On a special double feature/dual podcast episode of 70 Movies We Saw in the 70s/Cinematalk commemorating screenings this month at UW Cinematheque, Ben Reiser and Jim Healy take a deep dive into a “Fistful of Feiffers”, discussing both LITTLE MURDERS (1971) and CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971). ‘71 was a big year for screenwriter/playwright/cartoonist Jules Feiffer, with Alan Arkin’s LITTLE MURDERS and Mike Nichols’ CARNAL KNOWLEDGE both hitting screens within six months of each other. Listen along as Jim and Ben try to suss out Feiffer’s inspirations, figure out what genres these films do and don’t fall into, Elliott Gould on top of the world, Candice Bergen’s best work, waiting for Godard, Gordon Willis goes wild, Nicholson as man-baby, magnificent Ann Margret, and much more, including not one, but TWO rounds of “What else was playing that week?”
Cinematalk Podcast: LITTLE MURDERS & CARNAL KNOWLEDGE
Jazz Redux: THE COTTON CLUB ENCORE
These notes on Francis Coppola's The Cotton Club Encore were written by Samantha Janes, PhD student in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. The Cotton Club Encore screened as one of "A Couple of Coppolas" on Saturday, September 24.
By Samantha Janes
From 1923 to 1940, the famous Cotton Club in New York City roared with musical orchestras from the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, singers such as Lena Horne, dances from the legendary Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers, and audiences that included Fanny Brice, Mae West, and Al Jolson. During its initial years of business, the Cotton Club operated with strict segregation laws leading them to serve only white customers and hire all African American performers. These performances often portrayed imagery of the south and depictions of the performers as “exotic” in order to entice the crowd. Numerous performances from these artists would move beyond the walls of the Cotton Club. Hit songs such as “Creole Love Call,” performed by Duke Ellington and Adelaide Hall, and “Stormy Weather,” remembered most from Lena Horne’s performance in the film adaptation, Stormy Weather, were both featured songs at the nightclub. Over the years of its operation, the Cotton Club’s owner, the gangster Owney Madden, emphasized featuring talented performers that would draw in crowds even during the years of prohibition and depression. However, even with the success of the club’s performers, it would take until the late 1930s for the club to begin allowing African American patrons.
Flash forward forty years: the club’s rich history became the center of the project, The Cotton Club, which began formulating in 1980 and premiered in 1984. The film’s controversial production raged with financial issues, leadership changes, and numerous rewrites of the script. Initially, Francis Ford Coppola was not involved in the film’s creation but was drawn into the project when Robert Evans called to ask how to rework the film’s storyline to include Richard Gere’s character as a white musician within the environment of the Cotton Club. Although Coppola was resistant to joining the film, he became the director and brought William Kennedy on as a writer to join the team that already included Mario Puzo (Coppola’s collaborator on The Godfather trilogy). The circumstances surrounding the film’s production were exceptionally strenuous. Numerous scripts were written but then the writers were forced to condense descriptions, cut dialogue, and replace music. Throughout production, there was also a shady financial situation that resulted in budget issues and even a murder. When the original version of The Cotton Club was released in theaters in 1984, it underperformed at the box office and the overall reception was underwhelming considering the hopes placed on the film’s director, plot, and stars. Despite these struggles, the film still garnered Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing.
Flash forward another thirty-three years after the original release: Coppola premieres The Cotton Club Encore, a re-edited version of the film. After finding the original version of the film on Beta Max tapes, Coppola produced this alternate cut to celebrate the film in a more complete format. The new version of the film attempts to remedy the issues with the strained plot, which, in Coppola’s words, felt “truncated.” Instead, this version refocuses the narrative to balance the storylines between both main characters, Michael “Dixie” Dwyer (Richard Gere), a white musician, and Delbert “Sandman” Williams (Gregory Hines), an African American dancer.
The Cotton Club Encore takes pleasure in leisurely exploring the glamorous and dangerous world surrounding the club’s performers, clientele, and managers. As with most Coppola films, the impeccable casting and cinematography allow the talented performers to dazzle the audience throughout the film. Though the narrative often pulls in different directions as it searches for the balance between the musical and the gangster film, this re-edited version endeavors to flesh out the characters and more clearly establish the experiences of African American characters in Prohibition-era New York. The film delves into Harlem in the late-1920s during the height of the jazz era and sees both Gere and Hines navigate the nightclub scene as struggling performers while dealing with the threats of the criminal underworld. Coppola constructs this intricate world not only by exploring the boisterous atmosphere of Cotton Club but also by establishing intimate relationships for both protagonists. The romantic and familial connections continually form, split apart, and then reconcile throughout the film to prompt the continued momentum of the plot. With a large ensemble cast, the narrative is able to constantly move and introduce new characters in a way that resembles the bustling nature of the city.
While the environment of New York serves as a vibrant backdrop, the scenes in the Cotton Club are where the film shines the brightest. The songs from the late 1920s and early 1930s evoke a keen sense of excitement that make the audience want to be led up the darkened stairs and into the vibrant atmosphere of the club. Overall, the musical performances in The Cotton Club Encore anchor the film as the narrative progresses through the years of the Great Depression and the characters’ shifting lifestyles. Coppola presents the musical elements of the film not just as short numbers but as full performances. This version showcases the addition of three musical numbers initially cut from the 1984 version, including the hauntingly beautiful performance of “Stormy Weather” by Lonette McKee playing Lila Rose and “Tall, Tan, and Terrific” sung by Hines. Although the film’s original cut featured many of the same songs, the re-edited version allows for the richness of the performances to be complimented by stronger characterization within the narrative that was previously subtracted.
While this was not Coppola’s first time releasing a new version of one of his films, the chaotic production history of the original, paired with his desire to unveil the missing narrative elements, makes his decision to revisit the film an understandable one. The Cotton Club Encore takes the good parts of the original and makes them great in ways that permit the talents of the performers, crew, and director to light up the screen. With the new script and musical additions, the film is able to flesh itself out with a stronger narrative that balances both storylines and positions jazz as the lifeblood of the characters. Ultimately, the choice to release The Cotton Club Encore allowed the film to be appreciated by a new audience for its beauty, talent, and tenacity.
