Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

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 trickster behind his neurotic fussing: TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, SLEEPER, BANANAS and PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, in fact everything he wrote before his break-out, STAR WARS-beating-for-the-Oscar success, ANNIE HALL. His Humbert-nebbish self-conscious paralysis and priapic overeager clowning was part of the sexual revolution. His nebbishy persona didn't specifically exclude him from the in-crowd of that era, so he's not as threatened by the competition in ways he would be later. But in PUSSYCAT he's not competing against beautiful tall Brits like Peter O'Toole, he's writing for him. And he even gives the leg-humping lion share to a second Brit, Peter Sellers. 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 hotel hallways like a guilty sinner while Mancini bounce encourages us to laugh lewd and loud.


But British directors Clive Donner and Robert Talmadge seem to know enough to just get out of the way, 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 and 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 doing 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 here even 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, from a smoother, bawdier epoch, before sex was relegated to the foul-mouths of 20 year-old virgins.

But while MY FAVORITE YEAR was fun and O'Toole played a drunken old buccaneer well, it doesn't hold up well today. It has terribly unimaginative lighting and scoring, and its reliance on a barrage of ethnic humor, nebbishy voice-overs, and 'oh how zany' old saws like stealing the police horse in Central Park at dawn are way too forced and cliche. But Allen actually wrote for that old YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS being sent up in that film, he's not hung up on ethnic nostalgia. IN PUSSYCAT there's real madness in the air, no need for horse theft, and O'Toole has the energetic languor of a man who's been laughing a lot in between takes and is grateful to be having such clever lines, and so many pretty girls to woo, and he shows his gratitude by giving the material a depth of actorly resonance most dramatic stars playing comedy wouldn't bother with. When he brings cricket ball and bat to his insane group therapy meeting it feels like he's sharing something with these new friends that have been making his sides hurt from laughing all month. It's beautiful.


 Playing a charmer so irresistible to women and so unable to resist them that his life has been one long series of one-night stands, O'Toole is more than good, he's convincing. Hell, I'm in love with him, too, here. But one of his more insistent conquests, played by Schneider, demands he marry her, so he tries to comply so goes to see a psychiatrist, 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 a sanctimonious but cute girl is listening). Meanwhile, Woody shows up as Victor, a nervous strip club prop master who somehow winds up taking Romy Schneider 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 it would have been a completely different film and nowhere near as fun. We'd just hate Beatty for his ability to bed all these girls and still look tan and nonplussed. We can't hate O'Toole 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 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, 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, rather than run home at the last minute hyperventilating like Marcello's provincial papa in LA DOLCE VITA. 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 go home with someone else 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 a 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, along with Paula Prentiss, 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).
 
Me, I'd go for her -- the Prentiss poet. 
But what's important is that Woody doesn't really believe either notion - monogamy or nymphomania - is the answer. The answer is to have fun either way. 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 renting a prostitute sex of 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 and his own back yard and love is where you left it and so forth, 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 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 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. Now there's a French actress I'd have given up my low-down tomcat ways for, and all she'd have to do is sing "La Chazz l'infantile."

1 comment:

  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.

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