Many years ago I bought a book by writer Joe Queenan on his experiences being a journalist in the Hollywood film industry. Queenan was noted for his blunt, cynical style and regularly mocked various actors/actresses for the work they’ve done.
When it came to Barbra Streisand, Queenan was typically unsparing in her increasingly bloated and self-serving films she’d made over the years. But he did make an interesting observation about her that before she descended into self-parody, she displayed in her early films a genuine talent and flair for comedy and comic timing.
Probably the most well-known example of this is 1972’s “What’s Up Doc?”, but an equally good example is her 1970 comedy film “The Owl & The Pussycat”.
The film centres on a repressed, pretentious wannabe fiction writer Felix (George Segal) and model/ prostitute Doris (Streisand) who over the course of one night have each other kicked out of their respective apartments. Despite the natural antagonism that results from this, a romantic relationship develops. However this relationship will only prosper if they mature and face up to some home truths about themselves.
The film is based on a two-character stage play and despite attempts to open it up with other characters and different settings, it still feels like that. The film’s basic success comes down to whether Felix and Doris are funny and entertaining characters. As it turns out, they are.
This is in part because of the excellent work by Segal and Streisand. They work terrifically as a bantering couple, they create interesting individual characters and they both have great comic timing. It’s especially notable to see Streisand perform as such a fresh and lively performer in comedy, validating Queenan’s assertion. By the mid-1970s had gone as she was mired in bloated vanity films like ‘Funny Lady’ (made by the same director, Herbert Ross).
As impressive as Streisand is, Segal’s contribution is as good. He’s terrific as Felix, making his character both obnoxious and pitiable at the same time. And he has some wonderful humourous moments, especially when he does a frenzied impersonation of various television shows. He gradually transforms Felix from a dull, self-serious personality to a disturbed, even manic person who needs Doris despite his initial disdain for her. It’s this creation of internal tension in Felix’s personality that provides an ongoing interest beyond the jokes.
I’ve always thought Segal has been an underrated actor – he’s always been adept at intense drama (1965’s ‘King Rat’), black comedies (1967’s ‘No Way To Treat A Lady’) to light comedies like this. It’s not a surprise that as recently as the late 1990s that he found success with the TV sitcom ‘Just Shoot Me’.
Turning a two-character stage play into a film isn’t an easy task even when the source material is strong. Writer Buck Henry and director Ross do a pretty good attempt to convert it to a cinematic format. Largely the first half is confined to one room and they successfully create a sense of rhythm and momentum to the proceedings and give the dialogue its best context.
Ross/Henry struggle a bit more in the second half when the film is ‘opened up’ into other sets and locations. This is probably because the film is really all about the banter and relationship between Doris and Felix and extra characters and situations seem a distraction (although Robert Klein is amusingly understated in his small role as Felix’s co-worker).
It’s essential that the characters and performers work to the level that they do otherwise the film would’ve quickly become tedious as it’s a loud, bawdy film which largely consists of two characters talking and arguing. Despite the excellent all-round work and relatively short running time of 95 minutes, the energy begins to fade in the second half and the seams slightly show. Also, the film is dated by using Doris’s derogatory terms towards homosexuals as a source of humour.
Despite being somewhat a relic of its era and running out of momentum in its latter stages, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ is a fine comedy film. And it is a good demonstration of Queenan’s view that before she descended into self-parody that Streisand was a very capable cinematic talent.