The Humanistic Grace of THE RAIN PEOPLE
These notes on Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People were written by Lance St. Laurent, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A restored 4K DCP of The Rain People from American Zoetrope screened at the Cinematheque on Saturday, September 17, as one of "A Couple of Coppolas." The second of the series, The Cotton Club Encore will screen on Saturday, September 24 in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free!
By Lance St. Laurent
If Francis Ford Coppola’s career had peaked in 1969 with The Rain People, one imagines that the film would be held in similar esteem as other landmarks of the late 60s’ “Hollywood Renaissance”, such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or The Graduate (1967). Of course, Coppola’s career did not peak with The Rain People, and the breakout success of both Godfathers (1972 & 1974), The Conversation (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979) throughout the 1970s catapulted Coppola to a level of acclaim and creative freedom that most filmmakers only dream of. In the shadow of these titanic achievements, The Rain People has languished in relative obscurity, under-seen and underserved in restorations and home video releases, at least until now. It’s not hard to understand why. In comparison to Coppola’s 70s triumphs, The Rain People is a modest endeavor, with far less in common with films like The Godfather than with the more grounded, domestic character studies of the era, journeys of self-discovery set against the beautiful but remote vastness of middle America like Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970) or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). And within that context, The Rain People proves as beguiling as any of its more celebrated contemporaries, an early gem from a young filmmaker finding his footing after struggling with the studio system—1968’s Irish-themed roadshow musical Finian’s Rainbow proved a poor fit for the young Coppola—and as clear a distillation of the sensibilities of the so-called “film school brats” as any film of its era.
The film also showcases a performance by Coppola’s old Hofstra classmate, James Caan, then best known for star turns in two late-career films by director Howard Hawks (Red Line 7000 in 1965 and El Dorado in 1966). Far from the hot-headed Sonny Corleone, The Rain People sees the young and burly Caan not yet settled into to tough, masculine archetypes that would define his later career. As the soft-spoken and brain damaged ex-college footballer Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon, Caan displays an uncharacteristic gentleness and pathos that reveals emotional depths that Hollywood largely left untapped, his imposing, broad-shouldered physique belying a soul that has been left helpless and abandoned by all those around him. Caan’s Godfather co-star Robert Duvall—already a well-established theater and television actor at this time—also makes a notable appearance as a highway patrolman whose charm belies a more sinister nature.
Still, the work from Caan and the rest of the ensemble would all be for naught without a central performance to hold the film together. Shirley Knight, twice a nominee for Best Supporting Actress, relishes one of her few lead roles as Natalie Ravenna, a beleaguered housewife whose new pregnancy inspires a fit of existential ennui and an impromptu road trip of self-discovery. Knight’s sad, searching eyes give life to Natalie’s sense of emptiness, and her performance, which like the rest of the film leans into a sense of lived-in naturalism, deftly grounds the film in her emotional journey, even as you find yourself questioning many of her decisions. Natalie’s complexity on screen is a testament not only to Knight’s gifts as an actress, but also to Coppola’s burgeoning talents. The whole ensemble demonstrates that Coppola, even at this early point in his career, had developed a keen skill with actors. Furthermore, despite Coppola’s canonical films leaning toward more traditionally masculine genres like crime and war films, his handling of Natalie demonstrates an empathy and sensitivity with female characters that would ultimately be under-explored in Coppola’s later filmography.
Behind the scenes, the film was also an early opportunity for another burgeoning filmmaker, young film school George Lucas, who had met Coppola on the set of Finian’s Rainbow. Still three years out from his feature debut, THX-1138 (1971), Lucas documented The Rain People’s cross-country production in the 30-minute documentary Filmmaker, and edited the film with his future wife Marcia. The partnership with Marcia would prove important not just in Lucas’s personal life, but his professional life as well, as her editorial prowess would be essential to the success of American Graffiti (1973) and especially Star Wars (1977). Lucas’s documentary also helped forge a working relationship with Coppola that would lead to the formation of the pair’s production company American Zoetrope the same year as The Rain People’s release.
In 2022, as The Godfather celebrates its 50th anniversary and Francis Ford Coppola begins to mount his long-gestating, self-funded passion project Megalopolis, there has been much reflection and retrospection about the 83-year-old filmmaking patriarch. Coppola himself has contributed to this reflection, producing new restorations and alternate cuts to many of his films, both the successes (such as the new cut of Apocalypse Now) and the noble failures (such as the recuts of The Godfather III (1990) or the The Cotton Club (1984)). Amidst this flurry of remasters and re-releases, this stunning 4K restoration of The Rain People has been relatively unheralded and is as of yet unannounced for home video or digital release. However, rather than letting the film further languish in obscurity, our screening is an opportunity to celebrate a truly special film, not just for the careers it helped to launch, but for its own beauty, sensitivity, and humanistic grace.
A Slapstick Drama: Peter Bogdanovich's NICKELODEON
These notes on Peter Bogdanovich's Nickelodeon were written by film fan, film scholar, and film preservationist James Kenney, whose other reviews and essays can be found at https://tremblesighwonder.com/. James Kenney kicked off our current season of Peter Bogdanovich movies on June 29 with Squirrels to the Nuts, a movie he helped save from obscurity. Our Bogdanovich series continues with a 4K DCP of Nickelodeon, shown in a Director's Cut featuring 5 minutes of scenes not included in the film's original release, and presented in black-and-white, as Bogdanovich originally intended. The screening will take place on Wednesday, July 27 at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free!
By James Kenney
Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant one-of-a-kind “slapstick drama” Nickelodeon is, like many of the late filmmaker’s films, a film out of time. While his contemporaries were producing pessimistic works such as Taxi Driver, The Godfather, The French Connection and Chinatown, Bogdanovich followed up his early nihilistic triumphs Targets and The Last Picture Show with similarly personal projects that nevertheless doubled as family entertainments, all rated G or PG: What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon, a 1976 Columbia release, detailing the chaotic exploits of early independent two-reel silent filmmakers on the West Coast as they battle with the first movie moguls.
Bogdanovich regular Ryan O’Neal plays a hapless lawyer who becomes a low-budget movie director, Burt Reynolds plays the guy at alligator wrestling matches that introduces alligators to each other and then “gets out of the way” who becomes a cowboy star, and Tatum O’Neal, fresh off her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, returns alongside Stella Stevens, and newcomers John Ritter and Jane Hitchcock as members of the film company. Brian Keith (in a role Bogdanovich designed for Orson Welles) plays the bellicose independent producer who puts dollars and cents over O’Neal’s increasingly artistic impulses, O’Neal’s personal journey reflecting the entire film industry’s increasing maturity as filmmakers learned the genuine magic that a film camera could engender.
