Everything Depends on This
the madness, mayhem and magic of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 tour-de-farce “What’s Up, Doc?” Just watched one of my favorite movies, “What’s Up, Doc?” This classy bit of pastiche from 1972 stars Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and is a pitch-perfect homage by Peter Bogdanovich to the genre of Screwball Comedy, and specifically “Bringing Up Baby,” the 1938 classic with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. (Despite its subsequent classic status, it flopped miserably at the time.) The formula for Screwball Comedy, a sub-genre of farce, is fairly straightforward: There must be a nerdy, earnest male (in this case, Howard Bannister, played by O’Neal, a distracted musicologist doing research on the musical properties of igneous rocks) and an unconventional, even slightly loopy, female (Judy Maxwell, played by Barbra, a multiple-college drop-out, or more accurately, reject, with a gift for gab, a superficial knowledge of an astounding range of scholarly subjects, and the magical ability to turn any situation, no matter how mundane, into a life-or-death crisis). If you’ve read Camille Paglia—her early work such as the brilliant “Sexual Personae,” before she turned into a tiresome neoliberal and started scolding gay men for interrupting Catholic masses and victim-blaming them for AIDS—you will instantly recognize what is taking place: the rational, organizing, male, Apollonian principle, with its civilizing tyranny of projection and sightlines, under assault by Mother Nature, the Dionysian renderer of flesh and the roiling underbelly of the Eternal Feminine. The female lead in any screwball comedy is the catalyst, the chthonian disrupter, the kickstarter who strips off the hard male armor and reveals the fragility underneath. Farce always showcases sexual anxiety; in Screwball, the male fear of dissolution by the female is the explicit thesis. Of course, the fact that the romantic leads can’t spend two seconds together without completely misunderstanding each other or destroying the proximate environment means they are destined for true love. Eventually… In this film, which turbo-charges the formula, Streisand’s character is such a vortex of chaos that she causes multiple-car pile-ups simply by crossing the street. Like a science experiment, screwball asks what if…?, lobs a grenade of sexual energy into everyday life, and invites us to watch it explode like one of Judy’s classrooms. (And, by the way, despite Barbra’s curious insistence on creating high-minded dramas that showcase her “serious” acting chops, she has always been a born comedienne. I doubt you will ever hear anyone else compare Streisand with Marilyn Monroe, but they do share this lack of self-awareness of their true talents; I attribute this to Hollywood’s attitude towards women as disposable eye-candy, to the generally-held prejudice against comedy, and to Barbra’s real genius for dissecting the emotional content of a song lyric with surgical precision and laying out its beautiful corpse for our fascinated examination. Also, the lady can SING. Sing with the best of them, with Garland and Cooke and even Callas, so it must have seemed natural to her to believe in her own depth of feeling.) Thus, we must superimpose some high stakes (a $20,000 grant) and a special condition of synchronicity: four identical suitcases, with one containing top-secret government documents, the others containing priceless jewels, the aforementioned igneous rocks and Judy’s underwear, respectively, all four of whose owners end up in the same hotel.
The premise is just absurd enough to be credible and, like “four archetypes on a desert island” scenarios, requires just enough suspension of disbelief to lure us into the hot water that’s coming rapidly to a boil. Energetic entropy is the new law; Saturnalia the mode. A government agent tasked with retrieving the top-secret documents is nonetheless unable to cross any given room without falling on his face. The attempt to turn off a blaring TV sets a hotel room on fire; every time Streisand touches O’Neal his clothing rips. Open a door and the knob comes off in your hand, unless you get stuck between the door and service door. Conversations must needs take place while you’re walking up the down escalator, with your partner walking down the up. The entire physical world is in flux, a Wonderland of perversity, mocking all attempts at dignity or competence. The wacky logic reminds us of every moment we’ve had when our brains went on vacation. “Detain her!” says the hotel concierge to the house detective, referring to an elderly grande dame whose jewels they’re intent on stealing. “Use your charm!” “Use my charm… use my charm…” repeats the detective as he waits for the grande dame to walk past, at which point, his charm at its peak of performance, he sticks out his leg and trips her. Howard Bannister is particularly prone to verbal logjams and faulty proprioception: he is at various times unable to locate himself in space or to intuit the simplest physical act. At one point he has to be reminded how to open a door; a determined grand exit leaves him, like Alice, right back where he started. Having been asked to leave the hotel—has he caught “kick-out” from Judy?—he tries to take an elevator to the lobby but instead is whisked to an upper floor that is still under construction (like his incipient romance); and, inexplicably, our heroine is soon revealed to be on the upper floor as well, asleep on an equally inexplicable grand piano, covered with a sheet. All roads lead to Judy, the eye of the sexual hurricane. Connoisseurs of parapraxis should take notes. Awakened by a knock at his hotel room door, O’Neal answers the phone instead. “Come in,” he says. “It’s broken!” It’s broken: Our faith in order, predictability, security. The final moments of the movie ape the return of the social order in Shakespearean comedy, where all the loose ends are neatly tied up. Howard’s fiancée meets her soulmate in the philanthropist, the costs of Judy-perpetrated damages is neatly paid off, and the cartoon villain, an obnoxiously disdainful and ridiculously accented rival for the grant money, played to the hilt by Kenneth Mars, gets his comeuppance when he is revealed as a plagiarist, leaving Howard as the victorious recipient of the grant money. His existential lesson is clear: All of our striving is for naught; just get carried away by the unpredictable, sparkling river of life and love, and damn any rapids along the way. Howard’s lesson is without question due to Judy’s galvanizing magic: she has smacked her fist on the staticky radio and tuned us in to the real frequency that was just waiting for us all along. How can he resist her now? Impossible. The climax of the movie is a sensationally staged car chase through the streets of San Francisco, itself an intentional parody of the famous car chase in Bullitt, that seems to cram into its fifteen minutes every sight-gag ever cooked up and apparently sets itself the goal of making each stunt even more extreme than the one you just saw, until the entire cast, plus the cars, end up in San Francisco harbor. It’s both hilarious and thrilling. (This extended chase scene apparently ate up one-third of the entire movie’s budget, and some of the stunts were filmed without location permission. Rumor has it that there are still scars on the San Francisco streets that originated from the filming.) You’ll either get it or you won’t; love it or loathe it. Put me in the “love” camp. I cannot forget to mention Madeleine Kahn who, in her break-out film role as Ryan O’Neal’s devoted but prissy fiancée, just about steals the entire movie. “Now, Howard, don’t be nervous,” she says, as she sends Howard off to charm the philanthropist with the grant. “Just remember: everything depends on this.” And how right she is. ֍ #70smovies #Filmcritiques #screwballcomedy #Streisandmovices