Barbra Streisand sent me an email today with the headline “‘What’s Up, Doc?’ Coming Soon on Blu-ray.” (Inside the email it’s all enthusiasm and exclamation points: “What’s Up, Doc? Available in Two Weeks! First Streisand Movie on Blu-ray!”)
I’ve forgotten how I got on Barbra’s mailing list in the first place — possibly through my online vegan Scrabble group, where no meat or dairy-related words may be used. That group leans just a little to the left politically. (And you’d be surprised just how much you miss kielbasa with a triple letter score on the “k”.)
However Barbra found me, I’m delighted that What’s Up, Doc? is her first film on Blu-ray, and I’m also a little confounded. It’s 38 years old, it’s not an Oscar-winner, Streisand didn’t sing a #1 hit song, she didn’t direct, and it certainly isn’t one of her “important” films like Yentl or Prince of Tides. (“A picture with no redeeming social value,” director Peter Bogdanovich called it.) All it is is funny. All it is is the most enjoyable movie work Streisand had ever done, and yes I do expressly include in that statement Funny Girl, The Way We Were, and the cockamamie insanity that was Hello, Dolly.
For a 1970’s comedy, What’s Up, Doc? really holds up. Of course with slapstick you know it’s not going to last forever, and for sure there’s some drag there. (The curse of all old movies as seen from our go-go 21st century: the set-ups take forever. And the courtroom scene at the end is too long by 60%.) Still, plenty of What’s Up, Doc? has strong comic legs. If you’ve seen the movie, I’m talking about “You should feel it, gentlemen!” and “Don’t you dare strike that brave, unbalanced woman!” among other choice moments.
But the true miracle of What’s Up, Doc? is that Peter Bogdanovich managed to do for Barbra Streisand what Steven Soderbergh did for Jennifer Lopez in Out Of Sight a quarter-century later: make her look effortlessly sharp, sexy, charismatic and not-diva-neurotic in a way she never would look on film again, ever, period.
(And yes, that means I have thrown in the towel on Jennifer Lopez as an actress, which makes Out Of Sight all the more miraculous. Where did that performance come from? I would pay for an Out of Sight DVD with director’s commentary in which Soderbergh talks only about how he got that work out of Lopez in every scene — or to put it more charitably, how the two of them approached each scene. Something amazing happened there.)
But back to Streisand. In What’s Up, Doc? she has a sense of loose fun and joy that I’ve never seen from her before or since. It doesn’t hurt that she was surrounded by Madeline Kahn (in her first movie role!), Kenneth Mars, the truly amazing Austen Pendleton, John Hillerman, etc, etc — great character actors all. Even Randy Quaid rocks his three minutes of screen time. A rising tide lifts all hams. A script doctored by Buck Henry doesn’t hurt either.
What’s Up, Doc? is also the only movie in history where Barbra Streisand is truly hot. Not kooky-hot, not poodle-curls hot, not mod-hot, not reticent-hot, not dressed-unbelievably-like-a-Jewish-scholar hot — just flat-out, let’s-get-a-hotel-room, don’t-tell-grandma hawt.
Maybe that’s why the photo above is the one Streisand’s people included in the email. It’s from the scene where she sings “As Time Goes By” to Ryan O’Neal in an empty, under-construction hotel floor. (Bogdanovich notes in his DVD commentary that a floor at the hotel really was empty and they just ran in and shot there.)
Here’s a grrreat trailer for the movie from 1972, the year it came out. At the 2:12 mark you can see Bogdanovich directing Streisand in that scene, and maybe that’s the secret: he doesn’t just verbally direct her, he physically walks her through it, right up to the kiss, and then she steps in to ice the cake herself.
And for as long as it lasts on YouTube, here’s the finale of the movie, with Streisand and Ryan O’Neal poking fun at his hit romance Love Story.
Well, bless ’em all for making a really silly, lovable movie, and bless Barbra Streisand for promoting it, and bless Peter Bogdanovich for getting the very best out of her. That’s entertainment!