It's been said that there are a fixed number of unique, dramatic storylines—romance, adventure, etcetera—and no matter how hard we try to come up with an original story, it's usually already been told. Hollywood knows this adage well—I don't think there's a film out there that doesn't have a "sequel" in some form or another. So even if you've never seen Pillow Talk (1959), you've probably heard of it's modern spin-off, Down with Love (2003), which has Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger doing split-screen push-ups amidst a 1960s color-palette. The set design is about as accurate as the film gets, time-wise; for the most part, it's your average 21 st-century, politically-correct love story, reiterations of which are sprinkled all over the New Release shelf: man wants woman, woman wants man, man deceives woman, woman finds out, woman gets comeuppance, man grovels but ultimately whisks woman off her proverbial feet—but only because the woman lets him. Love has been reduced to the level of business transaction: you can have me, but only on *my terms. That said, there's nothing resembling Pillow Talk on the shelves today (except for all the other Doris Day/Rock Hudson films, which are generally thought of as sequels to Pillow Talk). The sexcapade is dead. Long live the sexcapade!
Doris Day plays Jan Morrow, committed to her profession (interior designer) and living alone without want of man. Day has great facial expressions—she reminds me, in a future-reference sort of way, of Molly Ringwald with her rolling eyes and flapping lashes in Sixteen Candles. Rock Hudson is Brad Allen, the Alpha Male. He's charming, sexy, and eager to get his mitts on all available tail. Don't let the whole independent woman/promiscuous man template fool you: at its heart, Pillow Talk embraces the conservative sexual ideology of its day. Left and right the message is drummed home, "You need a husband!" Maybe the message is dated, but it's heartening to think that it comes out of a time when, say, Sleepless in Seattle wouldn't have been allowed to see the light of day.
Pillow Talk weaves its particular plot like so: Jan and Brad share a party line, but poor Jan can't get any calls through: Brad is wooing ladies long distance, morning, noon and night. (A 1950s take on "Hos in different area codes," if you will.) Events conspire to bring the two together, and the next thing you know, Brad's got the hots for Jan. One problem: Jan won't give him the time of day—he's the sex maniac tying up her half of the party line—so he channels the personality of a gosh-darnit Texas oilman to lure her in. And lured in she done get. Renee Zellweger's character in Down with Love experiences a similar fate, only she eventually gets the upper hand, and when she does, look out! Ain't no man in this town gonna pull the wool over this lamb's eyes! Contrast that with poor Jan Morrow: she's trod on again and again, nary a notion of revenge in sight. Jan buys every lie, falls for every trap--a yo-yo in the hands of a expert charmer like Brad Allen. Hey, at least she's got some good lines--Pillow Talk did win an Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.
The supporting roles are particularly strong, and Tony Randall as the fretting, self-absorbed, serial monogamist millionaire Jonathan Forbes ("I started out with eight million dollars and I've still got eight million dollars! I just can't get ahead in life!") probably deserves his very own film. Thelma Ritter as Jan Morrow's maid, Alma, is a hard-drinking, straight-talking pistol of a woman. Ritter zings one-liners so successfully and accurately she makes what would be normally forgettable—the combustible passenger/operator relationship between Alma and the elevator man, for example—something akin to comic genius.
The film's musical score is particularly fetching. I tend to tune out orchestral swells, but here the music and action are so perfectly matched that I could have sworn I was hearing a aural interpretation of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, which I consider a masterpiece of cinematic timing. The orchestra idles during dialog, letting you catch every delicious word, but once the talking's done it zooms and clangs along, shining brilliant highlights on the film's fine moments of physical comedy. The film's trailer (included on the DVD) presents Pillow Talk as a sort of musical, but there's not much actual singing to be had. At first I thought Day looked stranded, tossed out there with only two measly tunes and a less-than-glam wardrobe--she's not exactly Elizabeth Taylor, you know. But she held her own, and I made a mental note to add more of her films to my Netflix queue.
So there you have it: the golden-era archetype of romantic comedy. Take a minute, bask in its simplicity: man loves woman, woman loves man, a mess is made, but who cares? Jan Morrow doesn't want to punish Brad Allen for his sins, she wants to marry him! That's the whole damn point of the film. If Jan stuck up for herself 90s-style, there'd be no feet sweeping or deep kisses, and no Rock Hudson. Think: who's the modern-day equivalent of Rock Hudson? Brad Pitt? Only when he's carrying a gun, baby. Rock can kill you with love with his bare hands. Three cheers for Alpha Males and the women who love them.