One of the top films of the year at the US box office, The Owl and the Pussycat has been largely forgotten by everyone other than Barbara Streisand fans, but pops up on Amazon Prime’s streaming service as something of a blast from the past. Nothing to do with the classic children’s poem, this is an adaptation of sitcom master Bill Manhoff’s hit Broadway play from 1964, re-written by Buck Henry, fresh from The Graduate. Very much an opportunity for Streisand and the late George Segal to trade Neil-Simon-level one-liners, The Owl and the Pussycat’s sexual content has stopped it being a tv staple, but maybe a belated appearance on streaming will help build a cult.
The setting is New York, a NYC riddled with street-gangs, prostitution, dancing girls and sex movie theatres. Felix (Segal) is a writer who works in a Doubleday book-store but aspires to write. Felix is also a voyeur who finds himself drawn to neighbour Doris (Streisand), a mouthy MTA who moonlights as a prostitute. Felix reports Doris as a ‘sexual Disneyland’ and gets her thrown out of her flat, but when she knocks on his door to confront him, Felix and Doris find themselves abruptly evicted, and much of the action sees them squabbling, then making love in a put-upon friend’s apartment.
After the plush airbrushing of Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it’s something of a pleasure to find that we’ve grown up a lot over seven years and this Ray Stark production is comparatively frank about various forms of kink. The new permissiveness also gives Segal and Streisand plenty of chances to shine, betraying theatrical origins, perhaps, but with performers like these, it’s fun to watch them get stoned and take a bath together, which is exactly what happens here. The first half of this Herbert Ross film is pretty ribald stuff, but the second half feels compromised and doesn’t have the same directness as Felix and Doris pick up their brouhaha without any narrative contrivances to tie them together. But the New York locations are great, the observations pithy (‘I WANT to see Cycle-Sluts!’ Felix bellows through a cinema intercom as a ticket-seller) and the stars shine.
It’s got nothing that profound to say about sex workers, and perhaps could use a remake with the original interracial aspect reinstated, but The Owl and the Pussycat is reassuringly against the modern grain of vanilla when viewed from 2021. It’s just a shame that, as with many films, the version on Prime isn’t the original one, which featuring the first moment in film history where a female character (Doris) said ‘F***you’ on screen. Removing this line has been successful, in that to my knowledge, there are no recorded instances of women swearing post 1970, but it would have been nice to retain the original version, seen in cinemas and on VHS, for posterity.