Pillow Talk (1959, Michael Gordon)


Oh, look, honey, Pillow Talk — a surely charming and even perhaps quaintly sexy romantic picture from the ’50s starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson; yeah, one of those movies. A blockbuster Universal production that is sometimes credited with virtually rescuing Hudson’s career, this made an absolute windfall for the once-shoestring studio and was beloved not merely for its performances and humor but for the way it sneaked risque content past the censors. Among other things, it includes a barely-veiled bathtub phone sex sequence (helped along in its fake innocence by a split-screen trick) and is probably the first movie to make Cinemascope itself an accomplice in lascivious Hays Code-breaking. Even the pillow-tossing title sequence is rather suggestive — and, like the entirety of this film about an interior decorator getting duped by an asshole on her party line, faultlessly stylish.

But alas. You think you’re sitting down to watch a breezy comedy? Perish the thought and prepare yourself for a vile excuse for filmed entertainment that demonstrates conclusively that the crassest branches of Hollywood didn’t spring up overnight in later generations. All of its “humor” stems directly from cruelty: mockery of fat and “ugly” people, scolding toward any woman with a career who is content living alone but uncompromised hero worship toward a man who does the same, nearly direct homophobia (men who are interested in recipes and decorating and love their mothers are, of course, not attracted to women, and that’s, of course, guh-ross), every sort of misogyny you can name including but not limited to rape and other sexual assaults and the public shaming and beating and simple malicious deceiving of women all played for laughs, and the intellectual depth of a Mr. Ed episode. (Because its only black character is a nightclub singer who’s in the film for maybe six minutes, it doesn’t have time to make fun of her race, so hey, progress.)

This is the kind of “comedy” that considers the fact that someone (the utterly wasted, no pun intended, Thelma Ritter) has a hangover a punchline in and of itself — over and over and over and over again. Its “comic” climax is a woman being dragged through the streets by an immense and intimidating man against her will, shouting for help only to be ignored by passersby or to have her attacker cheered on. I guess that’s a spoiler, but the movie is so offensive I don’t care if I ruined it for you. (It ends in a “no-no-no-no-no-oh, okay, yes” scene, which I wish I could chalk up to the period but that still happens in movies now.)

What a waste of another showcase for just how brilliant an actress Day is, though. I’ve undersold her for years. In this, The Man Who Knew Too Much and‘Love Me or Leave Me she exhibits staggering range, and it’s a pleasure to watch her engage in such note-perfect comic timing. Not such a pleasure to remember how vividly and hauntingly she embodied an abused wife in Love Me and here creates an independent woman only to be systematically destroyed by the film. Sickening, really — with all its sweetness-and-light romance as disgustingly cynical as the huggy family stuff at the end of Home Alone.

Inevitably, we must address that Day and Hudson do have explosive chemistry; as dumb and offensive as this film is, a sensuality does make its way through everything and still surprises in its sheer intensity. The film’s aesthetic innovations aren’t wholly without merit, and it should get some credit for an out-of-nowhere injection of oblique surrealism at its climax (when Day deliberately does a poor job of redecorating Hudson’s apartment as revenge for his by-now-revealed bad behavior). These things seem disembodied, though, from the hideous whole.

Perhaps my outsize anger is partially due to the fact that the reason I’m watching this is that it won what must be one of the most infuriating Oscar upsets in history — Best Screenplay against not one, not two, not three, but four films with excellent scripts, three of them genuinely great movies to boot: Wild Strawberries, The 400 Blows, North by Northwest (!), and Operation Petticoat. I can’t say much one way or the other about the treatment of women in Francois Truffaut’s film because the only female character I remember is Antoine’s mother and she is what she is, but otherwise I think it’s significant and depressing that all three of those others have actual respect for their female characters; even Eve Kendall, primarily seen as a fixture of desire and tossed between a couple of men and countries as fodder, is a career woman with an inner life — and a three-dimensional character whose audacious assertion of her own sexuality isn’t frowned at or expected to inspire guffaws. Sorry for the tangent. Ugh, this movie. Time for a bath (hopefully more similar to the one in Princess O’Rourke or Sign of the Cross or Red Dust than this).

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