Friday, May 29, 2020

Getting Down with “What’s Up, Doc?”

In the midst of a pandemic, a zany movie comedy sounds like a refreshing change of pace. And they don’t come more zany than What’s Up, Doc?  This 1972 screwball comedy helmed by Peter Bogdanovich is clearly meant to evoke such golden-age delights as Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant romping with a pet leopard in Bringing Up Baby. In line with that 1938 classic, What’s Up, Doc? features an outlandishly mismatched couple—he a stuffy academic, she a full-blown kook—who fall for each other in the course of some dizzily nonsensical adventures. In What’s Up, Doc? the leads are played by Ryan O’Neal, coming off of the seriously saccharine Love Story, and Barbra Streisand, already an Oscar winner for Funny Girl.

He’s Howard Bannister, a bespectacled midwestern paleontologist who’s come to San Francisco in hopes of a grant to research the musical achievements of cavemen striking igneous rocks. (He’s also under the thumb of a domineering fiancée, played in her feature film debut by the late, great Madeline Kahn.) The interloper who eventually unleashes his wild side is Judy Maxwell, an outrageous young woman who seems to have no other motive than to cause complete and utter chaos in Howard’s life, for his eventual betterment, of course. San Francisco plays itself, complete with cable cars, dizzyingly steep hills down which to careen, and a bay into which all the main characters will inevitably fall.

The script of What’s Up. Doc? has a remarkable pedigree. One of its credited screenwriters is Buck Henry, only a few years removed from his brilliant script for 1967’s The Graduate. Also contributing to What’s Up, Doc? were David Newman and Robert Benton, who’d written Bonnie and Clyde. So three screenwriting icons from 1967 had a hand in scripting What’s Up, Doc?, which is -- not surprisingly -- crammed full of action and wit.

So why didn’t I enjoy it more? Maybe it was my fragile mood. Still stuck in quarantine, I’m not easily amused. And though the actors played their parts with conviction, I didn’t like them enough to root for their eventual success. One particularly sour note for me was Madeline Kahn’s portrayal of the shrewish fiancée, Eunice. With her heavily lacquered hair (a wig, as we discover) and her braying voice, she is the classic stereotype of the marital shrew, from whom the red-blooded American boy-man needs to be liberated. But in watching the film, I couldn’t entirely forget how its maker, Peter Bogdanovich, had dumped his wife and longtime artistic partner, Polly Platt, for Cybill Shepherd while making his previous film, The Last Picture Show.

Bogdanovich, barely 30, was – on the heels of The Last Picture Show – the hottest thing in Hollywood. It was the era of the youthful auteur, the Boy Wonder so hip that anything he touched turned to showbiz gold. That description fit Bogdanovich (a Roger Corman alumnus who’d directed his first feature in 1968) like a glove. Not only did he aspire to write, produce, and direct—he also found a way to be a featured performer, as he was in his big Corman break-out film, Target, where he shared scenes with Boris Karloff. To put it bluntly, the guy had (and still has) chutzpah.

This is certainly revealed in the film’s trailer, in which Bogdanovich, and not his stars, is the central focus. Sure, it’s intended to be spoofy, mocking the “voice of God” narration that insists the young director is “using the camera as Heifetz uses a Stradivarius.” But Bogdanovich’s cleverness is the whole point of this over-the-top exercise. For me, anyway, enough is enough.

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