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When Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal Went Screwball


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In 1971, while watching a rough cut of Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” Barbra Streisand turned to a studio executive and said: “I want him.” What Babs wants, Babs apparently gets, which is how Bogdanovich ended up directing “What’s Up, Doc?” and we ended up laughing through it for our latest Weekend Watch Party.

Plentiful jokes, precision timing, memorable oddballs, kooky situations and beautifully executed physical comedy — “What’s Up, Doc?” has it all and more, including the blissful, counterintuitive pairing of Ryan O’Neal and Streisand. He plays Howard Bannister, a fusty music professor who, on a trip to San Francisco with his fiancée, Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn), meets Streisand’s Judy Maxwell, a zany, seemingly rootless sexpot. What Judy wants, Judy gets, and she’s soon chasing Howard amid escalating complications, slam-bam slapstick and some of the greatest second bananas every bunched together.

To judge from our readers’ voluminous and very enthusiastic response, “What’s Up, Doc?” is good for what ails us. Or, as one reader, Gina Reichardt, put it: “Love, music, higher education, plaid overnight bags? What’s not to love?”

MANOHLA DARGIS My first impulse as a critic is to talk about “What’s Up, Doc?” in relation to its classic antecedents, most obviously Howard Hawks’s 1938 romp, “Bringing Up Baby.” In large and small ways, Bogdanovich is self-consciously riffing on screwball comedy in general, the Hawks in specific, with O’Neal stepping into the Cary Grant role and Streisand taking over for Katharine Hepburn. Bogdanovich even consulted with Hawks, who was concerned that “Doc” didn’t have any animals — there’s no dinosaur, no leopard, no dog as in “Baby” — which seems like a peculiar thing to fix on. But then Hawks spends an awful lot of time with his menagerie.

But what I really want to talk about is Madeline Kahn, who is peerless. It’s hard to think of “Doc” working without her performance, which is perfection from the flip in her steel-helmet wig on down. Her Eunice — who has to vie with Judy and, by proxy, Streisand, poor thing — could have been a mirthless disaster, yet another sexist cliché, the woman scorned, blah blah blah. Instead, Kahn and Bogdanovich make Eunice into a fully rounded woman who thinks she knows what she wants, a.k.a. Howard. One of the movie’s delights is that she also gets a happy ending, one perhaps better than she might have without Judy’s anarchic interference.

It’s not for nothing, as one sharp-eyed reader, MrsDohler, pointed out, that Eunice is seen engrossed in the self-help book “The Sensuous Woman.” Eunice has desires and it’s unclear that Howard is meeting them or ever could. And “What’s Up, Doc?” is all about desire: for rocks, for pizza, for a cute guy who studies rocks and for the life you really want.

The chemistry between Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand is smokin’ hot (she’s never been sexier) — and I’m pretty sure that Ryan O’Neal’s shirtless underwear scene was the first moment that I realized “Yep, I’m gay.” THANK YOU, Peter Bogdanovich for one of my all-time favorite films. XO — Andy S, Los Angeles

A.O. SCOTT The Eunice-Judy rivalry is the farcical engine that drives the plot, at least until the actual car engines take over. Judy spends a fair amount of time impersonating Eunice — or “Burnsy,” as she insists — and as Judy seduces Howard away from Eunice, she also seduces the highfalutin moneybags Mr. Larrabee (Austin Pendleton) on Eunice’s behalf.

Who is the real Judy Maxwell, though? Yes, she’s a serial college dropout and a judge’s daughter with an encyclopedic knowledge of every arcane subject and a Merriam-Webster dictionary nestled amid the underwear in her red plaid valise. But the clue to her true identity is in the movie’s title, which is also the first line Streisand says to O’Neal. Like Bugs Bunny, Judy is a principle of pure comic disorder, a commentary on and embodiment of the absurdity of the universe, or at least the part of it called San Francisco.

