What's Up Doc? (1972) dir. Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O'Neal, Madeline Kahn, Austin Pendleton, Kenneth Mars, Michael Murphy, Sorrell Booke, Stefan Gierasch, John Hillerman, Randy Quaid, M. Emmet Walsh and Liam Dunn
By Greg Klymkiw
If anyone on a silver screen was virtually indistinguishable from a whirling dervish, that ancient and most holy of all spiritual dancers, there's no doubt that few will ever come close to Barbra Streisand in Peter Bogdanovich's classic screwball comedy What's Up Doc? - a terrific picture that is as much an homage to a bygone genre as it is the thing itself - so gloriously re-invented for a contemporary audience (in the 70s), yet as fresh today as it was then.
Playing the irrepressible poor little rich girl who makes life so beautifully miserable for Ryan O'Neal's befuddled musicology professor Howard Bannister, Babs explodes on screen like Fanny Brice channeled through the splicing together of genes from Carole Lombard and Jean Arthur. With her floppy, oversized checkered Armand of Beverly Hills newsboy cap resting comfortably over her gorgeous strawberry blonde tresses, her moist full lips at their most luscious, her exquisite profile at its most stunningly aquiline, her winning smile never more sparkling, her kookiness never more insanely, deliciously skewed and her dancing eyes drawing you in with some kind of berserk "fuck me immediately" magnetism, La Streisand commands our attention from entrance to exit.
And like the aforementioned whirling dervish, she exists on a plane somewhere between Heaven and Earth, spinning full tilt to a precise rhythm that places both herelf and the viewer in a trance.
This is what makes a star! Pure and simple. She's Streisand all the way! But like all true stars, she outshines her persona to deliver the ultimate dramatic/comedic roundhouse smack - and then some!
With a terrific screenplay from David Newman, Robert Benton and Buck Henry (based upon a story by helmer Bogdanovich), she melds her stunning personality, almost superhuman photogenic qualities and seldom-parallelled thespian talents to bring to life one of the great female roles in the movies. As Judy Maxwell, perennial ivy league student and con artist extraordinaire, she's on the run from responsibility and Daddy and immediately sets her sights on winning the heart of one bespectacled Bannister, a cutie-pie geek academic in a perpetual fog who is attending a convention of fellow musicology eggheads at a gathering that could surely only exist in the movies.
On the surface, Judy seeks escape, but deep down, all she wants is the love of a man who needs her more desperately than he can bear to admit. And Bannister has a lot of things he can bear admitting. His number one problem is securing foundation financing to continue his studies of the prehistoric rocks that he believes are the first musical instruments. (In fact, he pathologically carries his rocks in a red plaid satchel and can hardly bear the thought of parting with them.) These, however, are rocks he's happy to be saddled with. His equally serious problem is the dead weight clutching grotesquely at his side, a most burdensome rock - a ball and chain, if you will. His fiance is Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn in her outrageous movie debut), and boy does Eunice burn - not unlike the hellfire spawn of Satan. She is a harridan of the most loathsome kind - needy, grasping, domineering - the penultimate teratism of womanhood, a screeching monstrosity who's going to bring her man so far down the career ladder, that he'll be lucky to teach accordion in a strip mall or better, to take an eventual hot bath with a Schick razor to plunge in his veins.
Judy will have none of it, but she will have ALL of Bannister. Streisand's performance is so riveting that it's impossible to avert one's eyes from her hawk-like gaze. She targets her wants and needs with diamond-sharp precision. Again, this is what makes a star. Streisand's actions speak louder than words - she's a huntress with a mission straight from her heart and she pulls out all the stops - no matter what obstacles are flung in her direction, she charges over them with verve, courage and smarts. And let it be said that part of her actions ARE her words. Never have such zingers torn out of a contemporary character's voicebox. It's astounding to watch Streisand, to study her every move - eyes first, brain next, then action! Babs has rendered a lot of great work, but I daresay none of it (and it's all mostly wonderful) holds a candle to her work here.
Judy harries and harasses poor Bannister until he's putty in her hands, but instead of arsenic, she traps her quarry with honey. She brilliantly and deftly takes Eunice's place at the convention and dazzles the powers-that-be until they're on the verge of signing Bannister a blank cheque for his rock studies. There are, however, even more complications to contend with - Judy wins many battles, but she has her work cut out for her in order to successfully win the war.
And let it be said now, Streisand commands this picture like Patton, but in addition to the laugh-out-loud-funny script, director Peter Bogdanovich masterfully captures this screwball comedy with the skill and artistry of a Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey and George Cukor rolled into one. Though some of the pratfalling and mistaken baggage handling verge on distraction, Bogdanovich handles the romance and banter like an old pro.
A great star needs a great director and Streisand couldn't have hoped for someone better than Bogdanovich. As mentioned earlier, this is no mere homage to screwball comedies - it is, pure and simple, a great screwball comedy in its own right. Bogdanovich not only has filmmaking in his very DNA, his encyclopaedic knowledge of American cinema lets him deliver his own series of roundhouse punches, drawing from the masters he clearly loves, while putting his own stamp on the picture. It's no surprise he was one of the great directors of his generation - from his staggering debut with the clever and chilling Targets, to the nostalgia of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, the freewheeling and sadly maligned Nickelodeon and, lest we forget, his romance of all things sleazy in Saint Jack, Bogdanovich kept serving up one great picture after another.
What's Up Doc? is no exception! It's one knee-slapping, roll in the aisles rollercoaster ride!
And then there's Streisand! But there's also a delightful Ryan O'Neal and an unforgettable collection of terrific character performances - from Austin Pendleton's dweeby, lascivious foundation director to Kenneth Mars as the snooty Croatian academic, Bogdanovich assembled a dream cast.
And yes, then there's Streisand! She's a peach, but someone had to cast her!
What's Up Doc? is available on a luscious new Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video that highlights Laszlo Kovacs's cinematography beautifully and comes replete with a nice selection of bonus features including a fine Bogdanovich commentary and even some scene specific words from Babs herself.