A movie about movies was inevitable for Bogdanovich, with his encyclopedic knowledge of motion picture lore, and he rewrote W.D. Richter’s original screenplay incorporating many anecdotes shared with him by the great early filmmakers he’d interviewed, such as Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and Leo McCarey. Due to the previous year’s At Long Last Love’s well-chronicled commercial and critical failure, Bogdanovich for the first time had to “battle” with his producers during the making of Nickelodeon, having his initial casting choices of John Ritter in O’Neal’s part, Jeff Bridges in Reynolds’ part, and Cybill Shepherd in newcomer Jane Hitchcock’s part overruled by producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Bogdanovich, alongside cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, also conceived of the film in black & white, which had not caused a problem for Bogdanovich on Picture Show and Paper Moon, but after two commercial disappointments in a row (the first being the “art film” Daisy Miller) Bogdanovich made some concessions, and Nickelodeon was released in color.
Nevertheless, Nickelodeon works, delightfully, Bogdanovich’s attention to detail, comedic sensibilities and reverence for film history paying off wonderfully in a film that begins as a chaotic madhouse screwball comedy detailing the first uncertain steps made by pioneer filmmakers (whose films would often be shown with the reels out of order, audiences not noticing or caring). The tone shifts to a more thoughtful, measured one as the stakes rise, nickels turn to dollars, and genuine artists like D.W. Griffith recognize the value of cinema as an artistic statement. The opening shot of the film sums up the delicate meticulousness of Bogdanovich’s mis en scene and his dry sense of humor; we note the ceiling fans and sweaty faces in the 1910 courtroom (sans air-conditioning), as lawyer O’Neal is distracted reading a July 30, 1910 Saturday Evening Post featuring “part two of The Ranger’s Revenge” on its cover. This one “simple” shot establishes the time period and milieu; also that perhaps O’Neal is not destined for a career in law and more interested in the world of the imagination; and thirdly (perhaps only caught on second or third viewing) that he himself is not particularly creative at this point, as he soon after gets his first directing gig with Keith by stealing the idea of a “ranger” protagonist from this story.
O’Neal and Reynolds are game (Reynolds joked in the Nickelodeon press materials that his earlier films “were the kind shown in airplanes and prisons so nobody could leave”), and perhaps after the enmity in the media provoked by Bogdanovich and Shepherd's real-life and highly publicized coupling, introducing the sweet, fresh-faced Hitchcock as the film’s ingenue proved wise. Bogdanovich told Peter Tonguette in his book Picturing Peter Bogdanovich: My Conversations With the New Hollywood Director (University Press of Kentucky, 2020) that his initial conception was of a female lead that was more “threatening”; Hitchcock was “very good, but she’s in the Lillian Gish department and we wanted somebody more in the Theda Bara department.”
The version being screened at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque is Bogdanovich’s director’s cut, which returns the film to black-and-white as Bogdanovich desired and adding about five minutes to the running time, largely restoring Stevens’ love-triangle with O’Neal and Ritter that had been excised from the theatrical cut. As Bogdanovich told Tonguette “We shot [Nickelodeon] with the idea that eventually it would be printed in black-and-white. We designed it so that it would eventually look good in black-and-white because it’s got a lot of shadows and contrasts and so on, which you don’t normally do with color.”
Nickelodeon the film, in tone and temperament knowingly matures as its characters mature (John Milius’ Big Wednesday, made two years later, appropriates this unusual tonal approach). Columbia’s promotional copy that described the film as “fast, funny, frantic, frenetic and flavorful” is suspiciously alliterative but wholly correct in describing Nickelodeon, which will genuinely make you feel like you are there at the beginnings of cinema while also fashioning an unusual collection of characters you will grow fond of and miss when the film ends.
As the advertising for Nickelodeon promised at the time, “Love. Action. Comedy. Suspense. Excitement. Before Rhett kissed Scarlett. Before Laurel met Hardy. Before Butch Cassidy met the Sundance Kid. Before any movie ever made you laugh or cry or fall in love. There was a handful of adventurers who made flickering pictures you could see for a nickel.” Bogdanovich in the years following its release voiced some uncertainty with the tonal shifts in the film, but with Nickelodeon Bogdanovich created something wholly unique, not seen before or since, a “slapstick drama” which both captures the reality of the early frenzied pioneer days of silent films, when for a nickel audiences witnessed flickering images dancing across makeshift screens, and the dawning realization that so much more could be done with these flickering images— there is no other film quite like Nickelodeon, true to the tempestuous time in which it is set, when the screen had not truly found its voice, and true to the personal artistic filmmaking that for a fleeting moment in the 1970s allowed Hollywood directors like Scorsese, Coppola and Bogdanovich to share personal obsessions with audiences enthusiastic to take the journey with them.
Not Phony: Peter Bogdanovich’s THE THING CALLED LOVE
These notes on Peter Bogdanovich's The Thing Called Love were written by film fan, film scholar, and film preservationist James Kenney, whose other reviews and essays can be found at https://tremblesighwonder.com/. James Kenney kicked off our current season of Peter Bogdanovich movies on June 29 with Squirrels to the Nuts, a movie he helped save from obscurity. Our Bogdanovich series continues with a 35mm print of The Thing Called Love on Wednesday, July 20 at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free!
By James Kenney
“A lot of stuff was improvised and then written down and then learned. The actors and I all worked on that endlessly. I told them I wanted to get their point of view. They were in their early twenties. I wasn’t. I wanted to know their attitudes, how they would react, how they would feel. I didn’t want it to be phony.” Peter Bogdanovich, speaking with Peter Tonguette for Picturing Peter Bogdanovich: My Conversations with the New Hollywood Director (University Press of Kentucky, 2020)
July 16, 1999 is when the late Peter Bogdanovich’s The Thing Called Love opened in New York City, remarkable only in that the film had originally snuck out six years earlier, in August 1993, without a New York release, just the latest in a run of high-quality commercial failures that dogged Bogdanovich after Mask’s success in 1985. I was there on the16th, for an early afternoon show that Quentin Tarantino, without an entourage, quietly attended as well. I had already seen the film on its home video release in 1994, and no doubt so had Tarantino, an avowed Bogdanovich fan who later put the director’s then-neglected They All Laughed on his Sight and Sound 2002 “Top 10 of all Time” poll. Tarantino knew it wasn’t important to see “big” films projected on the big screen; it was, and is, vital to see good films this way.
