released in 1965, what’s new pussycat is very much a product of its time. though it is not a representative of 60s cinema, it is nevertheless stamped with signatures of that period: from the psychedelic cartoon opening credits, the free willing views on drugs and sex, and the anticipation of the upcoming sexual revolution and gender politics, not to mention the music and lingo. all of which is a polite way to say that even with history in mind, what’s new pussycat is not a good movie in any era, and the datedness is only a small part of its errors.
peter o’toole plays ladykiller michael james, who is trying to settle down with his girlfriend (romy schneider) with the help of psychologist dr. fritz fassbender played by peter sellers. woody allen plays victor, who seems to be o’toole’s friend. and the plot…well it’s pretty much about these three men trying to get laid as much as they can, this goal is either hindered by the women in their lives or their inabilities.
for a board slapstick/farce, what’s new pussycat is about 20 minutes too long. there are some funny bits and pieces and one liners. there are also quite a few fourth-wall-breaking in-jokes and references. ursula andress from dr. no literally falls from sky and later someone comments that she knows james bond. there’s also a dream sequence inspired by fellini’s 8 1/2, which also serves as inspirations to numerous later woody allen movies.
the factoids surrounding the movie are more interesting than the movie itself. what’s new pussycat is the feature film debut of woody allen, who not only has a small part in the movie but is also credited as the sole screenwriter. in addition to allen, the two major parts are played by peter sellers and peter o’toole. though the three of them are in the james bond spoof/satire casino royale two years later, o’toole only has an uncredited cameo, hence what’s new pussycat is the only movie where both sellers and o’toole have significant screen time. at the time, allen is a standup comic and joke writer looking for a big break; sellers had already been in two pink panther movies; while o’toole was coming off lawrence of arabia, becket, and lord jim, this is his first comedy.
the behind-the-scenes making of stories is also more interesting than the movie itself, and perhaps sheds some light on what ends up on screen. it started as a somewhat autobiographical warren beatty movie to be written by woody allen. mark harris’ book pictures at a revolution mentions that beatty was not happy that his part was getting smaller while allen’s part (after negotiating himself into playing a small part in the movie) kept getting bigger. eventually beatty turned down the movie. o’toole was casted instead.
allen was originally supposed to play the part of the psychologist. though after sellers came on board, and like allen did with beatty, sellers’ part got bigger. all the deals and compromises created an awkwardness shown on screen. the studio interference doesn’t help either (in stig bjorkman’s woody allen on woody allen, allen praises director clive donner and blames the film’s producer charles k feldman and the studio mgm/ua). there doesn’t seem to be any sense or logic that these characters are together, other than contractual agreements. it would have been tighter and more structurally sound if the story revolves around the o’toole character and the psychologist. o’toole is more than capable in handling his first comedic role, but allen and sellers seem to be on their own in a contest to see who can be the funniest (advantage allen, as sellers’ costumes and antics are quite painful to watch). the film climaxes with one of those chaotic door-slamming farce where all the characters end up in one place. though it doesn’t quite work since it is led more by necessity rather than situation. and as if that’s not enough, the film follows that up with another chase sequence that you see at the end of each benny hill episode, except not sped up.
thankfully, everyone moves on to bigger and better things. the experience led allen to only make films when he has total creative control. it’s worth a watch for nostalgia, or hardcore fans of allen, o’toole, and sellers. to go by gene siskel’s test, whether the movie in question is as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch, it’s a resounding NO.
what’s new pussycat was nominated for an oscar:
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