Thursday, December 25, 2014

Thoughts on 'Sex and the Single Girl'

Helen Gurley Brown (Natalie Wood): You know, when you smile like that, you do look like Jack Lemmon!

In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown's "Sex and the Single Girl" was a best–selling self–help book that encouraged women to become financially independent and to experience sex outside the traditional marriage relationship.

The movie that was released 50 years ago today had the same title and its lead character (played by Natalie Wood) had Dr. Brown's name, but that was just about all the two really had in common.

Tony Curtis played the managing editor of STOP magazine, a real rag of a publication, who wanted to get a scoop on Brown. He had already published an article alleging that Brown was a virgin, and that article had damaged her reputation. Half a dozen of her patients had quit on her, and Brown was intent on suing Curtis, who wanted to interview Brown but had no luck.

So Curtis' character impersonated his housemate (Henry Fonda) who worked in women's hosiery, pretending to be having marital problems so he could get closer to Brown. In the reality of the movie, Fonda actually was having problems with his wife (Lauren Bacall).

And where would a Tony Curtis movie be without a car chase? That's how "Sex and the Single Girl" concluded: with just about everyone involved in a car chase and then living happily ever after (apparently).

Much of the movie was a farce about mistaken identity, sort of a single–joke "Midsummer Night's Dream." I have never read Brown's book, but it only inspired the screenplay, most of which apparently was written by Joseph Heller. Brown got partial credit for the story, but that may be because it was her book's title, not its content, that inspired it.

It wasn't clever. It wasn't thought provoking. It was mostly silly and contrived. It wasn't Heller's best work.

At one point, Fonda was accused of bigamy, which turned out to be false. That set up lots of cheap jokes about fidelity. To be honest, I had to wonder how stars of such stature as Fonda and Bacall got roped into this project.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I laughed out loud when Brown compared Curtis' character to Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot," but that sort of thing didn't happen very much. Curtis and Lemmon, of course, were co–stars with Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot" — and there are folks who will tell you it was the best comedy ever made. (That is hard — but not impossible — to dispute.)

I don't know if that is true, but I know that the talent in "Some Like It Hot" was superior to the talent in "Sex and the Single Girl" — at least when you compare how the talent was used.

Fonda, for example, was capable of comedy even though he was usually seen in dramatic roles. The same could be said of Bacall and Wood. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that the material in "Sex and the Single Girl" just wasn't worthy of their talents. (You couldn't say that about "Some Like It Hot.")

Maybe the producers should have been faithful to the original book.