The Thing Called Love is most certainly a “good film” despite its disgraceful initial release, dropped indifferently into regional Southern U.S. theaters because of its country music angle, and then buried completely due to indecision in how to market it after one of its leads, River Phoenix, died of an overdose on a Hollywood sidewalk before the premiere. The film’s primary emphasis is on the weekly auditions for a Saturday night showcase at the legendary Bluebird Café (a real place, later made famous in television’s Nashville), here run by Lucy, played by a no-nonsense K.T. Oslin. While hanging around the Bluebird, and ultimately waitressing there, New York-native Miranda Presley (Samantha Mathis) falls in with three other songwriting hopefuls, the self-involved James Wright (Phoenix), Kyle Davidson (Dermot Mulroney), and Linda Lue Linden (an ascendent Sandra Bullock), an unconfident but warm-hearted “Southern Belle” perhaps less talented but more giving and self-aware than the others.
Unsurprisingly for a Bogdanovich film, Love focuses less on the mechanics of the music business than on the need to become part of a like-minded community of kindred spirits. Like many of his films, such as The Last Picture Show and Saint Jack, The Thing Called Love is an unrushed exploration of friendship, romance, regret, and optimism – plot is hardly the concern. The romantic longings, dreams, and insecurities of these aspiring artists, and their attempts to define who they are and aren’t, is what Bogdanovich is really after, and he creates a beguiling, breathing environment, suggestive rather than explicit, at once light and serious. Bogdanovich always cares deeply about his characters, working here with his young actors to make them real enough you’ll wish they existed; they’ll stay with you long after Love ends.
Bogdanovich was not the first director on the project. Brian Gibson, who instead made the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It?, was originally attached, and The Thing Called Love has certain superficial similarities with “the struggling artist or athlete makes good” archetype utilized in films good and bad such as Flashdance and Rocky that Bogdanovich is clearly fighting. Whether this battle is what a major studio, in this case Paramount, desired, is another consideration.
Bogdanovich worked intimately with his four young leads: “[They] were closely involved in the creative process. I learned a lot from these young people. I found that their generation is in some ways guardedly romantic and in other ways practical, inquiring, not easily duped, and suspicious of going in accepted ways just because their parents did,” he explained in the film’s press materials, “And I think this is a generation with a great deal of integrity – very conscious about what selling out does to someone.” Even as a hired hand, Bogdanovich never compromised his artistic integrity on Love, battling to cast Bullock over studio objections: she later told the Los Angeles Times “Peter fought for me, even though I was nobody to fight for and he didn’t even know me.”
While top country artists supplied new songs for the soundtrack (including longtime friend Rodney Crowell, whose songs Bogdanovich featured in Texasville and They All Laughed), he also had the young leads write their own songs for the film. Bullock wrote a song called “Heaven Knocked on My Door”: “It was supposed to be a metaphorically bad song, and they were paying talented songwriters all this money to do it,” she told the Times. “I told them if they wanted a bad song, they could pay me and I’d write them a terrible song.” Phoenix composed and sang “Lone Star State of Mind,” Mulroney the same with “Someone Else’s Used Guitar.” The film’s song score was conceived to naturally emanate from sources within scenes, a stylistic trademark of Bogdanovich: “It gives the picture more reality. I like music to be counterpoint rather than always underlining what’s happening visually.”
The Thing Called Love was an assignment, yet Bogdanovich makes it his own through his sophisticated mise en scène, allowing you to fill in bits for yourself, clearly responsive to his performers and to the Nashville milieu. You can feel how much the characters in the film enjoy hanging out, singing, and writing together, and Bogdanovich’s influence is felt in the climactic song performed by Mathis, “Big Dream” (written by Alice Randall and Ralph Murphy). As he told Peter Tonguette, referring to the song’s motif of God being female, “Nobody wanted the song. They wanted songs that were more upbeat or more flashy. I said ‘You know, when an audience first hears a song, they’re not going to love it. It takes time to get to know a song and to get familiar with a song. So it has to be something that’s a little surprising and a little revolutionary in the lyric, not so much the tune. It has to be something a little shocking or a little controversial,”
A film of delightful little moments and eccentric curlicues, about connection and community, The Thing Called Love will sneak up on you. I’ll leave the final word to Michael Wilmington, who, distressed by the film’s meager release, wrote a defense in 1994 for the Chicago Tribune: “The best things about The Thing Called Love are its cast, style and mood. It has a snap, pace and rhythm we don't ordinarily see in today's movies. The dialogue scenes have a headlong pace and crackling self-confidence reminiscent of Howard Hawks, and the three- and four-way love combats recall Ernst Lubitsch. At its best, The Thing Called Love has the inner life and brash stylization of a movie like To Have and Have Not….The Thing Called Love, which may just have been too smart for its early test audiences, is a movie without alibis.”
The In-Your-Face Kitsch and Gore of FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN 3-D
These notes on Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol's Frankenstein) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. Flesh for Frankenstein will screen in a new 3-D restoration from Vinegar Syndrome and American Genre Film Archive on Saturday, April 30 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!
By Tim Brayton
“Butchery Binge” screams the headline of The New York Times’ May 1974 review of what was then still generally known under the title Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. “[The film] almost begs the gorge to rise” notes critic Nora Sayre, adding with deadpan irony, “Hence those with iron guts may rank as philistines–unable to respond to the call of art.” On the far side of the country, Charles Champlin wasn’t couching his hostility in self-amusement: “Even the fervent loyalist, eager for the deliciously outrageous, will I think be hard put to deny that the movie is an amateurish bore, flatly written, wretchedly acted, interminably slow-paced.”
In short, critics at the time weren’t having anything to do with what we now generally know as Flesh for Frankenstein (it was, all along, the brainchild of writer-director Paul Morrissey, and Warhol’s name was primarily just a marketing hook). By the time of the film’s third major write-up in The New York Times, two months later, Paul Gardner could with simple confidence refer to the film’s “generally disastrous reviews.” And yet, the mere fact that Flesh for Frankenstein received three major write-ups in two months – the second one was written by Vincent Canby – tells us that the film tapped into something that went deeper than the repulsed dismissal of sensible critics. And in fact, it was an enormous box-office hit relative to its cost, and relative to its scanty theatrical release. Critics might not have known what to do with the bizarre object, but its self-selecting audience surely did, and history, in this case, was on the side of the audience. Flesh for Frankenstein is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind blend of wildly disparate tones and attitudes, and viewed now on the cusp of its 50th anniversary – and in 3-D no less, restoring the tacky glory to a film that has mostly been seen in a mere two dimensions for most of its life – it’s still one of the most disorienting, disturbing, and gleefully hilarious horror-comedies you could hope to see.
Even by the standards of a book as routinely trashed by its adaptations as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, this version (which doesn’t even bother to credit Shelley) leaves behind pretty much anything you might recognize from the novel. The unhinged, sexually demented Baron von Frankenstein (Udo Kier, an actor who knows a thing or twenty about appearing unhinged onscreen) is more of a parody of a Nazi mad scientist: he’s building two creatures, one male and one female, and once he imbues them with life, he plans to breed them to create a perfect race of Serbian superhumans. The only thing that can halt him in this mad quest is Nicholas (Joe Dallesandro), a handsome, oversexed lunk of a stableboy; that and the fact that the male monster’s head, provided by Nicholas’s friend Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic), has absolutely no interest in sex with women.
The viewer with a working knowledge of Morrissey and Dallesandro’s earlier collaborations, most notably the 1970 Warhol production Flesh (a pseudo-pornographic film that instantly made Dallesandro a gay icon) might have their own suspicions about why Sacha, with his deep friendship with Nicholas, might be so stubbornly resistant to the female creature’s charms. But it’s not even scratching the surface of what Flesh for Frankenstein has to offer to note that there’s some queer subtext afoot. The film is an over-the-top spectacle of lurid, trashy excess. It is, as Sayre and so many other critics noted when it was new, a remarkably disgusting film: disgusting enough that, a decade later, the British Board of Film Classification and Director of Public Prosecutions successfully banned it from distribution on home video, as one of the infamous Video Nasties. That’s a somewhat ridiculous fate for a kitschy underground art film, but there can at least be little doubt that the film is pretty nasty at that. We see a fair amount of gore, and we hear even more, thanks to a soundtrack full of squishy, squelching noises. And even the gore itself pales in comparison to the warped behavior of the Baron and his hostile wife Katrin (Monique van Vooren), mostly around their destructive and violent sexual kinks, such as… but it’s better experienced by watching the film itself, through the indescribable medium of Kier’s over-the-top performance of orgasmic delight.
But if Flesh for Frankenstein were merely disgusting, it’s hard to imagine it surviving so long, and finding such a strong reputation as outsider art (including, among other achievements, a DVD release in the early days of the Criterion Collection). Paul Morrissey’s films are an acquired taste, to say the least, but he was at the very forefront of campy outrageousness in the early 1970s, and Flesh for Frankenstein boasts a loopy sense of humor that fits securely in that tradition. Some of this comes through the acting: Kier’s garish caricature of his own outlandish German accent pushes the Baron towards an extreme, grotesque parody of upper-class Continental social mores. Dallesandro complements this by going all the way in the opposite direction; his performance is mired in his Long Island vowels and a generally laconic mood that punctures what limited seriousness accrues to this scenario. If Kier is parody-by-excess, Dallesandro is parody-by-underplaying, and together they give the film a jolt of constantly unpredictable comic energy.
Besides the two leads, the whole thing is just so silly. The over-the-top gore and sordid content quickly reach the point of absurdity, even more so thanks to the 3-D effects that find various internal organs being thrust towards the camera. So whatever unnerving, disgusting atmosphere Flesh for Frankenstein builds up is quickly turned towards delighted mockery and a general sense that the unapologetic trashiness of everything is meant to be a fun celebration of the memorably weird things cinema can put in our way. In a sense, Flesh for Frankenstein turns out to be a parody of itself, laughing at its own outrageous excess and desire to constantly shock. It’s a wild experience in every way, breaking all the conventions of ‘70s horror and underground art cinema alike, and presenting joyously gaudy surprises right down to the last scene.
RAISING ARIZONA: Cage Meets Coens
These notes on Raising Arizona were written by Lance St. Laurent, graduate student in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Raising Arizona will screen as part of our "Age of Cage" series on Friday, April 29 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free.
By Lance St. Laurent
The opening sequence of Raising Arizona (1987) remains one of the most audacious rebukes of the sophomore slump ever committed to film. After the success of Blood Simple (1984), the two-headed director known as the Coen brothers could have carved out an entire career of stylish crime thrillers, becoming a somewhat quirky alternative to the likes of Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann. Indeed, they have at times made films in this mold, films like Miller’s Crossing (1990) or their Best Picture winning adaptation of No Country for Old Men (2007). It was Raising Arizona, though, and, in particular, its locomotive of an opening sequence, that really told the world who the Coen brothers were as filmmakers. If Blood Simple announced the pair as a duo of uncommon talent, it was Raising Arizona that showed their formal ambition in full bloom and revealed their love of the manic and eccentric.
Over the course of an eleven-minute expository montage, we are introduced to two-bit criminal H.I.—pronounced “Hi”— McDonough (Nicolas Cage), a compulsive recidivist whose romanticized voice-over narration reveals the soul of a poet, and his unlikely paramour Ed (Holly Hunter), a police officer whose prickly exterior barely conceals a soft, sensitive heart. After a courtship that plays out of over the course of several arrests, H.I. and Ed marry and start trying to “have themselves a critter” as H.I. puts it, only to find that “biology and the prejudices of others” prevent them from doing so. Desperate and inspired by the story of a well-off local family birthing quintuplets (“They’ve got more than they can handle!”), H.I. and Ed set out to steal themselves a baby and start the family of their dreams no matter what it takes. It’s only after this furious flurry of set-up that Carter Burwell’s iconic yodel-infused score swells and we get a title card that lasts just long enough for us to catch our breath.
In a filmography defined by oddball characters over their heads, there still may be no Coen protagonist as instantly compelling as H.I., and in Nicolas Cage the Coens found the ultimate vessel for this bundle of contradictions. Like the bird tattoo on his arm (a tattoo shared by this writer), he is a cartoon made flesh, constantly running, screaming, and flailing with an energy that is matched by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld’s (later a director of some note himself) playfully mobile camerawork. And yet, Cage balances H.I.’s propensity for Looney Tunes-style antics with a genuine sense of pathos and a palpable love for his new bride, and even as the film crescendos with ever more ludicrous antics, Cage never loses sight of H.I.’s fundamental humanity. This was not Cage’s first lead performance, but this was certainly one of the first in which his singular eccentricity was harnessed by filmmakers whose vision was as off-beat as his own.
Furthermore, Cage is matched by Holly Hunter—improbably giving this incredible performance the same year as her Oscar-nominated role in Broadcast News (James L. Brooks)—who similarly grants Ed a rich sense of interiority to accompany her single-minded pursuit of a child and her occasional violent crying fits. Though Hunter has played variations of the feisty Southern spitfire dozens of times throughout her career, few other performances have leveraged her forceful energy, tiny frame, and unmistakable voice to such hilarious ends. Despite her intensity, though, Ed’s relentless desire for a child never feels pathetic or delusional. She is foolhardy and obsessed but also recognizably, even painfully, human.
Since the release of Raising Arizona, the films of the Coens have often drifted into the realms of the absurd and the silly, and several of their later films, such as The Big Lebowski (1998) and Burn After Reading (2008), have returned to a purely comic mode. For me, though, it is always Raising Arizona that I return to. It is pound for pound their funniest film, and indeed one of the finest American comedies ever made. The Coens are renowned for their formal inventiveness and their razor-sharp wit, and Raising Arizona has both in spades, but its humanism and genuine warmth is somewhat unique in the oft-unforgiving universes the brothers’ devise. It is sweet but never saccharine and silly without feeling slight, a perfect ode to the scruffy charms of unruly underdogs made by a pair of filmmakers who were still unruly underdogs themselves. The Coen brothers have arguably made more technically accomplished and thematically rich films since Raising Arizona, but to me none are more imprinted with the irrepressible and unkempt spirit of youthful enthusiasm, both in front of and behind the camera.
STAVISKY: Crafting a Con Man
These notes on Alain Resnais' Stavisky were written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. The Cinematheque's series tribute to the late Jean-Paul Belmondo concludes with a screening of Stavisky on Saturday, April 23 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!
By John Bennett
France, 1934: fiercely unhappy with the left-of-center government, a group of right-wing organizations riot in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, creating the biggest political crisis of the French Third Republic outside of World War I. With fascism firmly established in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany and on the rise in a politically unstable Spain, the riots took on a particularly sinister quality. The cause of the riots? In part, France’s slow recovery from the global depression. But a more immediate cause was the grand scandale of the Stavisky Affair, the intrigue of which makes up the story of Alain Resnais’ 1974 period piece, Stavisky. Starring popular French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo and overflowing with glamorous architecture and objets d’art, Stavisky charts the exploits of Serge Alexandre Stavisky, the Ukraine-born embezzler who charmed his way into the bosom of France’s political and cultural elite. With the help of powerful friends, Stavisky maintained ill-begotten business ventures in banks, stables, theaters, newspapers, etc., none of which turned much of a profit while the title character spends lavish sums on his wife and loses fistfuls of francs at the baccarat tables of Biarritz. Hounding his trail is Inspecteur Bonny, a man who comes to realize that if he brings down Stavisky, he can bring down high profile aristocrats, politicians, and police chiefs along with him. Stavisky intertwines this story with a subplot about another immigrant under police scrutiny living in France: Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Dense with political intrigue, Stavisky manages to simultaneously charm and unsettle an audience just as its eponymous protagonist charmed–before unsettling–swaths of France.
Stavisky marks something of a middle period in the careers of both Resnais and Belmondo. Both initially rose to prominence in 1959/1960, the headiest years of the French New Wave. Resnais’ bold and experimental direction in Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Belmondo’s brash and charismatic performance in Godard’s Breathless (1960) both typified the youthful experimentation that characterized many New Wave films. Fifteen years later, Stavisky typified the legacy of New Wave filmmaking in a new way. Resnais’ film, with its depiction of a historical megalomaniac, belongs to a cycle of mid-career films by New Wave cinéastes that treat the political turmoil of the 30s and 40s with deep cynicism. Films like Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969), Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Losey’s Mr. Klein (1976), and Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980) all feature characters who navigate a Nazi-menaced France with a measure of cold opportunism. These films, made by New Wave directors or starring New Wave actors, eschew grand narratives of heroism to explore how extreme circumstances place complicated constraints on protagonists. They also invite a certain degree of social commentary; at a climactic point in Resnais’ film, attention is gravely drawn to Stavisky’s Jewish identity, underscoring the rampant antisemitism of European high society of the 1930s.
Stavisky was Resnais’ sixth feature, after Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Muriel (1963), The War is Over (1966), and Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). All of these films feature a thematic preoccupation with the nature of memory and a stylistic preoccupation with disorienting editing that scrambles time and space. Stavisky squarely continues these trends. The film’s loving attention to the look and feel of France’s interwar years reveals a fascination with historical memory, and memory as a psychological process is reflected in some of the film’s flashback sequences (such as the one detailing Stavisky’s first arrest in the middle of a dinner party). Though the film’s story is largely linear, Resnais subtly plays with spatial and temporal editing. Some cuts throughout the film briefly and disorientingly flash forward to depict peripheral characters testifying against Stavisky at a Parliamentary hearing. These shots, consistently executed in medium close ups, deny the viewer clear access to the time and place in which they occur until late in the film. Another flashforward late in the film curiously reveals Stavisky’s fate in five sweeping shots a full twenty minutes before the exact dramatic context of those shots is fully revealed. Stavisky may tell a more direct story than, say, Marienbad, but it is nevertheless replete with the experimental touches for which Resnais was renowned.
