is Serious Business
In fact, in attempting to recapture the comedy style of a bygone era, What's Up Doc? should be credited with, if not exactly originating, at least spearheading that unique brand of comedy that found great popularity in the '70s: the zany, self-referential, genre spoof.  Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder mastered in this sort of thing throughout the '70s, and come the '80s, Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers took it to a whole new level with Airplane.

What is so hilariously off-kilter about What's Up, Doc?, and what ultimately works so well to its advantage, is the incongruity of seeing the hip, laid-back stars of the '70s (whose stylistic conceit was a lack of any discernible style at all) shoehorned into the rigidly stylized, almost vaudevillian conventions of '30s anarchic comedy. Though it is clearly set in the here and now, the characters all behave as though they'd never seen a Three Stooges or Laurel & Hardy movie before. We in the audience anticipate the familiar comedy set-ups and farcical comings and goings, but the people onscreen are so comically caught-off-guard and put out by the absurdity of the circumstances they find themselves in, an unexpected layer of funny takes over.
Even the film's location (San Francisco, a city so full of vertical angles and winding roads that it looks like it was designed by a Warner Bros. cartoonist) adds to the feel of the contemporary clashing with the old-fashioned. Whether intentional or not, What's Up, Doc? works so well because the destruction of order - the raison d'etre of anarchic comedy - occurs not only within the plot (which revolves around identical suitcases and a non-identical case of mistaken identity) but in the basic construct of the film itself: The tightly-wound wackiness of studio-bound 1930s comedy wreaks havoc on Hollywood's most relaxed film era in America's most notoriously laid-back city. 

I think this is one of the (many) reasons why Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love failed so miserably for me. Setting that 1930s screwball musical comedy actually in the 1930s only served to emphasize how poorly our contemporary stars (in this case, Burt Reynolds & Cybill Shepherd) withstood comparison to their '30s counterparts. The fun of What's Up Doc? is seeing the very contemporary Barbra Streisand (at her least grating here. She's really quite charming when her co-stars are allowed to be funny, too) and Ryan O'Neal thrust into a riotously retro comedy and rising to the occasion with nary a wink to the audience (whereas At Long Last Love was one long, protracted "Aren't we clever?" wink).
  Barbra Streisand as Judy Maxwell
  Ryan O'Neal   as Howard Bannister
  Madeline Kahn as Eunice Burns
  Kenneth Mars as Hugh Simon

  Austin Pendleton as Frederick Larrabee 

I don't pretend to understand comedy. I have no idea why some things are only funny once (like most SNL skits), while others (episodes of I Love Lucy, for instance) can make me laugh even after they've grown so familiar I know every punchline by heart. One thing I do know is that the dissection of comedy is seldom effective except by example, so here are a few screencaps of scenes that never fail to crack me up:
"Use your charm."
The destroyed hotel room
"Don't you dare strike that brave, unbalanced woman!"
"Thieves! Robbers!"

I like Barbra Streisand a great deal, but a little of her can go a long way. Her screen persona is so strong that it can easily (and often does) overwhelm a film. The toned-down Streisand of What's Up, Doc? is my favorite. Bogdanovich somehow gets her to actually interact with her co-stars, and she and the film are all the better for it. Ryan O'Neal is fine, but you sort of wish that Bogdanovich could have eased up on his Cary Grant fixation enough to give the actor an opportunity to find a comedy rhythm of his own. After all, Ryan O'Neal is already pretty stiff and prone to underplaying, so why hem him in further by having him imitate (badly) a star as inimitable as Grant?  Happily, Paper Moon, released the following year, would show O'Neal off to better comic advantage. Of course, the real comedy prizes of What's Up, Doc? go to the late-great Madeline Kahn and the riotously eccentric Kenneth Mars. Both are such idiosyncratically inventive comic actors that you keep discovering new, brilliant bits of genius in their performances on each viewing.
O'Neal affecting the "Cary Grant Lean"
My predilection for movies with actors turned into unearthly gods and goddesses by gifted cinematographers (in this instance,  Lazlo Kovacs of Shampoo and New York, New York) rears its head once again. Streisand and O'Neal look positively gorgeous in this movie and are burnished to a high movie star gloss thanks to their super-dark 70s tans. Really, both are photographed so lovingly that they look airbrushed.

The escalating laughs of What's Up, Doc? reach something of a deafening crescendo during the film's final third, which is comprised wholly of a pull-out-all-the-stops, cross-town, entire-cast, slapstick chase scene to end all chase scenes. The sheer number of stunts and gags that follow one after another in quick succession begs a repeat viewing just to take it all in. Ingenious, breathtaking, and refreshingly free of CGI, it's one of those rapidly vanishing movie thrills: the live-action action scene. And if you don't think this kind of thing is easy to pull off, dig up a copy of  Steven Spielberg's woefully unfunny chaotic comedy 1941. Talk about a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Surprisingly (at least to me, anyway), What's Up, Doc? was the first Barbra Streisand film I ever saw. When I was a kid, I had this image of her as a contemporary of Judy Garland and Peggy Lee; a possibly middle-aged entertainer who wore gowns, piled-up hair, and sang slow songs while standing stock still on those boring (to me then) TV specials and variety shows. She didn't dance like Joey Heatherton or wear mini skirts like Nancy Sinatra, so I got it in my mind that she was an entertainer for "old people" (more Hollywood Palace than American Bandstand). It wasn't until 1971 when her single "Stoney End" started to be played on the radio that I even realized she was a young woman. I've since seen all of Streisand's films (not really recommended), but this movie still stands out as my favorite.
In "What's Up, Doc? Superstar Streisand is a Team Player

In the intervening years since What's Up, Doc? it seems as if a sense of desperation has crept into contemporary comedies. Filmmakers clueless to the intricacies of the genre invariably resort to the easy-out of the gross and scatological, or they lazily attempt to pad out a one-joke TV skit to feature film length.  
Because it's so deliriously silly and effortlessly funny, it's easy to overlook the fact that What's Up, Doc? is the result of a razor-sharp screenplay; precise editing; a meticulous, painstaking director; and a great deal of talent both in front of and behind the camera. Comedy rarely gets its due when assessed alongside dramatic films, but it's about time for What's Up, Doc? to be recognized for the comedy classic it is.
That's All, Folks!

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2011