Monday, April 01, 2013

"You have my word as an inveterate cheat" - WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? (1965)

With the way Woody Allen's sexual neurosis has gone into a deep WASP-y freeze these past decades, it's easy to forget his 60's pro-libido worldview and that old carefree magic that used to show us the winking horny trickster behind his neurotic fussing: TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, SLEEPER, BANANAS, LOVE AND DEATH and PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, in fact everything he wrote before his break-out, STAR WARS-beating-for-the-Oscar success, ANNIE HALL, has a bawdy good humor that hasn't been very 'good' since his whole 'outing' as a sexual predator. It's important we remember that his Humbert-nebbish self-conscious paralysis and priapic overeager clowning was part of the sexual revolution, long before they were 'art.' In the 70s, a nebbishy persona and thick glasses didn't specifically exclude him from the in-crowd, as a result, he's not as threatened by the tall-goy-and handsome competition in ways he would be later. Maybe that's why WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT holds up so well today. He's not competing against a beautiful tall god like Peter O'Toole --he's writing for him. And he even gives the leg-humping lion share of comedy to a second Brit, Peter Sellers, with Allen pulling in the sloppy thirds as a nebbishy strip club prop man. Add a bevy of hot, talented comediennes and the film rises like a balloon way past the clumsy boudoir farce of types like Blake Edwards, who always seemed too easily hypnotized by a pretty shape with less of an idea how to film it, preferring to hang out in raincoat drag clubs with Oktoberfest grotesques and under beds and down late night hotel hallways like a guilty sinner while Mancini slinks along beside him in barefoot haste.

By contrast, British directors like Clive Donner and Robert Talmadge seem to know enough to just get out of the way when Allen is writing and comedic heavies are acting, like you would for the Marx Brothers. In a great extended scene, Fritz and O'Toole get drunk together in a Paris cafe, half-fighting, then apologizing, then taking off their coats to slug it out, then forgetting why they took their coats off and putting them back on before staggering over to Capucine's baroque apartment tower, arm-in- arm, to lob rocks and slurred declarations of love up to her balcony: "Tell her, her face is like ze pale autumn moon!" beseeches Sellers like a terrible Cyrano from the bushes. "I'm not going to say that," Toole slurs. "It's ghastly!" Drunken recitations from Hamlet are tossed up instead to indicate the Immoral Bard is with them, and O'Toole playing a drunk trying to do Hamlet is about the best Hamlet ever. Meanwhile Sellers' ridiculous black wig finally makes sense when he pops up as Richard III in a dream sequence (he apparently loved the wig so much he wore it all through the shoot). I love O'Toole more than in MY FAVORITE YEAR, and in some ways if you factor in that Allen worked in the Borscht Belt gag room of Your Show of Shows then you realize PUSSY might even be a prequel to YEAR, a relic from a smoother, bawdier epoch, before sex was relegated to the foul-mouths of 20 year-old virgins.

 MY FAVORITE YEAR doesn't hold up as well, today - at least for me. It has terribly unimaginative lighting and scoring, and its reliance on a barrage of ethnic humor, nebbishy voice-overs, and hack zaniness (Stealing a police horse and riding around Central Park at dawn? It's right up there with PETULIA's tuba). But Allen actually wrote for Sid Ceasar in TV's early 'years' but in 1965 is not yet all hung up on ethnic RADIO DAYS-style nostalgia. Instead of those G-rated tropes, PUSSYCAT has an air of real madness. There is need here for horse theft or other generic bits of naughtiness, and O'Toole has the energetic languor of a man in the prime of beauty and charm, who's been laughing a lot in between takes and makes the most of every clever line and every pretty girls thrown within his woo-pitching radius. He pours on a kind of dissolute actorly resonance most dramatic stars playing comedy wouldn't bother with. When, for example, he brings a cricket ball and bat to his insane group therapy meeting it feels like he's sharing something meaningful to him, O'Toole, with these new friends that have been making his sides hurt from laughing all through the shoot. It's beautiful. It's what that lame tuba, or that lame police horse, was probably fumbling after.

Playing a charmer who is as irresistible to women as they are to him, we feel in O'Toole's depth that his life has been one long series of one-night stands, and when he says he needs more out of life. O'Toole is more than good, he's convincing. So when one of his more insistent conquests, played by Romy Schneider, demands he marry her, he goes to see a psychiatrist. Enter: Fritz (Sellers), to help him with what we'd now call sex addiction (and we'd now be compelled to say "there's nothing funny about it!" in case anyone is listening). Meanwhile, Woody shows up through the stage woodwork and somehow winds up taking a disillusioned Romy home to his little pad --her act of reprisal against O'Toole's waffling, the way Miriam Hopkins was always going off with Edward Everett Horton.

PUSSYCAT began as a Warren Beatty vehicle but had it turned out that way it would have been a completely different film and nowhere near as fun. Men like myself distrust Beatty-- his ability to bed all these girls and still look tan and nonplussed does not move us. We love O'Toole on the other hand, because his pallor is that of a man taking too much Cialis. And scoring loads of babes seems so critical to Beatty's self-esteem that it's not joyous just compulsive. O'Toole just genuinely seems too enraptured by the beauty and sparkle in ways Beatty's too narcissistic to match. Each new lover takes just a bit of O'Toole's bodily fluids, and each takes him farther from being able to look his fiancee in the eye, but he's so enamored by each new girl, and so appreciative of their attention, that each time he cheats is like the first. As he struggles valiantly against his inner nature, women are literally dropping out of the skies into his motorcar. What's a nobly drunk insouciant to do?

That's the joy of it all: we'd do just what he's doing, except maybe not try so hard to keep Schneider... though her parents turn out to be pretty fun at a party. Another genius rarity! You know those affairs where you stick it out an extra year because you like drinking with her parents!? You don't? O monsieur! And another thing that hasn't happened in 1965 (aside from AIDS, of course), that grisly story of what too much sex did to Three Dog Night's Danny Hutton. As far as we knew, there could never be too much sex. Oh man, to have Cialis for daily use, but as yet no AIDS? Can you imagine?

Naturally Allen's script is going to lean at some point towards his beloved Fellini, here via an image of O'Toole with whip and slouch hat as women fight over him in a dream, but I always got the impression Fellini was too guilty a Catholic to really go for broke. That he'd run home at the last minute hyperventilating like Marcello's provincial papa in LA DOLCE VITA, as many of us probably would. O'Toole's women on the other hand are all believable conquests and his befuddled sense of crushing over-stimulation conveys what it feels like when every girl in the room is fighting over you and then they make peace and decide you're a sleaze for wanting them all, and suddenly no one wants you and then you're just tossed away in the street for twenty years, alone and wondering what you did wrong, like the Jeff Beck guitar neck in BLOW-Up or Donna Summer's cake in the rain.

Girls of O'Toole, from top: Ursula Andress, Romy Schneider, Capucine, Paula Prentiss
Then there's the women: Ursula Andress ("She's a personal friend of James Bond!" Fritz shouts) has seldom been more alluring as the mark-missing skydiver who lands in O'Toole's roadster en route to le Chateau Chantal, where the cast is assembling for the final, inevitable closet-hopping merry-go-round; Paula Prentiss is aces as a manic stripper-poetess ("Who killed Charlie Parker? You did!") working on her fifth nervous breakdown / pill OD (the detox ward presents her with a commemorative plaque); Capucine is a sexy bundle of nymphonic repression and I love her to death, so why pick Romy Schneider's pussycat over all those meaningless... gorgeous.... succulent... crazy other pussycats? She's cute and can be vivacious but ends up with the one-note monogamy-hawker part; she even thinks she's being cute when she steals his car keys and won't give them back. And you know how she ended up? All but wrapped in collector's non-acidic mylar by Jacques Dutronc in The Important thing is to Love. (1975).
Look! Look at the lips of that Prentiss poet. 
But what's important is that Woody doesn't really believe either notion - monogamy or nymphomania - is the answer. Writing a character like O'Toole's sex addict seems to help this young version of Allen's pen write large: the sex is easy and breezy, not the cranky old bourgeois intellectual somehow scoring the love of a teenager or a prostitute in his future films. O'Toole's tall lanky Britishness gives Allen permission to keep things at a literally Wagnerian pitch. His pen's libido seems charged with that exhilaration that only comes when a non-Catholic writes farce in France, to the point that even when O'Toole starts tenderly yammering about how his true love was right in front of him all the while, a big author's message sign flashes on... and on. Man, that author's message sign could be flashing nonstop in the last dozen films Woody's made!

