the madness, mayhem and magic of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 tour-de-farce “What’s Up, Doc?”
“What’s Up, Doc?”
Release date: Mar. 9, 1972 (New York City)
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cinematography: László Kovács
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, Madeleine Kahn
Screenwriters: Buck Henry and · David Newman & Robert Benton
Awards: Writers’ Guild of America: Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen (All three screenwriters)
What’s Up, Doc? is Peter bogdanovich’s 1972 attempt
to out-screw the quintessential screwball comedy, 1938’s “Bringing Up Baby.” Unlike its predecessor, however, which flopped miserably at the time then attained cult status, What’s Up, Doc? was politely appreciated on release and then largely written off as a fun piece of fluff, enjoyable enough but unremarkable, then forgotten.
But this just demonstrates Hollywood’s (and thus the public’s) bias against comedy in general, for Hollywood’s self-esteem problem always manifests as longing to be taken so very seriously, as art—though, paradoxically, the films that most deserve to be considered art are mostly foreign-language and/or independent productions.
Hollywood’s way of dealing with that affront is to relegate the first category to the children’s table, with its very own special just-like-the-real grownups award; and ignore the independents entirely.
What’s Up, Doc? is not just a forgettable pot-boiler, a half-hearted repurposing of some tired plotline. It’s a brilliantly-written, perfectly-cast farce that not only fixes the seventies esthetic in amber, but is meticulously directed with the kind of attention to detail and choreographed precision that this quirky genre demands. As a result, both the wise-cracking dialog and the physical comedy gleam like a well-polished hand grenade. I believe it deserves to be a cult classic in its own right.
The formula for screwball comedy is fairly straightforward: There must be a nerdy, earnest male (in this case, Howard Bannister, a distracted musicologist doing research on the musical properties of igneous rocks, played by Ryan O’Neal) and a plucky, independent, heroine who shatters every gender norm of ladylike behavior, and whose unending stream-of-consciousness chatter makes perfect sense, to her—in 1930’s parlance, “a dizzy dame with a screw loose” (Judy Maxwell, 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, played by Barbra Streisand).
The gender norms being reversed, it is now up to the hapless male lead to grow a pair, man up and show himself worthy of dealing with this uppity female. He’s become too soft, it seems, sitting around his lab, instead of toiling in the mine. The disruptive heroine is the corrective, so to speak, the vein of coal just waiting for his pickaxe. He has to awaken his sleeping masculinity to match and contain dizzy dame’s unruly energy. Society—and his lonely heart—demand nothing less!
If you’ve read anything by maverick cultural critic and self-appointed shit-disturber 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 the eye and its illusion of safe, crystalline boundaries, under assault by Mother Nature, the Dionysian renderer of flesh and the juicy, melting, roiling underbelly of the Eternal Feminine. The female lead in any screwball comedy is the catalyst, the messy disrupter exploding from the bowels of the earth; the kickstarter who penetrates the hard, blustering male armor and reveals the fragility and fear underneath. Screwball comedy, indeed, farce in general, always showcases male sexual anxiety and the male’s desperate attempt to neutralize its perceived source: “unpredictable, irrational, devouring”— Woman.
Thus, 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, in my humble opinion, they do share this lack of self-awareness of their true talents. I attribute this to their push-back against Hollywood’s attitude towards women as disposable eye-candy, to the generally-held prejudice against comedy, which I mentioned above, and in Barbra’s case to her real genius for dissecting the emotional content of a song lyric with surgical precision and laying out its beautiful corpse for our fascinated examination. Add a healthy dose of prima donna, and it would be easy for Babs to believe that we’re as fascinated by her serious, deep emotions as she is. )
In the interests of upping the stakes, the plot adds contrapuntal interest, layering onto the standard boy-girl formula a competition for a $20,000 grant (I know, but it was 1972, so— a billion dollars in today’s money) and yet another thematic strand that gives our suspension of disbelief muscles an Olympic-level work-out: four identical suitcases, with one containing top-secret government documents, the others containing priceless jewels; the aforementioned igneous rocks; and Judy’s underwear, all four of whose owners end up in the same hotel.
Those suitcases are in some respects the unsung stars of the movie, which actually opens with the title “Once upon a time there were four identical suitcases….” and a shot of one of them which then pans upward to reveal its owner, Howard Bannister (igneous rocks).
The once upon a time trope, universal signifier for fairy tales, sets the fantastical tone and excuses itself every excess by claiming, in effect, “this is too ridiculous to be believed.”
So, fully prepared, even invited, to be skeptical, we make ourselves vulnerable to the manipulations of the plot, like hot-tub party-goers who don’t notice that the water’s coming to the boil.
We’re whisked off to a Carrollian planet that only looks like our own. 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. O’Neal’s attempt to turn off a blaring TV results in a fire that destroys a hotel room; every time Streisand touches O’Neal his clothing rips.
Open a door and the knob comes off in your hand, or 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 (therefore one of the identical suitcases) 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 after the burning room disaster—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 climax of the movie, which comes after the four suitcases, nodes of pure confusion, have visited on the cast the full force of their malevolent energy, is a lengthy, sensationally staged car chase through the streets of San Francisco (an intentional parody of the famous car chase in Bullitt). During an astonishing fifteen minutes we’re regaled with every sight-gag ever known to movie-making man, every stunt both completely familiar and 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.)
The final moments of the movie mimic the return of the social order in Shakespearean comedy, where all the loose ends are neatly tied up (but only after a stint in court, presided over by a nervous wreck of a judge, during which we get the “recount the plot to an outsider” trope, so we can be amazed at our own credulity).
The universe settles down in its recognizable configuration, where deserts are just and grown-ups must reckon with outcome of their bad behavior—Howard’s world, in other words.
Howard’s fiancée, Eunice, 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, 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.
Judy’s the catalyst, the sorceress; she has smacked her fist on the staticky radio of life and tuned everyone in to the real frequency that was just waiting for them all along. How can he resist her now? Impossible.
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.
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