But despite its continuance of some of Resnais’ storytelling preoccupations, Stavisky also represents new directions for the director. Whereas Hiroshima and Marienbad presented ambiguous characters with ambiguous experiences and motives, Stavisky fleshes out a psychologically complete and consistent main character. Through his own actions and the dialogue of other characters, we understand the grandiose tragedy of Stavisky’s unstable approach to his ersatz endeavors. These new directions extend to the look of the film as well. The opulence of Jacques Saulnier’s production design recalls the stately splendor of his work on Marienbad. Yet Stavisky enlivens the ghostly, frozen qualities of Marienbad’s set ornamentation with a riot of color and light. The impossibly deep reds of roses and carnations or berries embedded in creme fraiche burn languorously in Resnais’ compositions amid the glamor of the late Third Republic architecture. In one beautiful shot, a small drop of blood adds a stunning dash of red on a blazing white background. One scene set in a restaurant is bathed in deep red as refracted light dances across characters’ faces. Throughout the film, pinpoints of light winkingly glint off the corners of polished dinnerware, glimmering jewels, and vintage cars. In this sense, Stavisky’s narrative coherence and playful visual liveliness contrast sharply from the haunted stillness of Hiroshima and Marienbad as well as the studied drabness of Muriel.
In crafting his story, Resnais had help from some legendary collaborators. In the leading role, Jean-Paul Belmondo (who passed away in 2021) deploys his customary caddish charisma. Playing the affable and ignorant Baron Raoul, legendary French actor Charles Boyer (in his penultimate screen performance) steals nearly every scene he appears in by dint of his palpable, debonair joie de vivre. Cinematographer Sacha Vierny makes the film’s images glow and twinkle warmly, offering an ironic counterpoint to the mounting chaos that consumes Stavisky’s life. And of course, the film boasts the contributions of a legendary musical talent: Steven Sondheim (whom we also lost in 2021). Like Resnais, Sondheim often explored the dark nature of memory, as he did in musicals like Follies and Sweeney Todd (some deleted songs written for Follies were resuscitated for the Stavisky score). A master of historical pastiche, Sondheim’s score replicates the breeziness of Charles Trenet’s easy, bouncy popular music of the 30s and 40s while often furnishing agitato undertones that betray the untenability of Stavisky’s elaborate lifestyle. At other times, Sondheim’s score swells and crescendos at dramatic moments with an auditory lushness that pairs perfectly with extravagantly adorned mise-en-scène. All of these contributions help Resnais tell the story of the Stavisky Affair with supreme elegance and assurance.
JOHNNY GUITAR: No Stranger to Subversion
These notes on Johnny Guitar were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Johnny Guitar will screen on Friday, April 15, 7 p.m., at the Cinemtheque's regular space, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free!
By Tim Brayton
“I’m a stranger here myself,” demurs Sterling Hayden at one point in his performance as the title character (though not, we must quickly clarify, the protagonist) of the 1954 Johnny Guitar, a revisionist Western from before they were called revisionist Westerns. It’s a line that resonated strongly with the film’s director, Nicholas Ray, five years and nine features into his legendary career: according to rumor, it was his personal motto and the working title for a great many of his projects, and in 1975 it was used as the title for a documentary about the director. And it perfectly describes the content of so many of his best known and most beloved films: Ray’s movies are full of outcasts, misfits, and oddballs, people who are figuratively as well as literally strangers in the places they find themselves, from the thrill-seeking lovers of his 1948 crime thriller debut They Live By Night to the teenage lost souls of the 1955 juvenile delinquency classic Rebel Without a Cause – even his 1961 “life of Jesus” epic King of Kings.
But Johnny Guitar might just have the oddest oddballs and loneliest outcasts of them all. Like so many Westerns of every era, it’s focused in large part on the tensions between the frontier and the “civilization” it borders. Vienna, the saloonkeeper played by Joan Crawford in one of the greatest, most multilayered performances of her legendary career, is the typical all-American frontier libertarian, looking to set her own rules for how to live in the little autonomous society of outlaws and ruffians she’s built for herself, no matter what the hypocritical townsfolk and cattle ranchers have to say about it. The story (adapted by Philip Yordan from Roy Chanslor’s novel) kicks off when the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), a friend (and then some!) of Vienna’s, is accused of killing the brother of local moral scold Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), and the stage is set for a showdown between the self-appointed “Nice People” and the people who are actually good, as we’ve seen so many times in this genre.
But those offbeat touches are already making themselves clear: most obviously, our tough man’s man of a frontier entrepreneur this time around is a woman, and Johnny Guitar is going to play that gender-bending scenario for everything it’s worth. The film has no use for subtext: practically the first thing we ever learn about Vienna is that her masculine affect discomforts the men of the region, and our first glimpse of Crawford in the rather severe trousers crafted for her by costume designer Sheila O’Brien leaves very little doubt that Johnny Guitar will be complicated and outright contradicting gender norms at every turn. That’s part of the story, of course: Vienna’s grip on her frontier kingdom is all the more tenuous because of how defiantly, proudly antisocial she must be simply to have risen to such heights as a woman. But it’s a big part of what makes the film itself so shocking: for a film made in the heart of the 1950s to be this interested in positively depicting masculinized women and, in Hayden’s Johnny, femininized men, goes against every expectation we might have about that buttoned-up period of filmmaking, where this kind of transgression typically had to be smuggled in below the surface. Heck, in sketching out the emotional currents driving the unreasonably hostile relationship between Vienna and Emma (given extra charge by the open warfare on set between Crawford and McCambridge; pretty much everybody hated everybody on this production, especially the notoriously volatile Hayden and Crawford), Johnny Guitar comes astonishingly close to presenting an explicitly homoerotic tension, making Vienna, with her well-stocked supply of ex-boyfriends, perhaps the closest thing we get to an openly bisexual female character in ‘50s American cinema.
Its shockingly casual subversion of gender and sexuality norms is just one of the ways that Johnny Guitar creates that characteristically Ray-esque feeling of being locked outside of society, and maybe even preferring it that way. Take Johnny Guitar himself; not so aggressive a character as Vienna, but there are plenty of ways in which he goes against the grain of what we expect from the lonely hero of a Western, not least of which is that he isn’t really the hero, as it turns out. We have here something of a parody of the figure of the lone gunslinger: you can probably guess from the character’s sobriquet what instrument Hayden carries strapped behind him in place of the more familiar six shooters. Part of this is just to make him an appropriate counterpart to the masculine Vienna, but even before we’ve met her, the sheer oddness that the character of Johnny strikes visually tells us plenty about this offbeat man, who stands outside of the society he moves through (“I’m a stranger here myself”), and who stands as well outside all of our expectations for the title character of a Western, a stranger come to a frontier town with a crisis on its hands.
