Vincent Canby, senior film critic at The New York Times from 1969 to 1993, was born on this day (July 27) in 1924 (d. 2000).
On being a film critic, Canby said: “The basic difference between the critic and the member of the public who attends movies on a more or less casual basis, is that after a certain length of time spent watching movies, the critic can no longer be entertained by simply sitting back and allowing the movie to roll over him like a tank made of feathers. He wants to assume an active role, that’s his entertainment.”
In any compilation of the modern world’s 10 most unrewarding stunts, the casting of Barbra Streisand in a straight comedy, especially one as flimsily fabricated as “The Owl and The Pussycat,” must rank close to Charles A. Stephens’s 1920 attempt to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel, which turned out to be fatal.
Miss Streisand survives “The Owl and The Pussycat,” but largely on goodwill, and because even though she never sings, it’s possible to remember what happens when she does: through the force of a mysterious, implacable talent, she goes a long way toward making one agree that she is—as she proclaimed in “Funny Girl,” with an immense desire to please—the greatest star.
Without a song, she simply isn’t.
There is still that immense desire to please, but it now seems rooted in belligerency, rather than vulnerability. As Doris Waverly/Wadsworth/Wellington (nee Wilgus), a very improbable New York hooker with a heart of gold, Miss Streisand, the straight comedienne, lacks one essential feature, namely a heart. The performance, which may owe a lot to the manner in which it was written (by Buck Henry) and directed (by Herbert Ross), is mostly cold and edgy and aggressive and loud. There are odd, but only occasional moments — when she suddenly smiles a genuine smile, or when she is listening to someone other than herself (for a change)—that recall, if distantly, the real, feeling, thinking performer whose soul is in her music.
The movie is not without its appealing moments, and most of these belong to Mr. Segal, who manages to retain his innate dignity and comic style, even when he is required to over-react as the quintessential nebbish so dear to the heart of Old Broadway. There is also a moment, right at the end, when Miss Streisand responds to him with something like dignity but, for the most part, the sense of the performance is communicated by her long, claw-like fingernails. This pussycat is a full-grown predator.