Saturday, March 10, 2012
Bringing Up Babs
The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of What's Up, Doc?
I remember working in the video store one day when a regular customer came in to check out a few titles. He glanced at the enormous flat screen we had behind the counter, saw Barbra Streisand belting out some catchy show tune and uttered a question I got asked a lot in those days. "What are you watching?" he said. "Hello, Dolly!" I answered. He smiled, shook his head and exclaimed, "See, now, here's where I break with the stereotype. I'm a gay guy who doesn't like Barbra Streisand." I just laughed and replied, "That's OK. I'm a straight guy who does."
And it's true. Although she is by no means my favorite actress (nor would I ever see a film simply because she's in it), I happen to enjoy watching her onscreen. Funny Girl, Meet the Fockers and the aforementioned Hello, Dolly! are all films I love, but my favorite movie of hers would have to be the hilarious What's Up, Doc? which celebrates its 40th anniversary today. Nowhere is Babs' gift for comedy and sheer charisma on display better than in this film. They even find an excuse to show off her incredible voice once or twice: namely, in the film's opening and ending credits where she sings Cole Porter's "You're The Top" as well as the scene at the piano when she croons a few lines of "As Time Goes By."
It also doesn't hurt that What's Up, Doc? happens to be a really great movie. Hot off of his success with The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich originally conceived it as a remake of Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby, but wisely decided (much as Lawrence Kasdan would do later with his film noir tribute Body Heat) to use Hawks' film merely as an inspiration rather than a template and to give What's Up, Doc? its own identity. As a result, it comes off more as a love letter to screwball comedies in general as well as to iconic Warner Bros. feature films (such as Casablanca) and classic animated shorts. Hence, when Barbra's character, Judy Maxwell, is introduced first to Ryan O'Neal's nerdy Howard Bannister, she's seen munching on a carrot a la Bugs Bunny and/or Clark Gable from It Happened One Night. With her brash, fast-talking, trouble-making personality and his stiff, bespectacled, long-suffering demeanor, the two leads clearly are based on Baby's Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. (Interestingly, Streisand shared a best actress Oscar with Ms. Hepburn only four years earlier in one of the Academy's rare ties. Streisand won for her film debut in Funny Girl while Hepburn earned her third best actress trophy for The Lion in Winter. Hepburn's prize was her second consecutive win in the category having taken the 1967 Oscar for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.) Aside from Judy constantly getting Howard into trouble and a reminiscent coat-tearing gag, the similarities between Doc and Baby essentially end there.
Also, What's Up, Doc? lacks a leopard. Instead the chaos revolves around four identical carrying cases containing such varied items as clothes, rocks, jewels and classified government documents. When moviegoers first see the quartet of cases at the start of Doc, it's the filmmakers signaling audiences that much confusion and hilarity awaits. At this point I have to confess that, although I've seen the film at least a dozen times, I cannot to this day follow which case is which throughout the course of the film. Every time I sit down to watch, I swear I'm going to keep track of the cases, but I always give up about 20 minutes into it. I take some comfort, however, from the fact that even the great Buck Henry, in the process of re-writing the screenplay, reportedly phoned Bogdanovich to say, "I've lost one of the suitcases. It's in the hotel somewhere, but I don't know where I put it."
The gags come fast and furious in What's Up, Doc? More than a decade before Bruce Willis and Bogdanovich's ex-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd resurrected rapid-fire banter on TV's Moonlighting, Streisand and O'Neal fire a barrage of zingers at each other so quickly that you're almost afraid to laugh for fear you'll miss the next one. The behind-the-scenes team also populates the What's Up, Doc? universe with a whole host of kooky characters, each bringing his or her unique comic flair to those roles. There isn't a single boring person in What's Up, Doc? Everyone (right down to the painter who drops his cigar into the bucket) amuses. At the top of the heap resides the great Madeline Kahn in her feature film debut as Howard's frumpy fiancée Eunice Burns. Two years before she joined Mel Brooks' cinematic comedy troupe, she proved to the world her status as one of the funniest women ever to grace the silver screen. Another Mel Brooks' regular, Kenneth Mars, plays Hugh Simon, providing yet one more strangely accented flamboyant nutball to his immense repertoire. A very young Randy Quaid, a brief M. Emmett Walsh and a very annoyed John Hillerman also show up in hilarious bit parts.
All of this anarchy culminates in a spectacular car chase through the streets of San Francisco that actually rivals the one from Bullitt. Apparently it took four weeks to shoot, cost $1 million (¼ of the film's budget) and even managed to get the filmmakers in trouble with the city for destroying some of its property without permission. Nevertheless, Bogdanovich pulls out all the stops in creating this over-the-top action/slapstick set piece that overflows with both thrills and laughs. When watching it, one can't help but be reminded that physical comedy on this grand of a scale doesn't even get attempted anymore. One wishes another director would resurrect the kind of awesome stunt-comedy on display here and in The Pink Panther series.
The film's dénouement takes place in a courtroom where an embittered, elderly judge (the brilliant Liam Dunn) hears the arguments of everyone involved and tries to make sense of it all. Howard's attempt to explain only serves to frustrate and confuse the judge further and results in this gem of an exchange that owes more than a little bit to Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First?":
HOWARD: First, there was this trouble between me and Hugh.
JUDGE: You and me?
HOWARD: No, not you. Hugh.
HUGH: I am Hugh.
JUDGE: You are me?
HUGH: No, I am Hugh.
JUDGE: Stop saying that. (to bailiff) Make him stop saying that!
HUGH: Don't touch me, I'm a doctor.
JUDGE: Of what?
JUDGE: Can you fix a hi-fi?
HUGH: No, sir.
JUDGE: Then shut up!
The tag line for What's Up, Doc? read: "A screwball comedy. Remember them?" Well, whether people remembered screwball comedy or simply discovered it for the first time, they certainly embraced the film as it was an enormous success upon its release. It took in $66 million in North America alone and became the third-highest grossing film of the year. Since The Last Picture Show was released in late '71 and Doc came out in early '72, Bogdanovich had two hugely successful films playing in theaters at the same time. Unfortunately, his career, which had just started to rise, also had neared its peak. Although he would follow Doc with Paper Moon his directing career would only see sporadic critical successes after that such as Saint Jack and Mask. He even filmed Texasville, the sequel to The Last Picture Show, but he'd never again see the kind of commercial or critical success he had achieved in the early 1970s. Bogdanovich would eventually end up working in television, often as an actor such as his long recurring role as Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, psychiatrist to Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) on The Sopranos. The most recent feature film he directed was 2001's fairly well-received The Cat's Meow starring Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies and Edward Herrmann as William Randolph Hearst. Based on a play of the same name, The Cat's Meow concerned a real-life mystery in 1924 Hollywood involving the shooting death of writer/producer/director Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) on Hearst's yacht.
When Bogdanovich was good, he was great and What's Up, Doc? is, in my opinion, the jewel in his crown. It made a once-forgotten genre popular again, it jump-started a lot of comic careers and it reminded us all that love meaning never having to say we're sorry is the dumbest thing we've ever heard.