Bringing Up Baby and Inherent Vice: Did Joaquin Phoenix Go ‘Gay All of a Sudden’?

Bringin Vice 2

Bringing Up Baby, which appeared in 1938, directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, is one of the greatest of all films. A screwball comedy, which sees Katharine Hepburn’s knowing but scattered Susan Vance pursue Cary Grant’s wide-eyed David Huxley, the film received a mixed reception upon its release; and while it made a little money, it made so little, after running over schedule and over budget, that it became widely considered a flop.

Hawks had signed a contract with RKO to direct an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Gunga Din’, but when that project was delayed, he turned to a short story by Hagar Wilde – with the title ‘Bringing Up Baby’ – which he had just read in Collier’s Weekly. Hawks assembled a team, including Dudley Nichols alongside Wilde, to broadly adapt the story for the big screen. However, the response to the finished product was such that Hawks and RKO at once ended their relationship, and Gunga Din would be directed instead by George Stevens.

Hawks later stated that Bringing Up Baby ‘had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from that. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball and since that time I learned my lesson and don’t intend ever again to make everybody crazy’.

But whatever Hawks felt, and beyond its initial criticism, the reputation of Bringing Up Baby has grown markedly since and continues to grow. Where in the context of the 1930s, a critic like Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times – who went on to become a noted screenwriter, writing the screenplay for eleven films by John Ford including The Searchers – dismissed the film as no more than a derivative screwball comedy, it is now viewed as the high achievement of the form.

David Huxley is a paleontologist, who after several years of engrossing and painstaking work, finds himself finally in the position to complete his assemblage of a Brontosaurus. The final piece of the skeleton, the dinosaur’s ‘intercostal clavicle’, is in transit, due to arrive sometime the next day.

A pedant might point out that in 1938, ‘Brontosaurus’ was a misnomer: merely a popular term for the scientifically accepted dinosaur called Apatosaurus, which had been named first and from which the ‘Brontosaurus’ was not thought to sufficiently differ. Just this week, the restoration of the Brontosauras after more than a century has been widely hailed, with new research indicating that it is right to identify two distinct genera; although this conclusion is not beyond dispute. This is of course utterly irrelevant to the proceedings of Bringing Up Baby.

The climax of Huxley’s professional life is scheduled to be transcribed in his personal life, for he is engaged to be married. But between his bumbling diffidence and his commitment to his work, and although ostensibly under the thumb of his fiancée, he is willing to embrace distraction. Meanwhile Susan Vance is a sort of inverted socialite. She comes from a wealthy family – indeed, unbeknownst to Huxley, it is her aunt who is contemplating a million-dollar donation to David’s museum. But though she has easy access to high society, frequents the appropriate settings – golf clubs and restaurants – and scarcely appears shy, she spends her time amusing herself unaccompanied at bars, and accosting an apparent oddity in whom she detects a kindred spirit.

The difference between a screwball comedy and a romantic – or more narrowly, drawing room – comedy was often simply one of degree. They existed on the same continuum, made of the same materials: elements of satire and farce, drawing upon the comedy of manners and revolving around the upper classes, with some slapstick and much witty repartee. Films were distinguished by the level of eccentricity they displayed, and by the speed or tangential quality of their speech; by a different gender balance, with screwball comedies often finding men struggling to keep up with women; and by a range of perspectives owing to whether their characters were in league or else decidedly out of place with a depicted ‘straight’ or ‘civilised’ society.

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice received a full release from January – emerging early in the month in the United States; at the end of the month across the United Kingdom and Ireland; and slowly throughout the rest of the world so that it is still be appearing in many cinemas today. It is to arrive on DVD and Blu-ray on 28 April.

From a certain perspective, Bringing Up Baby and Inherent Vice contrast: Bringing Up Baby rests on the outgoingness to the audience of its two leads; while Inherent Vice remains fairly inscrutable, rich on atmosphere and the evocation of place, inhabiting a hazy state of mind, and shaped about an ensemble cast. Anderson’s films always depict, warmly, imaginatively, and meticulously, specific milieus. On the other hand there is an artificiality even about the outdoors sets in Bringing Up Baby.

Yet both films are easygoing, offering in their different ways a feeling of direct engagement beyond narrative: the fun Grant and Hepburn are having throughout Bringing Up Baby is palpable, and something of this shared endeavour is present too in Inherent Vice. And they are both richly comic, sharing a utilisation of the absurd, of slapstick and pratfalls, whether it is David sliding down an embankment or Doc bumping into and falling at the feet of the police.

In a review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw suggests a lone tonal misstep in Inherent Vice:

‘The inherent virtue is comedy: this is dreamier, more deadpan and often sadder than Anderson’s last two movies, soaked in the plaintive lilt of Neil Young, beautiful and strange. Doc is played by Joaquin Phoenix, in one of his more restrained performances – although his involuntary shout of horror at a photograph is the film’s single tonal misstep. Doc is a bleary, sideburned innocent abroad, propelled into the story when he is literally awoken from a nap by the girlfriend he hasn’t seen for years. He reacts with just the gentlest of smiles, and he never reacts at all when people greet him with: “What’s up, Doc?”’

The scene in question occurs early in the two-and-a-half-hour film, at around the half-hour mark, as Joaquin Phoenix’s Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello – who works loosely as a private investigator – takes yet another case, into a man alleged dead. The man’s wife, Hope, believes that he is still alive; and in enlisting Doc’s help, she provides him with the tale of their beginning as a couple.

