Sunday, July 17, 2016

Movie Review: Sex and the Single Girl, starring Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, and Lauren Bacall (1964)


Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood discover some shocking information when they read the book the movie was based on.


Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda in Sex and the Single Girl, 1964. Henry looks like he's saying, "I don't know why I'm in this movie."

The lovely Natalie Wood, 1964.

Natalie looking stunning in her white dress, 1964.
Sex and the Single Girl was a change of pace for Natalie Wood as an actress. It was her first comedic role as an adult, and it was the second of three movies she made with Tony Curtis, the first being 1958’s Kings Go Forth, and the last being 1965’s The Great Race. Sex and the Single Girl was based on Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 non-fiction best-seller. The movie didn’t really have anything to do with the book, the studio just wanted the titillating title, and paid $200,000 for the film rights. 

The movie is an example of a very specific genre, the “sex comedy” that flourished in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Of course, thanks to the production code that was still in effect, the main characters don’t actually have sex until they are safely married. Perhaps the ne plus ultra of sex comedies from this era is 1959’s Pillow Talk, starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Sex comedies are replete with characters assuming false identities, and that becomes integral to the plot of Sex and the Single Girl. 

Natalie Wood is cast as Helen Gurley Brown, and the film has changed her occupation to psychoanalyst. In real life, Gurley Brown worked in advertising and publishing. In 1965, shortly after the movie was released, Gurley Brown got the job that she’s best known for, as she became the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan and transformed the magazine into one of leading women’s magazines. Tony Curtis plays Bob Weston, a writer for Stop magazine, which takes pride in being the lowest of the scandal rags. As the movie opens, another writer for Stop has just published a scalding critique of Gurley Brown’s best-selling book, titled Sex and the Single Girl. But Weston thinks there’s more to this story, and he wants to meet Gurley Brown in person, as he thinks she’s a virgin who is masquerading as a sex expert. (This is not the movie to see if you’re looking for enlightened attitudes about men and women.) It seems odd that Stop magazine would want to publish another story about Gurley Brown, since their takedown of her just appeared. 

Weston goes to Gurley Brown for treatment, but he doesn’t tell her his real identity. Instead he tells her the marital problems his friend Frank, played by Henry Fonda, is having with his wife, played by Lauren Bacall. Gurley Brown is much too nice to Weston, and quickly develops a crush on him. Hilarity, or something meant to approximate it, ensues. 

And there the plot summary stops. It’s no use telling you about how “funny” it is when Weston fakes a suicide attempt, only to have Gurley Brown save him from drowning (it’s always a little sad when Natalie Wood’s movies feature her in a water tank) or how completely “hilarious” the ten minute long car chase at the end of the movie is. I put “funny” and “hilarious” in quotation marks because I didn’t find Sex and the Single Girl to be very funny. It’s a movie that has not aged very well, and it’s ideas and stereotypes about women are hopelessly dated. I know, I should let it go, but the movie just didn’t work for me.

Tony Curtis is a charming and funny actor, but he doesn’t get to do much that’s very funny in this movie. He’s much funnier in Some Like It Hot and Operation Petticoat. I like Tony Curtis a lot, and his voice is just great. You can tell in Sex and the Single Girl that Tony is starting to lose his hair in front, as it’s always combed forward. Natalie Wood does the best she can, and she brings an earnest conviction to the role that is appealing, but the movie doesn’t give Helen Gurley Brown very much depth. I wonder how the real Helen Gurley Brown felt about the movie? I would imagine that she was probably excited that someone as beautiful and talented as Natalie Wood was playing her, but it probably annoyed her that she was turned into a woman who at the end of the movie gives up her career for her man. 

The real problem with Sex and the Single Girl is the script. It’s a real dog, and oddly enough, it was written by Joseph Heller, of Catch-22 fame. The funniest part is probably when Tony Curtis is wearing Natalie Wood’s nightie (long story) and he remarks that he looks like Jack Lemmon in that movie where he dresses up like a girl. Curtis’ character can’t remember the name of the movie, but of course, it’s Some Like It Hot, which Tony Curtis starred in. It’s a funny joke, but then it gets overdone as everyone remarks on how Bob Weston looks like Jack Lemmon. There are also some bewildering jokes about Tony Curtis’ character having to put coins in everything in the Stop office building. Curtis even needs a coin so a mirror will be revealed so he can comb his hair in the men’s room. I assume this was a joke about the popularity of automats, as after the scene in the men’s room Curtis goes to the automat for lunch, but automats had been popular for decades before 1964. They weren’t exactly a new thing, so it seems like an odd joke. 

Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall don’t have much to do in the movie. But I could listen to Henry Fonda read the phone book. He had such a great voice. The supporting cast is rounded out by Mel Ferrer, playing the rather pointless role of Rudy, another doctor in Gurley Brown’s practice whose only purpose in the movie is to flirt relentlessly with her. Although a successful actor in his own right, Mel Ferrer is probably best known today for being married to Audrey Hepburn. 

Natalie Wood looks beautiful throughout the film, and her Edith Head wardrobe is fantastic. In particular the white dress and the white robe she wears are just jaw-dropping. 

Wood’s biographer Suzanne Finstad researched her contract for Sex and the Single Girl, and discovered that, in addition to being paid $160,000 for her role, Wood had a lot of “riders” in her contract. Wood stipulated the color of the phone that was to be in her dressing room. (Unfortunately, Finstad doesn’t reveal the color.) “She requested white cigarette holders from a shop in London, a special oil of gardenia available in Cairo, and stipulated days off during her menstrual period.” (Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad, p.290) 

Finstad interviewed Tony Curtis for her book, and she got some very interesting quotes from him. Curtis told Finstad that he had the best on screen chemistry of any of his co-stars with Wood. Curtis said, “Natalie and I had to be careful, because we found each other quite attractive, but I just didn’t want to degenerate the relationship and neither did she.” Curtis then tells Finstad the real reason he didn’t sleep with Natalie: “Natalie’s boom-booms weren’t big enough. To each his own.” (Finstad, p.293) That’s just the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Of course, that might only be Curtis’ lame excuse. The truth might be that she just didn’t want to sleep with him. Clearly something happened in their relationship, because by the time they started filming The Great Race, shortly after Sex and the Single Girl wrapped, Curtis and Wood were estranged. (Finstad, p.295)

Wood was likely less than happy with the way the script of Sex and the Single Girl made fun of analysis, as during this time in her life she was going to therapy almost daily. Wood said, “I was in analysis for some time, and I found it very beneficial…for me it was a different way of looking at things. I think it made me less introspective, more open to other people. It really changed my life.” (Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs, by Christopher Nickens, p.131)

Sex and the Single Girl was released in December 1964. Cue magazine called it “thoroughly coarse, irritating and stupid.” (Nickens, p.126) Despite unfavorable reviews, it grossed $8 million and was the 20th highest grossing film released in 1964. It’s an interesting time capsule, but one that hasn’t aged very well. Despite the movie’s shortcomings, you can still enjoy the beauty and talent of Natalie Wood in it.

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