AFF Revisits the Perfectly Looney What’s Up, Doc?
Paul Feig presents the 1972 screwball comedy on Sunday
By Kimberley Jones,
9:00AM, Fri. Oct. 14, 2016
"When I was a kid, I'd never seen a screwball comedy,” Bridesmaids director Paul Feig told NPR’s Steve Inskeep in 2011, explaining why the 1972 comedy What’s Up, Doc? was so influential. "So for me this was just this mind-blowing, new type of comedy. ... I went bananas for it.”
“Bananas” sounds about right for Peter Bogdanovich’s daffy screwball comedy, even if – splitting hairs here – that’s a carrot What’s Up, Doc?’s wascally Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand) is munching on as she eyes her mark, the nerdy musicologist Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal). Judy attracts trouble – she’s the kind of girl who walks into the street without looking, oblivious to the metal-crunch of cars colliding all around her as she skates away, unscathed – and when she sets her sights on Howard, a socially awkward, absent-minded professor already engaged (to tight-ass Madeline Kahn, in her first screen role), that trouble snowballs for sure. Also complicating Judy and Howard’s love mismatch? A slapstick intrigue about four matching-plaid overnight cases all being coveted and confused in the same hotel lobby. One bears top-secret documents, another glittering diamonds; also: Howard’s precious igneous rocks that he pounds music out of, and Judy’s unmentionables.
Doc devotee Feig, an Austin Film Festival loyalist honored this year as its 2016 Extraordinary Contribution to Film award recipient, will be appearing throughout the fest as an awardee and a panelist, including a Friday Script-to-Screen conversation about his Ghostbusters reboot with co-screenwriter Katie Dippold and a Saturday panel peppering “The Queens of Comedy” with questions (Dippold again, plus New Girl creator Liz Meriwether and Sisters scribe Paula Pell). But Feig’s Sunday afternoon is blocked out for What’s Up, Doc?: He’ll introduce a retrospective screening at 2pm at the Hideout.
In his introduction, Feig has a lot of ground to cover. First, there’s the quick skim of Bogdanovich’s CV. Before he threw his hat in the ring as a filmmaker – early work on micro-budget Roger Corman productions, and 1971’s dazzling small-town dirge The Last Picture Show – he was a critic then an interviewer/intimate of old-school Hollywood, including Howard Hawks, whose Bringing Up Baby and Ball of Fire are referenced here (O’Neal’s Howard draws egghead inspiration from Cary Grant in the former and Gary Cooper in the latter).
Then there are the hat tips to the behind-the-camera crew, like screenwriters Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton, who married the barbed wittiness of screwball banter with the divine silliness of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Bogdanovich’s first wife Polly Platt designed Doc’s look, and DP László Kovács, a favorite of the New Hollywood generation, shot it – boy, do they nail groovy San Fran. An aside: A producer, screenwriter, production designer, and original AFF board member, Platt was an essential contributor to Bogdanovich’s early films; I’m not the first to point out his movies got worse after she left the picture, following 1973’s Paper Moon.
And finally, there is the deep bow to the bountiful cast, including character actors – Austin Pendleton, M. Emmet Walsh, Michael Murphy, Stefan Gierasch – and stars O’Neal, putting his naturally dopey mien to good effect here, and Streisand, never sexier. When Babs sing “As Time Goes By” in the middle of the movie, for no real reason other than she’s Barbra Effing Streisand, O’Neal practically congeals into a puddle of hormones. “You must remember this,” she warbles. It’s good advice. What’s Up, Doc? is a keeper.