WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? (1965) – TWO PETERS, ONE WOODY should probably have been the title of this blog post. Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen starred in this brazen (for its day) sex comedy set in Paris during the Swinging Sixties.
Woody penned his first original screenplay for this movie and by many accounts was not happy with the way writers were so often the doormats of the film industry. The big name stars and starlets had the power to demand script changes which favored the characters they portrayed and which often diluted the thrust (as it were) of Allen’s satire about the breaking of sexual taboos.
The end result is still hailed for its pioneering depiction of promiscuity in a major studio release. The relaxing of cinematic standards permitted What’s New Pussycat? to be bolder and kinkier than any pre-1965 production could have been. Compared to films of the past 55 years, however, it often seems as mild and self-consciously “zany” as an episode of Three’s Company, which was daring for television of the 1970s but certainly not today.
Peter Sellers is top-billed and looks like he’s cosplaying as Mayim Bialik from The Big Bang Theory in his portrayal of German psychiatrist Fritz Fassbender. Sellers is more annoying than anything else in this role with the vaudeville level German accent he puts on as Fassbender. The psychiatrist frequently cheats on his rotund wife with his patients.
Peter O’Toole co-stars as Michael James, the editor of a Paris fashion magazine, a job in which he is surrounded by beautiful women who all fall for his masculine charms. All his life Michael has been “cursed” to have women find him irresistible. He becomes a patient of Dr Fassbender because he wants to stop bed-hopping and stay faithful to his true love Carole Werner (Romy Schneider).
Woody Allen plays Victor Shakapopulis, his earliest big screen portrayal of his eventually overdone frustrated horndog character, always lusting after beautiful ladies but always driving them away with his awkwardness. Somehow, this low-rent loser travels in the same social circles as O’Toole’s big-time fashion editor.
Much of the forced comedy in What’s New Pussycat? comes from Fassbender and Shakapopulis’ exasperation with Michael’s effortless seduction of every beauty who crosses his path. On top of his casual conquests he also beds down with Fassbender’s patient Renee Lefevre (Capucine), the object of the German’s obsessive lust. Meanwhile his true love Carole is fruitlessly pursued by Shakapopulis.
Since Woody was not in the director’s chair this movie shows just a few hints of his future brilliance and ultimately degenerates into a groaningly strained slapstick clown show bearing no resemblance to the attempted risque sophistication of some of its early scenes. When you consider what Allen accomplished in Love and Death, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex and other films it’s a shame he didn’t get to fulfill his vision here.
The behind the scenes lore regarding What’s New Pussycat? is pretty entertaining in its own right. Woody originally conceived this story as a thinly-veiled tribute to Warren Beatty’s legendary love life. Even in his Playboy interview, Allen joked about reincarnation by saying he wanted to die and come back as Warren Beatty’s fingertips. “What’s new pussycat?” was supposedly Beatty’s standard phone greeting to his ladies of the moment.
He had talked Warren into starring as Michael James, but creative differences between the two talented but obstinate figures ended with Beatty dropping out of the starring role while staying on as Executive Producer. Woody originally hoped to have Groucho Marx play Dr Fassbender and the psychiatrist’s insulting exchanges with his hefty wife certainly carry echoes of Groucho’s antics with Margaret Dumont in old Marx Brothers flicks.
By some accounts Peter Sellers and Woody Allen came to loathe each other, with Sellers throwing his star weight around to make Woody rewrite some of his own character’s jokes and assign them to Fassbender instead. Both Allen and Sellers had come from sketch comedy shows into movies and it’s possible Peter felt he was showing the “upstart” Woody his then-low level on the movie industry totem pole.
At any rate, Paula Prentiss tags along in this film as a stripper who writes politically charged poetry on the side and who is so unstable that she makes multiple suicide attempts which are played for laughs in this irreverent farce. Ursula Andress shows up as Rita, a fleeting conquest of O’Toole’s. Woody Allen’s real-life love Louise Lasser appears in an uncredited role as a masseuse.
Richard Burton’s cameo at Paris’ Crazy Horse strip club includes a cutesy in-joke as O’Toole’s character says to him “My best to what’s-her-name!” (If you’re not into old Hollywood, “what’s-her-name” in this case would have been Elizabeth Taylor. On an unrelated note, Liz Taylor’s own real-life comment on Warren Beatty was “On a scale of one to ten his body is an eleven.”)
More than most movies What’s New Pussycat? is thoroughly mired in its time. It’s not as brilliant as its reputation suggests but compared to the stifling censorship of today’s comedy it’s almost as outrageously enjoyable as Blazing Saddles.
© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.