Andrew Sarris Defends 'What's New Pussycat?'
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
August 5, 1965, Vol. X, No. 42
By Andrew Sarris I return to the subject of "WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT?" mainly because I fear the concerted effort to brainwash the public into thinking that "Pussycat" is an unspeakably bad movie may be keeping away a few serious moviegoers who would enjoy it. Consequently I would like to go on record with the judgment that "What's New Pussycat?" is the best picture of the year thus far, and by far the funniest comedy. There is certainly nothing new about my disagreeing with my colleagues. I seem never to be happier, in fact, than when I am standing most alone. But on this occasion I disagree not merely as a matter of personal taste, but also as a matter of audience observation. I suggest that the reviewers who have been barking at "Pussycat" drop into a movie theatre where the picture is playing before live people rather than projection room zombies, and then clock the laughs, but that would mean going to the movies, and no "professional" reviewer would be caught dead in a movie house on his own time.
Even the publicity people at UA seem to be shaken by the public's perverseness in flocking to a movie roundly denounced at all the cocktail parties. The UA people have swallowed the negative line so completely that they seem ashamed to advertise the picture, and why should they after Sidney Skolsky wondered aloud how any producer could have dared to make a movie out of such a silly script, and Alec Guinness shed crocodile tears for poor Peter O'Toole and his misadventures in "Pussycat," and Woody Allen himself announced that he was going to direct his next script as if to imply that Clive Donner had botched up the direction of "Pussycat," and the critics were nearly unanimous in condemning the film both morally and aesthetically, and the only spirited defense came from one reviewer who insisted on lumping "Pussycat" with "The Sandpiper" and "Harlow," which is no defense at all.
I have now seen "Pussycat" four times, and each time I find new nuances in the direction, the writing, the playing, and, above all, the music. This is one movie that is not what it seems at first glance. It has been attacked for tastelessness, and yet I have never seen a more tasteful sex comedy. For one thing, Allen has written a whole script about sex without once baiting a homosexual, and this is quite a feat these days when homosexuals are considered more hilarious than ever. The movie has been called "campy," and yet I have never seen comedy direction of such conviction. Clive Donner has been fortunate in having a Frederic Raphael script for "Nothing But the Best" and Allen's script for "Pussycat," but Donner must be given credit in both instances for subduing the giddier slapstick situations with the kind of formal contemplation we associate with Chaplin and Keaton and Renoir. Donner's use of close-ups, for example, seems to have offended many reviewers. Judith Crist was particularly incensed by the sequence of O'Toole and Sellers in intimate two-shot savoring a strip-teaser after agreeing that the strip-tease is not erotic. I think what offends Miss Crist and others is that Allen's characters articulate what other screen characters have always been thinking. This is the source of the stylization in "Pussycat." The characters decline to dissemble their desire, but insist on playing it out as a form of group therapy. The world of "Pussycat" is a contemporary madhouse where the keeper (Sellers) is madder than the inmates.
What I like about "Pussycat" is that none of the characters are ever reduced to villains and stooges. Sex in this instance is a game that everyone plays with the same rules, and Allen and Donner manage never to humiliate any of the characters. If none of the characters are degraded, however, neither are any elevated, and this causes a problem with conventional critics who are always looking for someone with whom to identify. For example, Nino Manfredi is a perfect audience spokesman in the Franco Rossi episode of "High Infidelity." There he is on vacation with his wife when he notices a young man flexing his muscles, apparently for the wife's benefit. Manfredi confronts the man with a show of sophistication and is shocked to discover that the young man is more interested in the husband. The episode is played beautifully, particularly by Manfredi with a delicacy and complexity that is almost Jamesian, and the audience is left with a warm glow because in the end Manfredi is marvelously tolerant of both the wife and the young man. The audience likes to feel it is tolerant and humane and civilized and just a bit world-weary. It is a sweet, pleasant feeling, much more pleasant than the feeling of raging disorder in "Pussycat," but if there is a difference between art and kitsch, it is the difference between being shaken up and being soothed.
I must stress, however, that "Pussycat" is a genuinely funny film. Even when the gags are not entirely original, they achieve a new force in their carnal context. A lovely girl walks past Sellers with a rose in her bosom; Sellers turns away from the camera and reappears with the rose between his teeth. This rose-switching gag was the high point in Billy Wilder's tango in "Some Like It Hot" featuring Jack Lemmon in drag and Joe E. Brown in fag. It's a much funnier and cleaner joke in "Pussycat" because Sellers is never ambiguous about what he's after whereas Lemmon and Brown are playing it both ways in the cynical Wilder manner. On one level, Lemmon is a normal male caught in a "Charlie's Aunt" situation, but on another he seems much too comfortable in the part to be entirely untainted by the impersonation. This is what I would call dirty humor, that is, humor with dirt to conceal some of the meanings. "Pussycat" is never dirty in that way. Its humor, like its sex, is always lucid and direct.
Woody Allen's script is never hypocritical about our current sexual obsessions. What he is saying is that we are all involvd in the madness, unlike Wilder in "Kiss Me Stupid" who singles out Dean Martin and his fellow Clansman for abuse. We are all ridiculously over-sexed whether we admit it over not and, as Antonioni observes, eroticism is the disease of our age, but as O'Toole retorts, we prefer the disease to the cure, and in the end the only cure is death. I have become very attached to the characters and players in "Pussycat," particularly Paula Prentiss' suicidal stripper and Peter Sellers' manic expressive. They are people I know and understand with the poetic logic of my time, and I sympathize with all of them. Why shouldn't Paula take an overdose of sleeping pills every time some one looks at her harshly? What is life without love or sex?
If Allen's antics are somewhat suppressed by Donner's deliberateness, the resulting tension and counterpoint somehow enrich the mood of the film, and the prevailing mood is sad, because sex is ultimately sad. The last sequence is hardly reassuringn with the newly married Romy Schneider and Peter O'Toole bickering in the background, and Sellers relentlessly dogging Francoise Hardy in the foreground, and somewhere out in the wings a horde of sensualists girding themselves for new outrages. I could go into greater detail about all the nice touches that made me laugh and think, and I do think that Allen's farce script is the most fully textured since the late Preston Sturges was in his hey-hey day, and Allen, like Sturges, writes good lines for the most insignificant characters like the American lady tourist who cheers on an orgy with a "come on, you French porcupines." However, I don't want to over-analyze a film that deserves to be discovered in the darkness of a movie palace. I laughed and laughed and I laughed and all the king's critics and all the king's columnists can never deprive me of that laughter in the dark.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.