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The Owl and the Pussycat

***
1970

‘…The new permissiveness also gives Segal and Streisand plenty of chances to shine…’

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.

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  1. A long time favorite, but it has suffered a bit in its fantasy structure, that while gritty in its opportunity to be frank about adult topics, is virtually childlike in its offering. Indeed Barb, who manages to come across as a nearly sexy, though also teenager-like, prostitute is almost insufferable in her fast-talking stream of hustle. It’s a lot of fun to watch, but as soon as you imagine yourself actually in Felix’s position, you realize just how fast you’d end up shutting the scenario down. There is nothing attractive about home invasion and subsequent eviction!

    There are endless cutesy bits, Felix pretending to be a TV show, Barbara delivering what are meant to be Scintillating tidbits, but when we’re even the slightest bit subjective – It’s clear the whole thing is too odd to be sexy, and too outlandish for a rom-com. It is unique, But once I saw Candy (1967) I began to get a kind of grasp of the late Buck Henry’s overweening hopeful sexual style. He’s fun, he’s pushing the envelope, but there’s always a kind of cheeky (I’ll use a brit term), winking, lack of consequences.

    I suppose we’d been warned for so long about promiscuity’s consequences that folks like Buck were downright down with worrying about it. And Rightly so, it was a bit of a revolution to break free of the oppression of the one thing no one in the world can really stop us doing — freely enjoying one another. Boy they would love to tax us! So we’re given Candy and Babs as these “free spirit” fantasy ladies who do as they please. One can feel writers and artists pushing these restrictions in these sorts of films, and in Portnoy’s Complaint type stories. I’m sure that by now the ideal would have been wholesale sexual autonomy for all of us, but that’s still not the case!

    The final scene, however, in the park, when our cute, and harmless prostitute proves she’ll do what it takes to please our tired bookworm, the entire mess becomes romantic and valuable. It’s a challenging film still!

    • That final scene is quite bleak, the image of the typewriter bouncing down the hill, but it does have a sobering effect. The shrillness of Streisand is a problem in places, and there’s times when Segaldoesn’t have a clear lead to follow. For me, you can see the joins where the play stops and the film rewriting starts. But totally agree that Henry makes his material his own, and gets to do his ‘don’t listen to society, be yourself’ number which is certainly expressed in Candy too. Amazing to think that removing the single ‘f***’ got this reclassified from X to PG back in 1970’s; it’s rammed with detail about a sexual revolution in progress…

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