Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A winsome romantic comedy of some sort.
What did I get? Another puzzle. Was the tolerance for belligerent assholes a lot higher in 1970? Judging from this movie alone, you would have to conclude that it was. The Owl and the Pussycat is one of the most obnoxious movies I have seen in a long time. Imagine a Neil Simon comedy (I generally dislike Neil Simon to begin with), only subtract all attempts to make the characters in any way likable or relatable and replace them with long bouts of aggressive and implausible hollering. That’s what The Owl and the Pussycat is like.
I’m not a particular Barbra Streisand fan, but I’m not a big detractor of hers either, so I should make it clear that I’m not making any blanket judgment on her or her talent here. But it took only a few seconds for her portrayal of shrieky hooker Doris to become the cinematic equivalent of nails on a blackboard for me, and George Segal’s pretentious failed novelist Felix was not far behind.
Doris and Felix live in the same New York apartment building, and one night Felix rats out Doris, whom he doesn’t know, to their landlord, so she (of course) barges into his apartment in the middle of the night to complain about losing her apartment and also to connive a place to stay (WTF?). It’s the ultimate annoying “meet cute.” After a little while Felix gets kicked out of his apartment too (this was apparently common in 1970, just losing your apartment at a moment’s notice), so they crash at a friend of Felix’s, where they incomprehensibly continue their “adorable” marathon of high-decibel discourse. After that horrendous night, they get a bit stuck on each other and finally declare their misbegotten love for each other. Roll credits.
The entire time, with only brief respites, they behave like two long-married people who pretty much hate each other. Doris’s strategy is to pick on Felix for no good reason, to question his manhood, and generally to behave in a boorish, extremely entitled manner, especially when she’s asking him to do her a favor (of course). For his part, Felix is selfish and nasty to Doris in a more subtle and “macro” — read cowardly — way, and his penchant for peppering his uneducated counterpart with ten-dollar words causes a few stupid and uninteresting misunderstandings.
Doris never stops yelling or pleading for unmerited sympathy or pushing some idiotic beef. It’s quite a performance, in its own twisted, attention-getting way, and you can see that Streisand is a lady of some talent, fair enough. I read shortly after watching this that she had once been considered for the lead role in Klute, which is kind of hilarious, given Fonda’s exquisitely nuanced performance in that movie. It takes an effort of the imagination to envision the woman who played Doris in the role of Bree Daniel, even if they are both “call girls,” in the parlance of the day (do people still use that term?).
At no point does either party seem remotely like a person that anyone would want to fall in love with, so of course they fall in love. Mostly I just wanted them to take their piddling, noisome grievances and go away. In my own dense way, I was eventually able to figure out that this must be the very point of the movie, that “they’re so miserable they have to end up together,” or something like that. But — have I made this clear? — they’re both pretty hard to take; it’s a challenge to comprehend how this pairing could have resulted in five weeks of #1 box-office performance.
This started out as a play, and it’s not impossible to imagine this type of material working better on the stage. As a side note, the movie may have the distinction of being the first “gritty 1970s New York movie,” even though I’m sure there were precursors before this. In the first section of the movie, we see a lot of the dingy hallway and foyer of their apartment building, as well as Felix’s overstuffed pad. I can’t think of a movie before this that depicted New York’s grime as something to fetishize, although a lot of movies afterwards did. So maybe that explains its appeal? I’m at a loss.
What here smacks of 1970? Frankness about prostitution. Unattractive protagonists. Dingy New York!
IMDB score: 6.6
My score: 2
Director: Herbert Ross
Writer: Buck Henry
Starring: Barbra Streisand, George Segal, Robert Klein, Allen Garfield, Roz Kelly
IMDB synopsis: Can a bickering odd couple in Manhattan become friends and maybe more? Owlish Felix is an unpublished writer who vents his frustration by reporting to the super that the woman in a neighboring flat takes the occasional payment for sex. She’s Doris, more wildcat than pussycat, and when Felix’s peeping-tom-tattle-tale routine gets her bounced from her apartment, she knocks at his door at 3 AM, aggressive and ticked off. They yell, lose another apartment, and pick up where they left off in a friend’s flat and beyond. Dancing by the light of the moon seems unlikely for this owl and pussycat.