That's fine because, marriage-minded women or no, there's some of that giddy thrill of when you're 'on a roll' and women start fighting over you, or you just get lucky and for once aren't saying idiotic things and blowing your chances, and actually getting a bottle, a bed, and a girl together all at the same time and life is a jazzy gas. Even if poor Allen's character spazzes and Sellers is basically trying to date rape Capucine all through the film, why not forgive it? And if you have laughter, it doesn't even matter if you end up with nothing else. Just look at those crazy actors in this picture below. They're all having a blast, and why not?

So instead of getting upset, just think about the way young woman all claim they're helpless nymphomaniacs to a man one minute and then refuse his advances a second later, and all the other things that have disappeared from films due to PC ethos. There was once upon a time a book called "The Joy of Sex" that was on every adult's bookshelf --even in suburbia. Nowadays there wouldn't be a book like that, now it would be The "Joy of Responsibility, Control and Prior Consent" - where even porn stars are required to use aesthetically depressing condoms and there are enough lectures about the importance of family values and settling down in every rom-com to turn off even a moralistic old studio like the post-code MGM.

But this is 1965, we don't have to worry about that yet. Here no woman runs away who doesn't secretly want to be chased, the cross fades are psychedelic, and the perfume of giddy madness eliminates any staleness in the boudoir-farcical air. Whoa whoa whoa Whoa! Whoa.

PS - And just when you think it can't get any better? Francois Hardy. All she'd have to do is sing "La Chazz l'infantile" and we'd be at it again.

PPS - Rereading this in light of the Harvey Weinstein /Louie CK stuff kind of shocks me - my only excuse was a kind naïveté. Since that piece by Ronan Farrow and the one by his sister that came out in the wake of Blue Jasmine, I've been on an Allen embargo, and now the bawdy 'all women want to be chased' attitude in the film and in my piece unnerve me. I was protesting more the mawkish sentiment of rom-coms and this pro-family dynamic then in vougue. But I think this rousting of the predators from Hollywood is very very important, and good for male-female relations as a whole, as the sooner they're all identified and eliminated, the quicker we can go back to 'fun' in sex and male-female banter with a clearer understanding and less silence about real intentions and motives.  Meanwhile, of course Allen is still at it, with something called Wonder Wheel. Ugh -- Kate.... Kate, what are you thinking? (12-19-17)


  1. Yes Francoise Hardy at the end was the icing on the cake, after that mad chase around the French country hotel and then they all go off on go-karts! Add in Romy being adorable, Capucine being haughty, Paula as the stripper, Ursula dropping in by parachute, Fellini's Edra Gale as Sellers' valkyrie wife ("Whats that thing?" as Ursula said) and O'Toole in his heyday. No wonder my best pal and I loved this and saw it several times and used to quote lines from it to each other. Its a key 60s movie for me - like BLOW-UP and MODESTY BLAISE and UN HOMME ET UNE FEMME, not least for that Bacharach soundtrack ... and the art nouveau titles and colours, oh - there was also a young comedian, one Woody Allen ! 1965 in aspic.

  2. Excellent, insightful review, except for your tail-end mea culpa, "If only I'd known what a monster Allen was...". First, no proof, no confession. Second, do Allen's movies devalue under moral scrutiny? Does that mean they were valued at least in part for their moral flexibility and openness? Do we like the sex so long as it's "not my daughter"?
    Do we now value art morally? Must I castigate Caravaggio because he was homosexual? Oh no, gay's back in fashion, so I can applaud him again.
    You see the tangled web we encounter when plucking wasps we thought were honey bees from the spider's lair. Leave or rescue? A sticky situation.

    1. Fair enough, thanks for your feedback. It's definitely a sticky wicket. If I did a new PS, it wouldn't have the same reactionary venom it has now. But I'm still confounded by my former admiration for films like this and the realization of the extent Allen films have informed my adult sex life (to the point I even say "I don't sell my art by the yard!" a lot)


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