Another key example of the film’s portrayal of life outside of norms and conventions is Vienna’s saloon itself, surely one of the very strangest locations in all of Western cinema. It’s not obvious right from the start, but this is a singularly impossible space: half Old West cliché with the bar and the chandeliers and the swinging doors and all, half naked bare rock cavern, as though Vienna’s place is so perfectly positioned on the line between civilization and wilderness that the division occurs right there in the middle of her building. It’s an image almost as bold and striking as Vienna’s outfits, and does just as much to give Johnny Guitar that wonderfully odd feeling. Even something as basic as the film stock gives the film a sense of being “off” in some way: this was shot in Trucolor, the color film process favored by Republic and generally disregarded by everybody else, considering its muddy green hues to give a poor rendering of anything close to reality (or being visually appealing in its own right). Watching Johnny Guitar, you’ll probably find that Trucolor’s notorious reputation is earned, but no film ever turned that limitation to greater advantage than this: it’s just one more way that Ray and his cast and crew give us a film that seems to exist purely to spite “the right way” of doing things. The result is one of the strangest Westerns you’re ever apt to see, but all the more exciting and bracing because of it; it’s an underseen triumph of its genre and a real contender for being the very best film of Ray’s outstanding career.
WHAT'S UP, DOC? at 50
These notes on Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? were written by Samantha Herndon, a former graduate student in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of What's Up, Doc? will screen on Friday, March 11, in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free.
By Samantha Herndon
Inspired by screwball comedies of the 1930s and '40s, by the French New Wave, and by Bugs Bunny himself, What's Up, Doc? is a New Hollywood take on the witty romantic comedy. Ryan O'Neal plays Howard Bannister, an uptight musicologist arriving at an important conference with his plainful fiancée Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn), only to be knocked off his feet by a series of encounters with the freewheeling, beautiful Judy Maxwell, played by Barbra Streisand in one of her funniest performances. What's Up, Doc? stands out among films of the early '70s, with its focus on farcical situational comedy, romance that shuns the old-fashioned for the modern, and a star-powered cast that doesn't hesitate to make fun of themselves. 50 years after its original release, the film maintains both commercial and critical appeal, and was among the highest-grossing films at the 1972 box offices, competing with The Poseidon Adventure and The Godfather.
Director Peter Bogdanovich and production designer and producer Polly Platt had a working relationship that resulted in some of the most iconic films of the New Hollywood era that ran from 1967-1981 and both challenged and reinvigorated older styles of filmmaking. What's Up, Doc? is one of the finest of the Bogdanovich-Platt collaborations, which include Targets (1968), The Last Picture Show (1971), and Paper Moon (1973). Theirs was a dynamic collaboration that progressed from their work in summer stock theater in New York through their move to LA, tutelage by Orson Welles and John Ford, and lasted longer than their marriage. It was Platt's idea to set What's Up, Doc? in San Francisco, and the hilly streets, urbane '70s style, and distinctive architecture became a memorable backdrop for the film's slapstick comedy and unlikely romance.
Platt designed the sets of What's Up, Doc? to maximize the physical humor, using extra-wide doorways, a posh apartment where worlds collide, and a Rube Goldberg machine of a gift shop as the setting for the meet-cute. Platt took visual inspiration from Ernst Lubitsch and German Expressionism for the design elements. Her work on What's Up, Doc? and the Oscar favorite Last Picture Show earned her place as the first woman admitted into the Art Directors Guild.
Bogdanovich, who passed away in January of this year, was an actor's director, experienced in performance himself, and adept at bringing out different sides of the actors he worked with. Many of the cast and crew from Bogdanovich and Platt's earlier films worked on What's Up, Doc?, and their tight unit helped to create a comedic environment on set that was conducive to camaraderie and high jinks. Streisand plays against type, and her character's journey includes scaling the walls of the hotel and sinking into the Port of San Francisco. O'Neal is game to up the ante of the farce, playing a straight man turned sideways, willing to appear in bowtie and skivvies to sell the joke. In promoting What's Up, Doc?, Bogdanovich was effusive in his praise for Bringing Up Baby, the 1938 picture directed by Howard Hawks and scripted by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. Bogdanovich who, along with Platt, had connected with many of the previous generation of filmmakers upon moving to Hollywood, wanted to give credit to Hawks, and even consulted with him on the making of What's Up, Doc? "Just don't let them be cute," Hawks told Bogdanovich about his lead actors.
What's Up, Doc?'s script by Buck Henry, Robert Benton, and David Newman (who had worked together on Bonnie and Clyde) creates taught, daffy, rapid-fire dialogue that brings Howard closer and closer to Judy, and farther from Eunice, who shines as a "dangerously unbalanced woman." Buck Henry said of the scripting, "What's Up, Doc? is a farce, which generally means it's about nothing except itself. We wanted a G-rated comedy with no redeeming social values. It’s wacky farce, like Hollywood used to do in the thirties – very rare nowadays."
While Judy's keen interest in disrupting Howard's life in every way possible seems highly implausible, the film works best when you just give in to its conceits and roll with it through the hills of San Francisco. Cinematography by the always-great Laszlo Kovacs highlights the city's movement, culture, and stunning backdrops. The slow-burning chemistry between Streisand and O'Neal, who had dated prior to the production, infuses a sense of true romance amidst the laughter, particularly in the duo's piano rendition of "As Time Goes By."
If you're not familiar with the screwball comedy genre, there are many to enjoy, and What's Up, Doc? is a fun vehicle by which to enter the fray. The British Film Institute writes of the style, "Emerging in the 1930s, screwball comedies were a wild new strain of fast-talking farces involving battles of the sexes and a world forever on the brink of chaos." What's Up, Doc? exemplifies the genre, with an emphasis on the chaos.
In light of Peter Bogdanovich's recent death, we can look back on his fourth feature film and appreciate its playful humor, artful direction of memorable performances, and homage to earlier eras that mark Bogdanovich and company's best work.