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The Owl and the Pussycat
Remind Me

The Owl and the Pussycat

By the beginning of the 1970s, Barbra Streisand was looking for opportunities to expand her image. Still only in her twenties, she was seen as a throwback to the earlier era of stars, not as a contemporary member of the sixties generation. Her singing career had focused largely on older standards, albeit in her unique and idiosyncratic style, and her film roles up to that point-Funny Girl (1968), Hello, Dolly! (1969), and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)-had made her an international star but branded her as an old-fashioned musical-comedy actress. In an effort to update her appeal, she went into the recording studio in 1970 to make "Stoney End," an album of songs by such modern songwriters as Joni Mitchell, Laura Niro, Randy Newman, and Carole King. At the same time, she decided to take on the film version of Bill Manhoff's offbeat play The Owl and the Pussycat, which had earned Diana Sands a 1965 Tony nomination in the role Barbra would play on screen.

The film version of The Owl and the Pussycat features Streisand as Doris, a prostitute and would-be model-actress who falls for her exact opposite, an uptight bookstore employee who fancies himself a great undiscovered novelist. The plot had the polar opposites thrown together, at first with much hostility, then gradually falling in love and learning to be realistic about their direction in life. Streisand told a reporter at the time she was looking forward to making a movie with "no songs, like a normal person," allowing audiences to see "the me that's natural and very today."

In spite of this desire to work on something more contemporary and "hip," she was nonetheless extremely nervous about the brief nude scene the script required. The story called for her to remove her top and jump into bed with co-star George Segal, but when it came time to film it, she was very reluctant. According to James Spada's biography Streisand: Her Life, she told director Herbert Ross she couldn't do the scene because she was insecure about her figure and worried about what her mother would say. Spada quoted screenwriter Buck Henry as recalling that she and Ross went into a closet where she showed him her body and he reassured her that she had nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, it took Ross nearly an hour to convince her, and he had to reassure her that if she wasn't happy with the scene, it would be cut. She finally agreed, nervously baring her breasts and climbing into bed next to Segal. Star, director, and crew all had a good laugh when the relentless perfectionist insisted she wanted a retake. As for mother Diana Kind, she only commented later, "I'm shocked by all those things actresses have to do today, but I guess it's part of the job." The scene was ultimately cut before release, but photos of the nude Streisand were leaked to High Society magazine. The actress won an injunction against the publication, and the shots disappeared from public view.

As one of the backers of the original play, producer Ray Stark easily acquired the movie rights to The Owl and the Pussycat for $100,000 and in 1965 announced plans to film it with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Burton immediately turned it down, and Stark sought Australian actor Rod Taylor for the male lead opposite Taylor. Eventually they both said no, and Streisand, who had a contract with Stark, signed for $1 million and seven percent of the net, a dramatic increase in her original terms. Initially Sidney Poitier was talked about as co-star, which would have been in keeping with the play's cross-racial casting. (Alan Alda had played opposite the African-American Sands on Broadway.) When Buck Henry was hired to adapt the screenplay, he suggested Segal, who got along very well with his leading lady and reportedly learned much about playing comedy from her. Both Segal and supporting player Robert Klein praised Streisand's professionalism and courtesy throughout the production, contrary to frequent reports of difficult behavior on her earlier films.

Henry changed the story's location from San Francisco to Manhattan in order to take advantage of his star's image and speech. "Lots of stuff in it was written for Barbra's rhythms and for that ingenious New York ear and accent which lends itself to certain patterns of speech that other actresses wouldn't sound good doing," he later said. One of the lines he added had her telling a carful of young hoods to "F*ck off!" Even as late as 1970, it was still unusual to hear that word in a mainstream film, much less out of the mouth of a major star, and some theaters refused to book the film with the line intact. As a result, some prints of the movie have the words "Up yours" dubbed over the offending phrase.

Streisand and Stark argued over his insistence that the story be rewritten to include a few songs for her. She flatly refused, determined as she was to prove she could carry a picture without singing. He also had a song written especially for her, a dramatic ballad that would appear under a montage of scenes depicting Doris and Felix's estrangement. In the end, she won the showdown and did no singing in the film.

The credits for The Owl and the Pussycat list two cinematographers. Veteran Harry Stradling, Sr. shot most of the film, much of it on location in freezing cold New York exteriors, but he quit to return to the warmth of Los Angeles. Young Hungarian-born Andrew Laszlo was hired to complete the final three weeks of principal photography.

Buck Henry makes a cameo appearance in the movie as a browser in the bookstore. Although credited as Evelyn Lang, that's really Marilyn Chambers making her film debut in a bit part as Barney's girlfriend. Chambers, who died in 2009, was originally seen in TV ads as the Ivory Soap girl, but her biggest fame came as the star of the adult films Behind the Green Door (1972) and Resurrection of Eve (1973). She later went legit for David Cronenberg's Rabid (1977).

Director: Herbert Ross
Producer: Ray Stark
Screenplay: Buck Henry, based on the play by Bill Manhoff
Cinematography: Andrew Laszlo, Harry Stradling, Sr.
Editing: John F. Burnett
Art Direction: Philip Rosenberg, Robert Wightman
Original Music: Richard Halligan
Cast: Barbra Streisand (Doris), George Segal (Felix), Robert Klein (Barney), Allen Garfield (Dress Shop Proprietor), Roz Kelly (Eleanor).
C-95m. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon