Film Discussion

What’s Up Doc? (1972) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.

Hollywood was going through a pretty seismic change during the 1970s. Cary Grant retiring not long after the release of Charade and Audrey Hepburn scaling down her workload was perhaps symbolic of that type of change.

As the sixties ended, it was the emergence of the Movie Brat generation that would come to redefine Hollywood, and with it productions that would come to be regarded as part of a second golden age of sorts. A lot of these movies would be directed by a new generation of talent, that had grown up with cinema and would filter their love of the movies they grew up with into a new grittier style which would characterise the early to mid-part of the decade memorably.

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While the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese would take gangster and crime films and filter them through a rawer sense of emotional reality, resulting in the first two Godfather films from Coppola and Mean Streets from Scorsese, it was Peter Bogdanovich who would deliver the purest expression and tribute to a type of film that Hollywood was seemingly turning away from. He would, in the process, deliver the best romantic comedy of the decade, but one that would look back yearningly and with genuine affection to the works of Howard Hawks, as well as the comedic choreography of Looney Tunes.

In some respects, What’s Up Doc? visually looks none more 1970s, and since its leads are Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, it stars two of the biggest names of the time, and yet the writing, dialogue and performances evokes the feel of so many films that starred Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn that the film is both nostalgic tribute and yet truly its own thing too. Streisand and O’Neal brilliantly evoke the feel of so many Hepburn and Grant performances, simultaneously cla ssy, witty and almost existing in a world that feels cartoonish and which would probably lend itself well to animation as much as it does to live-action.

The comedy, dialogue and plotting borders on exhausting in the best possible way, and the film is honestly the fastest ninety minutes that has ever been put to celluloid, culminating with one of the all-time great chase sequences and a brilliant in-joke at the expense of O’Neal’s previous blockbuster hit, Love Story. Being directed by Bogdanovich, with production design from Polly Platt and co-written by Bonnie and Clyde’s David Newman and Robert Benton, and The Graduate’s late Buck Henry, the film positively bleeds New Hollywood talent, and yet this coming from the first generation to have grown up and been influenced by film, it is, like so many films of the period, the first to be inflected with a feeling of nostalgia towards Hollywood filmmaking history.

Where Coppola and Scorsese took the type of gangster film that Hawks directed with Scarface and filtered it through a degree of 70s grit and cynicism (although Coppola retained the period dressings), What’s Up Doc? is more than happy to take the comedy, fast dialogue and prolonged slapstick of Bringing up Baby and His Girl Friday and just throw it into a 1972 San Francisco.

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Streisand being one of the biggest stars of the time and O’Neal emerging as a major heartthrob thanks to Love Story also evokes the 70s, but the tightness of the choreography, dialogue and eventual descent into car chasing madness, itself a precursor to a decade of demolition derbies such as Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run, almost makes one feel as if Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn are going to walk into the frame at any minute and get caught up in the chaos. Streisand is fast-talking and charming in a way that in lesser hands could become obnoxious but which never falls into that trap, while O’Neal is aloof, lovable and very much the straight man, but whose straight-laced nature just adds to how funny his performance is, especially his devotion to his suitcase of rocks. Their chemistry sparkles and their comedic timing is perfect, even if O’Neal’s character is engaged to Madeleine Khan’s and Streisand is a beaming bolt of comedy energy whose behaviour constantly threatens to end an engagement and career prospects.

Yes, some parts haven’t aged well; Khan’s character proclaiming during the film’s courtroom scene towards the end that she was threatened with ‘molestation’ does give one pause for thought amongst the sea of laughs being delivered during that moment, but thankfully such moments of badly aged comedy are few and far between. The film is an exercise in nostalgia for sure, but it also feels like its own perfectly formed thing. If any part of the film has been left with a questionable legacy, as is the case with so many of Bogdanovich’s earlier films and Peter Biskind’s elevation of so much male talent in his otherwise brilliant book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, it’s how the involvement of Polly Platt is played down.

One of the decade’s best production designers, she was also a key collaborator in her then husband’s films, not least in influencing him in making a film out of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and casting Cybil Shepherd as the female lead, as well as being a key figure behind the scenes of both this film and her then ex-husband’s next film Paper Moon, itself boasting another career-best performance from O’Neal, along with his daughter Tatum.

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What’s Up Doc? itself remains a perfect coming together of so many elements that to solely credit its admittedly talented director is to negate the perfection of the screenplay’s structure, the comedy timing of everyone involved, the look and feel of the film and the infectiously boisterous comedic atmosphere.

Best yet, the chemistry between both leads is palpable. When the film slows down for one moment and has Streisand and O’Neal singing ‘You Must Remember This’ from Casablanca to each other, for just a moment the film grinds to a gorgeous halt and becomes something genuinely romantic, the chemistry between them radiating off the screen and with it the realisation that you’re seeing the perfect romantic comedy pairing of the decade in a film that is more than deserving of their talents.

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