After reviewing Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (HBO, now streaming), I began to poke around her filmography and consider her less successful films. I wound up focusing on Richard Quine‘s Sex and the Single Girl (’64), a strenuous, tedious sex farce that nonetheless became a commercial hit. God forgive me but I read the Wiki page, watched the trailer and read two or three reviews.
Wood played a mythical version of “Sex and the Single Girl” author Helen Gurley Brown, who was 42 in actuality while Wood’s version is a couple of decades younger and on the prim and proper side. Tony Curtis played Bob Weston, a reporter for a scandal magazine looking to expose Brown as “a 23 year-old virgin” and therefore a pretender in matters of sexual experience.
The below promotional photo of Curtis and Wood (they both seem to be thinking “oh, dear God…the lack of modesty!”) was aimed at lowest-common-denominator prudes circa 1964, and therefore reflected a safe marketing strategy. It’s nonetheless infuriating if you think about it for five or six seconds.
Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood in a promotional pose for Sex and the Single Girl (’64).
Forget the plot line — if a 39 year-old hound dog (Curtis was born in ’25) was reading “Sex and the Single Girl” his expression would be one of arousal and anticipatory satisfaction, as frank descriptions of the sexual escapades of a moderate-minded single woman would indicate all kinds of randy, rompy activity in his immediate future.
And why in heaven would the author of said book express shock or amazement? Did Quine or the producers believe that movie stars and the characters they play should have at least a glancing relationship with the same reality? Jesus God…Wood had a brief affair with Rebel Without A Cause director Nicholas Ray when she was 16 or 17, and eight or nine years later…oh, forget it.
Early to mid ’60s sex farces were deranged, deluded, borderline Satanic.
Good heavens…Catch 22 author Joseph Heller shared screenplay credit on Sex and the Single Girl. Held his nose, cashed the paycheck.
Please read this N.Y. Times review by A.H. Weiler, published on 12.26.64:
“Sex and the Single Girl brought out the single gals in droves and clusters yesterday to the Rivoli and the Trans-Lux 52d Street. One mildewed bachelor, fearing disaster, bravely latched on to a balcony perch and finally exited with a slight stagger.
“It’s not the worst picture ever made, girls and boys. No kidding! Not even with Natalie Wood being archly pursued by Tony Curtis for over two hours and, most fortunately, with Lauren Bacall, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer bringing up the rear.
“That simpering title — all that’s left of Helen Gurley Brown‘s hope-chest best-seller — still tells the story and flavor of this Warners release. Now there’s a plot, involving Miss Wood as Helen Gurley Brown, a maidenly, 23-year-old research psychologist on advanced marital and pre-marital studies. Yeah, man! And Mr. Curtis is a scandal-magazine writer who blasts Dr. Wood’s (or Brown’s) best-selling book, then stalks her personally, blandly borrowing the problems of his neighbors for soulful couch musings and amorous bait.
“Off to a brisk start, the picture is steadily suggestive. And while Miss Wood is extremely wide-eyed and jittery throughout and Mr. Curtis tends toward cuteness, their scenes hit only one dull, sour snag, in a fumbling near-seduction. It’s the old-timers — Miss Bacall, Mr. Fonda and Mr. Ferrer — who really count, as they suavely steal the show.
“The film is extremely easy to take when it holds to a broadly satirical course, letting the buckshot fly at everything — sex, money, marriage, advertising, research foundations and the business of love. And most of the time the director, Richard Quine, nimbly keeps his cast gamely hopping and wisecracking. Furthermore, the two scenarists, Joseph Heller and David R. Schwartz (using a ‘story’ by Joseph Hoffman), have supplied some genuinely amusing, peppery dialogue and incidents. The slyest, and funniest, has the two young, muddled protagonists yammering about love and Freud at a zoo, tiredly watched by monkeys and baboons.
“Perhaps it’s appropriate that the handsomely colored picture ends, like a wildly stirred mulligan stew, with all of the principals behaving like Keystone Kops in a crisscrossed careening of autos on a freeway. Overdone, yes, but it still makes sense after what’s happened before.
“Leslie Parrish and Fran Jeffries make luscious sideline ornaments, the latter superfluously singing — and singing well—three tunes, including the ghastly title ballad. As for Miss Wood and Mr. Curtis, at least, they deserve each other. But Mr. Ferrer, surprisingly deft as a casual psychiatrist, and Mr. Fonda and Miss Bacall as Mr. Curtis’s scrappy neighbors, supply the real spice and fun, especially Miss Bacall who has the wittiest lines and all but pierces the picture with her buzzsaw growl. Sex and the single girl? Fooey. Three cheers for the old folks at home.”