‘Cory and I should have met cute but we actually met squalid’, Hope prefaces, proceeding with a disgusting account of a bathroom-stall introduction amid excrement and vomit. Doc’s scream comes when he is shown a picture of the couple’s daughter, Amethyst, apparently in peculiar attire at a point in time when she was being inadvertently fed with heroin-infused breast milk.

Incidentally, Doc is routinely, and casually and without irony, greeted with the line ‘What’s up, Doc?’. This was the title taken by a 1972 screwball film, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, and Madeline Kahn, which was largely based on Bringing Up Baby.

As with Bradshaw and Inherent Vice, so Pauline Kael identified a sole notable flaw with Bringing Up Baby. Kael’s essay ‘The Man From Dream City’ was first published in The New Yorker in 1975, and opened her 1980 collection When The Lights Go Down. A wide-ranging discussion of Cary Grant’s life and career, by turns biographical, critical, and embracing with nuance the enduring popular conception of the actor and man, Kael writes:

‘In drag scenes – even in his best movies – Grant also loses his grace. He is never so butch – so beefy and clumsy as a he-man – as in his female impersonations or in scenes involving a clothes switch. In “Bringing Up Baby,” Katharine Hepburn takes his suit away, and he has noting to wear but a flouncy fur-trimmed negligee. When Hepburn’s aunt (May Robson) arrives and demands crossly, querulously, “Why are you wearing a robe?” Grant exasperated, answers, “Because I just went gay all of a sudden.” It doesn’t work: he goes completely out of character. Burt Lancaster was deliriously, unselfconsciously funny in a long drag sequence in “The Crimson Pirate” a parody adventure picture roughly comparable to “Gunga Din”); he turned himself into a scrambled cartoon of a woman, as Harry Ritz had done in “on the Avenue.” That’s what Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon did in “Some Like It Hot” – only they did it by yielding to their feminine disguises and becoming their own visions of gorgeous, desirable girls. Bert Remsen does it that way in “California Split,” anxiously seeing himself as a gracious lady of quality. But Grant doesn’t yield to cartooning femininity or to enjoying it; he doesn’t play a woman, he threatens to – flirting with the idea and giggling over it. His sequence in a skirt and a horsehair wig in the stupid, humiliating “I Was a Male War Bride” was a fizzle. He made himself brusque and clumsy to call attention to how inappropriate the women’s clothes were on him – as if he needed to prove he was a big, burly guy.’

Bradshaw and Kael are otherwise exceedingly positive about the films in question: Bradshaw gave Inherent Vice a five-star review, and lamented its lack of Oscar nominations; while in ‘The Man From Dream City’, Kael called Grant’s pairings with Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Holiday ‘a true mating – they had the same high-energy level, the same physical absorption in acting’.

I am not convinced that these two moments ought to be considered flaws or missteps. Certainly Grant’s ‘I just went gay all of a sudden’ seems, especially to a modern audience, overplayed and perhaps too knowing. As Kael indicates, Grant appears more natural, more graceful, and more effeminate too elsewhere in the film: just a few minutes earlier for instance when, wearing a suit and tie and being driven by Susan to her country house, he is adorned with bird feathers after Baby, Susan’s pet leopard, enjoys a live meal.

But it is interesting that Grant’s Huxley – who starts out the film awkward and uncertain, hemming and hawing, with little conviction in his words or actions or in the course of life immediately laid out for him – becomes emboldened once wearing Susan’s negligee: an absurd garment, opening out at the bottom, with a fur-trimmed hem and collar, and three bands of fur cuffing gauze sleeves. The negligee is transformative, and David’s brief outburst makes sense as the exaggerated opposite of a constrained mode of being which becomes him equally little: excessive precisely because it is an outburst. Likewise Doc’s yell in Inherent Vice can be viewed as a psychic outpouring amid the slowly convoluted mysteries which encompass him and his film.

Though Hepburn received comedy coaching prior to the film courtesy of Walter Catlett, who subsequently played the part of the town constable, she and Grant were so at ease that they ad-libbed their way through Bringing Up Baby. And apparently Grant’s ‘I just went gay all of a sudden’ was itself an ad-lib, and one of the earliest on-screen renderings of the word conceivably within the context of homosexuality.

Because Paul Thomas Anderson so carefully evokes specific periods and places – from the Los Angeles porn scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Boogie Nights, to the turn-of-the-twentieth-century oil boom in Southern California in There Will Be Blood – with political undercurrents which seem to suggest some broader scope, there is a tendency to attempt to crystallise the political meanings of his films, and to focus on their storytelling and experimental structures. There are a wealth of influences at play in Inherent Vice, from the films of Robert Altman, to the detectives and private investigators played by Humphrey Bogart and Jack Nicholson, to the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading.

But at heart Anderson’s films eschew linear plotting and cinematic reference for feeling and the intimate exploration of setting and character. He embraces the ambiguity of cinema, the ambivalence of the moving image. Anderson has noted that, upon reading the Thomas Pynchon novel on which the film is based, he immediately saw the potential for Inherent Vice the movie; but was put off at first by the story’s resemblance to The Big Lebowki, before concluding to make the film in his own way. Joanna Newsom, who plays the film’s narrator Sortilège in a role significantly expanded from the book, has described the magical realism inherent in Anderson’s work; and Inherent Vice foregrounds the sense of a quest and lies imbued with a cosmic melancholy.

The scene from Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant’s ‘I just went gay all of a sudden’ can be viewed below; while Joaquin Phonix’s scream from Inherent Vice is part of the film’s official trailer: