Woody Allen’s answer? “If I could have directed that it would have been a much, much, much funnier picture but made much less money”.
According to legend, actress Shirley MacLaine, Warren Beatty’s sister, scouted out Woody Allen at the Blue Angel night club and enlisted producer Charles K. Feldman to draft him into Hollywood as a screenwriter. Allen recalls on the following Monday morning, Feldman offered him 20 grand to work on his first film, WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? (1965).
Hollywood thought it had a surefire hit in the making with a semi-autobiographical tale of Warren Beatty’s bedroom exploits (Beatty coined the film’s title catchphrase). Woody Allen, never one for being interested in purely commercial success, expended the star at the sake of the script. Downplaying Beatty’s prowess in favor of his own goofy role, Allen’s writing caused Beatty to lose interest and bow out of the picture. Peter O’Toole was brought in as his replacement.
Recovering from a heart attack, Peter Sellers signed on to the picture and proved a difficult comedic adversary for Woody Allen. Equally adept at improv and with more pull with the producers, Sellers relegated Woody Allen to a supporting role.
The picture’s director, Clive Donner, had until this point, only directed in England. Woody Allen thought highly of Donner and faulted the studio for constantly intervening with his directing. The studio not only tampered with the director but according to Allen, were “taking my script and mangling it.” Allen remarked, “I didn’t’ even go see it, I was so angry at the whole thing and I vowed to never work in movies again unless I could be the director, and have control, not just the director.”
So, what if Woody Allen had directed WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? My first thought was, the women would have been far funnier. Woody Allen has always had a keen talent for directing women. In this picture, the producers banked on the success of an ensemble cast of predominantly women (the tagline read: They’re all together again! (for the first time!). Take Romy Schneider for instance; I thought she was an absolute delight in GOOD NEIGHBOR SAM (1964) opposite Jack Lemmon. I was slightly disappointed that in this picture her character was not tailored properly to her comedic chops. Her best scenes were with Allen, particularly the library scene. Allen’s comedic genius lies in creating the perfect blend of physical comedy and clever dialogue. In that scene, Allen and Schneider play off each other’s neurotic tendencies perfectly, just as comedic teams like Grant and Hepburn did before them. Allen knows how to shift his comedic timing to play down his masculine assertiveness and allow Schneider to shine. Directors often underestimated the comedic talents of women, and Allen begins to prove in this picture that Hollywood has been missing out.
Another point of conflict was the film’s star (and catnip) Peter O’Toole. O’Toole’s acting in this picture seemed to teeter between the clumsy physicality of Jimmy Stewart and the belligerent rage of Richard Burton. If Allen had directed him, he could have found a happy medium between the two. The problem lied in the pace of the film. Allen’s dialogue is at its most effective when set at a pace equal to that of HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940). The spontaneity is often lost in this film because O’Toole is caught purring his lines in attempt to up his sex appeal.
Woody Allen simply is unfazed by the promise of commercial success. His films do not have to be cohesive or follow a linear narrative. Why should they? With a boyish looking Woody Allen behind the lens, this film would have been more risqué and alluring instead of the tame tale it turned out to be. I’m certain of this because one of Allen’s later films, EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX*( BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK*) (1972) went there. My mother told me it caused quite a stir back in the day when the Sexual Revolution in America was at its height. It would have been a delight to see him experiment with the British New Wave in its heyday instead of waiting till later in his career to venture outside of New York. With its exuberant style and a stellar cast at his disposal, Allen could have added an important decade missing from his directorial repertoire: the sixties.