Best Movie Ever?: “What’s Up, Doc?”

You know what I want? Fast-talking women. Carnage. Fanny Brice handing Ryan O’Neal his own ass. Screwball timing like a cocaine-powered metronome. San Francisco. Madeline Kahn stammering in a pumpkin-sized wig. Madeline Kahn always.

Kids, it’s all in What’s Up, Doc?, the zaniest comedy of the ’70s and a timeless blast of perfect one-liners. Peter Bogdanovich’s gem celebrates its 40th birthday this year, and thankfully Barbra Streisand has laid off the self-tanner since then. Hard to believe we’re all not sitting in a circle right now and gasping at each other, “Guys, there was once a movie based on Looney Tunes that starred Barbra Streisand and Madeline Kahn. WHAT. WHAT.” I could watch it again and again, and thus it qualifies for “Best Movie Ever?” status. Here are five more reasons why.

1. Best romantic comedy introduction scene ever?

Basically, What’s Up, Doc? is about four different people who check into San Francisco’s Hotel Bristol; coincidentally, they all have the exact same plaid suitcase, and that confusion leads to, uh, confusion. And spitfire dialogue, romantic entanglements, kookiness, chase sequences, intrigue, and enough wacky plot threads to satisfy a season of Lost. Right at the start, mild-mannered geologist Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) finds himself away from his asthmatic, worrywart wife Eunice (Madeline Kahn), and a quizzical little scamp named Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand) corners him in the hotel gift shop. Their exchange? A duet of neurosis and nuttiness. And Barbra just pummels every punchline, exhibiting a puckishness that truly builds upon and advances her work in Funny Girl. It is honestly a riot, and almost too many jokes to handle. Love how she says “micas.”


2. Madeline Kahn’s film debut is (sigh) mesmerizing.

Madeline Kahn is that rare actress whose performances feel warmer and lovelier the more insane and absurd they get. Like fellow ’70s superhero Gilda Radner, she goes there when she goes insane, raising her voice several octaves and morphing from a stately upper-crust girl to the battiest thing you’ve ever seen. She’s both a lady and a Muppet, and in What’s Up, Doc?, her feature premiere, she pesters Ryan O’Neal with such agitating tonality that it’s fair to call her a human kazoo. She’d earn Oscar nominations for Paper Moon and Blazing Saddles — and she’d certainly garner a cult following with her work in Clue — but there’s something particularly precious about her feature debut. It’s righteously out of control. I shriek with laughter every time I listen to the nonsense noises of discomfort she makes while reading The Sensuous Woman in bed.


3. For once, a comedy where the men are a waste.

It’s just cool that the majority of the funny character work in What’s Up, Doc? is handled by women. Is it just me, or do people forget that Barbra Streisand was one of the biggest box office draws of the ’70s — and with good reason? I ran across an article on Buzzfeed called “12 Extremely Disappointing Facts About Popular Music” and one of the so-called disappointments was this:

F*ck this article and f*ck this statement. Even if you’re not a Streisand fanatic, you must admit that she’s the definitive entertainer: a perfect singer, a smashing actress, and an unforgettably dynamic performer. Sorry, Buzzfeed, I can’t say the same about, uh, Eddie Vedder. A viewing of What’s Up, Doc? would render the author of Buzzfeed’s b.s. (and sexist!) slam piece catatonic and apologetic for years. You do realize she’s also an Oscar-winning songwriter, right?

4. Best movie in-joke ever?

Baby boomers haven’t apologized enough from the years 1969-’70 yet. Midnight Cowboy? Dreck. Easy Rider? Painful. Airport? WTF. (Though They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is admittedly fabulous.) And worst of all, there’s the staggering sh*t fortress of Love Story, the single worst nominee for Best Picture in history and an absolute embarrassment as a cultural phenomenon. It’s nice to know that Bogdanovich and his What’s Up, Doc? cowriters Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton were privy to its inanity early on, because they cashed in with a magnificent in-joke. At the end of What’s Up, Doc? as Judy and Howard meet up on a plane, Judy coos, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” referencing Ali MacGraw’s famous line in said sh*t fortress. Obviously Ryan O’Neal (as Howard) was MacGraw’s costar in that turkey, and thus his response in What’s Up, Doc? is priceless: “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Amen.


5. Even the action scenes are gripping!

Sure, there’s some drippy courtroom action in What’s Up, Doc? as well a few screwball scenes that could’ve been left on the cutting room floor, but you have to give this movie credit for delivering madcap carnage that the Three Stooges and the producers of Bringing Up Baby would agree to adore. In this scene, Judy and Howard whizz through the streets of San Francisco and end up riiiiiiight near the bay. Naturally, Streisand and O’Neal remain quippy and vaudevillian throughout.

What are your favorite What’s Up, Doc? moments? Is Madeline Kahn the only celebrity death that still bothers you too? Let’s schedule weekly meetings for all of us.