(2 of 3)
Catcher is everything Peter wants to be "ladies' man, man's man, man about town" and isn't. But Peter usually defers to his friend and idol. [Randall did the same to Hudson in "Love Come Back" and "Pillow Talk," in both of which he was technically Rock's boss.] Indeed, as he tells Catcher, "You are the best friend any man with 20 diagnosed neuroses could ever have." Block replies: "Well, we've been together for a long time. I knew you when you only had 12." [In "Pillow Talk" Randall is in bondage to his analyst. So is Gig Young, who takes the Randall role in "Lover Come Back."]
Peter begs Catcher to do a Know story on Barbara, not just for the news value but because it will help Peter cozy up to Vikki. But Catcher sees no allure in interviewing an uptight feminist. Peter arranges three meetings for the author and the journalist lunch, dinner and breakfast each of which Catcher dodges to be with a more pliant, pre-"Down With Love" woman. He is, of course, gentleman enough to phone Barbara each time, where their conversations are shown on a split screen. [Rock and Doris had split-screen phone chats in all three of their films, especially and famously in "Pillow Talk."]
As his excuse for missing lunch, Catcher sweetly, bogusly, explains that he had to rescue "an English fox" (while he's making out with an English stewardess at a "Camelot" matinee). In his dinner call, he says he's helping "a French poodle" (kanoodling with a French stewardess at a night game at Yankee stadium). [In "That Touch of Mink," Cary takes Doris to a Yankees game; they sit in the home-team dugout, where Doris' derisive shouts at the umpire get Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra ejected from the game.] In the next morning's breakfast call, he tells Barbara he's nursing "a Swedish wolf hound" (in bed). Barbara, now onto the ruse, is furious. Why, she'll never give that scoundrel an interview!
Soon, the book is a smash best-seller, thanks to Judy Garland singing the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg tune "Down With Love" on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The book has a volcanic effect on women readers: they are encouraged to throw off the shackles of domesticity and make their husbands do the cooking. Over at Know, even Peter's mousy, submissive secretary is avidly consuming a copy. [In "Sex and the Single Girl," a secretary at Stop Magazine is seen reading Helen's book.]
A "DOWN WITH LOVE" CONCORDANCE: ACT II
Now Catcher's interest and ire have been raised. Dammit, he'll write an exposé on this woman, because he suspects she lacks the sexual experience and expertise she trumpets in her book. [In "Sex and the Single Girl," Stop Magazine publishes a nasty article on sex-book author Helen Brown. But Curtis wants to go further: "a personal exposé right from her own lips. ‘Does she or doesn't she?' And I promise to deliver this one personally."]
The problem is, Barbara hates Catcher. The saver is that she's never met or seen him. If only he could pretend to be someone else, someone who's just the opposite of the snake she reviles... So in Barbara's dry cleaner's he introduces himself, in a syrupy Southern accent, as Astronaut Zip Martin. [In "Pillow Talk" Rock dons his "Giant" Texas accent and pretends to be rich, innocent Rex Stetson. In "Lover Come Back" he masquerades as Dr. Linus Tyler, a Nobel Prize-winning naif.] With shy sweetness, "Zip" acknowledges he doesn't know who Barbara is see, he's been in outer space lately. It's instant attraction for Barbara, whose sudden notoriety has scared off potential suitors.
A brisk montage shows Barbara and "Zip" enjoying the glamour of the Big Apple at its ripest. [In "That Touch of Mink," plutocrat Cary proposes a first date to unemployed Doris by saying, "It's a beautiful night, and New York's a wonderful city. What would you like to do with it?"] They see all the shows, catch Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby at the comedy clubs, go to nightclubs and dance the Twist till dawn. [The getting-to-know-you-in-Manhattan montage is straight out of "Pillow Talk," where "Tex" and Doris spend the day at the 42nd Street Public Library, the 42nd Street Automat and the State of Liberty, then at night go to Broadway shows, Roseland, Madison Square Garden, the Latin Quarter, etc.]
Barbara and "Zip" are getting along splendidly. In one phone conversation, as they do isometrics in their separate apartments, each snuggles up to the near end of the split screen to suggest that their affair has ripened more rapidly than we knew: she seems to be giving him a blow job, he's apparently performing cunnilingus on her, now they're having sex missionary-style, now they're doing 69. After these exertions, each collapses supine on the floor and smokes a post-coital cigarette. [Rock and Doris never had anything like the phone sex in "Down With Love" they would have been arrested but in the Jan-and-"Tex" part of "Pillow Talk" each is in a bathtub facing toward the center of the split screen. Rock puts a foot up on the porcelain wall, Doris does the same, so their feet look to be in romantic contact. When he appears to tickle her undersole, he quickly removes her foot. She may be in love, but she's still a good girl.]