I watch this movie and see Streisand, such a gift to the screen, the eyes, the ears, the heart. Then I remember how often she is denigrated and hated and targeted for abuse. And that’s when I realize how far we’ve fallen. Thank you to all the readers who can smile and simply enjoy the good things we’ve been given. And thank you, Barbra, for being bravely different. — Mark, Chicago

What does she see in Howard? A sweet-natured, absent-minded hottie, that’s what. O’Neal may function as the straight man for Streisand’s impishness (and Kahn’s imperiousness, and Pendleton’s preciousness, and Kenneth Mars’s towering Balkan pomposity), but he also serves as a punchline. As many readers of a certain vintage noted, the last lines of the movie send up “Love Story,” the soapy blockbuster of the previous year that had turned O’Neal into a heartthrob.

Other readers cited lines that have become family in-jokes or catchphrases. The marvel of a script is credited to a dream team of New Hollywood screenwriters: Buck Henry, who had written “The Graduate,” and Robert Benton and David Newman, the credited authors of “Bonnie and Clyde.” And while we’re at it, we can’t scant the contributions of the editor, Verna Fields (who would go on to win an Oscar for “Jaws”) and the production designer, Polly Platt. The décor of Mr. Larrabee’s house — with those Lucite pillars and all that fancy modern sculpture — and the surreal rooms on the 17th floor of the Bristol Hotel may be the real stars of the picture.

DARGIS There’s some fantastic female talent onscreen and behind the scenes — though not nearly enough. Even so, the film feels very much of its second-wave feminist moment. It was an amazing year in so many ways for women and their endless fight for their rights: the first issue of Ms. Magazine hit newsstands, Title XI became law and the Equal Rights Amendment was sent to the states for ratification. And Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Shelley Winters, Cicely Tyson, Ali MacGraw, Carol Burnett and Diana Ross all starred in some of the year’s biggest hits — hot damn!

All these years later and the most famous film of 1972 is the male-driven “The Godfather,” a film I revere but that also epitomizes the macho ethos of New Hollywood. It’s instructive that “What’s Up, Doc?” isn’t reflexively included in the 1970s pantheon, which is crowded with both male auteurs and brooding, violent and deeply serious male characters with a sprinkling of sad ladies à la Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown.” Genre prejudices also play a role in how “What’s Up, Doc?” has been (relatively) slighted, I imagine. Comedies rarely receive the kind of gaga critical sanction that dramas do, at least until the director is discovered by later generations; Hawks wasn’t a god of the art until cineastes like Bogdanovich anointed him.

SCOTT Bogdanovich was a deep-dish scholar of comedy, almost as wrapped up in its theory and history as Howard is in his igneous rocks, and “What’s Up, Doc?” is in effect the world’s most entertaining Ph.D. dissertation.

My parents took me to see this in the theater when I was a child. I am now a musicologist, and would love to think my career choice can be traced to this film. — JHC, Tennessee

Once the action leaves the hotel, it switches gears from Howard Hawks to Buster Keaton, from zippy, door-slamming dialogue comedy (with a generous sprinkling of sight gags) to almost wordless sequences that are sidesplittingly crazy and insanely rigorous. The big car chase above all, thanks to the simple addition of a ladder and a pane of glass.

The way that scene at once honors and flouts the laws of physics and probability is very much in the spirit of Keaton, who gets an explicit hat tip when, for no real reason, an avalanche of runaway garbage cans chases a man down a sidewalk.

“What’s Up, Doc?” is a tribute to the classics of an earlier era that became a classic in its own right. When I was a kid, it seemed to be on television every other week, and I never got tired of tuning in. A lot of people, of all ages and dispositions, seem to feel the same way.

One of my proudest parenting moments came when we were out at a restaurant and my then 10 year old daughter looked at a the occupants of a nearby table who were searching for something that had fallen on the ground, turned to me and said “What wine are they serving at table one?” Karen Holt, Baltimore

www.nytimes.com 2020-05-19 23:26:39

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