By now Peter is desperate to get in on the action. Catcher offers his swingin' bachelor pad to Peter so that he may entertain Vikki. Alas for Peter, he doesn't know how Catcher's Playboy Mansion gadgets work. He pushes the wrong button and Vikki gets pinned under the pull-out bed: "Your couch was all over me like some animal!" [In "Pillow Talk," Rock's pad has two couch-side switches that turn the lights down, put mood music on the record player, bolt the front door and make the sofa sprint out into a bed with baby-blue sheets.]As Barbara keeps pursuing "Zip," he keeps postponing the magic moment, because he (Catcher) wants to expose Barbara as a girl who can't take her own book's advice. His charade is nearly revealed when, during a bohemian party at Peter's (Catcher's) place, Barbara finds "Zip" in the bedroom with a beautiful beatnik. He improvises a story about how the beatnik gave him a funny cigarette. "You mean she drugged you?" a horrified Barbara asks, and he nods sadly: "All the way to the bedroom." She gratefully accepts his lie. [In "Lover Come Back," Doris finds Rock, who's pretending to be Tyler the scientist, in his own apartment. He explains it away by saying he was drugged with a funny cigarette that "didn't have any printing on it." Doris gratefully accepts the lie.]
Catcher can't help himself: he's warming up to the "Down With Love" girl. [...as Rock did to Doris in "Pillow" and "Lover," and as Tony did to Natalie in "Sex."] But he's still a journalist: he has to get his story. [...as Tony had to conquer Natalie for his scoop.] Tonight's the Big Date, and they prepare for it while listening to separate, his-and-hers renditions of a song appropriate for both a writer and an astronaut: Bart Howard's "In Other Words," aka "Fly Me to the Moon." She dresses to the bossa-nova whisperings of Astrud Gilberto; he suits up to Mr. Sinatra's brassier version. [In "Pillow Talk," Doris and "Tex" have their first kiss in a night club where a jazz trio is playing a sort of astronaut's love song: "I need no rocket ship,/ No trip to the moon..."]
The nearly-lovers are in Peter's (Catcher's) bachelor pad, and the action is heating up. Finally Barbara declares what Catcher has been waiting to hear: "I want what every woman wants marriage." Catcher, who's been documenting on this on a concealed tape recorder, drops the Zip mask and exults: "I got Barbara ‘Down With Love' Novak to fall in love!" The sheep is shorn. The wolf has won.
But that's just the end of Act II. Plenty more reversals and revelations are in store. And you wouldn't want us to force you to read the movie's ending, would you, gentle readers?
REVISING THE REVISIONISTS
"Down With Love" and "Far from Heaven" are what the upmarket reviewers call revisionist movies. Revisionism is a critical attitude a way of looking back, with both indulgence and impatience, on old movies that have gone out of fashion. And what could be less fashionable than the Rock-and-Doris romances, whose sexual mores were outmoded at the time the films were released? Or the forthrightly square weepies in the Hudson-Hunter-Sirk canon, themselves remakes of novels and films from the even more benighted 30s? Even when they were released, the films were their own anachronisms.
Confusing movies with sociology is one of the mistakes writer-director Todd Haynes makes in "Far from Heaven,' which to me was last year's most overrated film. Haynes created a handsome simulacrum of 50s costumes and interior decoration (as "Down With Love" does for the 60s), but he was too busy making political points husbands uncaring, wives passively abused; white suburbanites bad, black gardeners good to put flesh and shadings on the characters. The camera style also labored to deny viewers' emotional involvement with the story. (Haynes mostly used a static camera, framing each scene like a picture on a museum wall, instead of quietly creeping closer to the action, as Sirk and other classical directors did.) The whole enterprise was as frigid as a doctoral dissertation. It was a movie for movie critics and, as its financial failure indicated, movie critics only.
Both "Far from Heaven" and "Down With Love" offer distanced, often derisive takes on old genres. They say that 50s movies hatched in the last years of comfortable sexism, implicit racism and explicit queer-baiting provide winking or unwitting peeks into a postwar society that was placid on the outside, roiling at its heart. America knew something was wrong, but its popular culture hadn't yet found the means to define and expose the problems. Forty and more years on, these films could appear to us as quaint, or heinous, as the silent-era racist epic "The Birth of a Nation" must have looked to liberal folks of the 50s.
We can all agree that the old movies were less interesting for what they expressed than for what they repressed. But, jeez, give them a break. Of course they have aspects that we find squirm-making. They were made Back Then! It would be creepy if their social and aesthetic prejudices somehow coincided with ours, which will surely seem every bit as goofy to audiences 40 or 50 years from now. Try these two tests: Track down "Written on the Wind" or "Pillow Talk" in a video store or on Turner Classic Movies, and see if they don't engross you as much as they amuse you. Then put "American Idol," "Jackass" and "Malibu's Most Wanted" in a time capsule, and wait for the cackles of your grandchildren.
THE AGES OF ROCK
That anyone in Hollywood even wants to make new versions of "All That Heaven Allows" and "Pillow Talk" marks a posthumous vindication for Rock Hudson, who died in 1985 the first celebrity AIDS casualty.
As a kid, I didn't pay much attention to the Rock-and-Doris movies. I saw most of them, but they didn't stick with me; like any ordinary moviegoer with an ordinary film, I consumed them and eliminated them. The hints of homosexuality went over my head or through it. The innuendo didn't intoxicate me. If I wanted titillation, I went to Playboy, or to foreign films; if I wanted robust laughs, there was Billy Wilder at the peak of his comic acuity. "Some Like It Hot" came out seven months before "Pillow Talk," "The Apartment" eight months after.