Barbara arrives in Manhattan.
Sashaying to a taxi
Title sequence mimics Lover Come Back.
Jan — Doris Day, and Rex Stetson — Rock Hudson, — meet cute in Pillow Talk.
Down with Love: The men at Banner House Publishing
Building the brand for female consumers
Vicky struggles to make coffee at Banner House.
Celebrating with Theodore Banner, played by Tony Randall
Know Magazine HQ
Catcher Block arrives by helicopter.
Catch stands Barbara up for dinner.
She's fed up with Catcher Block.
She lands on Ed Sullivan and gets revenge.
Barbara and "Zip Martin" meet cute.
Women, here the new secretary, cannot take the working world.
Pillow Talk — bathtub scene
Peyton Reed’s 2003 film Down with Love is a film based in deception — narratively and ideologically. Two separate reviewers hint at the film’s ploys. Stephanie Zacharek from Salon.com suggests that
And Mich LaSalle from the San Francisco Chronicle claims that
The term “masquerade” is especially apropos, for our first introduction to the film’s main character, Barbara Novak, emphasizes her excessively styled femininity — a fanciful representation of early 1960s girlish style. Amidst a sea of people dressed in grays and drab browns, Barbara’s pink windowpane suit and prim white hat and gloves make her strikingly stand out from the crowd. As she grabs a cab, her hips sway when she turns her back on the camera, the movement exaggerated by her almost mincing steps. Yet this beautifully styled image, harkening back to the lady-like fashions of Christian Dior’s “New Look,” is Barbara’s armor in a battle over female sexual subjectivity. Her appearance is ultimately deceptive, as is the film’s take on sexual politics. Underneath Down with Love’s candy-colored, giddy veneer is the beating heart of a very traditional femininity coupled with a seemingly empowered view of sex. The film’s nostalgic view of sexual and workplace politics and its interest in “sex a-la-carte” align it with post-feminist discourses that swirl throughout contemporary pop culture.
Ostensibly, Down with Love commits grand theft, stealing liberally from two Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies — Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk (1959) and Delbert Mann’s Lover Come Back (1961) — while also bathing in the luxurious, lather-rich rhetoric of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 bestseller Sex and the Single Girl. Narratively, each of these previous films play upon similar plot elements. The heroine, usually Doris Day, is a forthright, honest, single career woman who is talented, hardworking, and subsequently unsuccessful with men. She encounters the stereotypical cad, often played by Rock Hudson, who epitomizes the Playboy philosophy — he maintains a string of casual relationships with various women and unremittingly plays the field, as bachelor men of that time were encouraged to do in order to keep their masculinity unquestioned while remaining unmarried. To further complicate matters, the neurotic “Mama’s boy,” typically Tony Randall, enters the picture, providing a comedic foil to the philandering playboy while also contrasting his feminized male to the virile lead.
Somehow, the heroine is always unaware of the playboy’s handsome appearance, having only spoken on the phone, allowing him to “masquerade” as someone else in his interactions with her — in most instances, he pretends to be his polar opposite. As Cynthia Fuchs explains regarding Pillow Talk,
Hudson’s successful performance also hinges upon Day’s honest naïveté, for she never once sees through Hudson’s clever deception until it is nearly too late, preferring to believe that devoted, romantic, chivalrous men interested in love and marriage are not doomed to extinction. The battle between these two characters is fought over the heroine’s stalwart virginity, and she frequently projects her repressed desires into song. Day’s steadfastness and virtue are ultimately rewarded. The playboy character undergoes a miraculous change and becomes monogamous, solidifying the romantic myth of the reformed rake transformed by the power of love.
In Down with Love, Barbara Novak is played by the perennial post-feminist poster girl, Renee Zellweger, an actress whose Oscar-nominated portrayal of singleton Bridget Jones contributes to her role as an idealized icon of contemporary femininity. Barbara is a small town librarian who has written a new guidebook for modern single women entitled Down with Love. The film begins with Barbara’s arrival in the big city, Manhattan, on her way to promote her new book. Barbara’s book is a three step program for women’s advancement within the workforce — a book simultaneous with the release of Helen Gurley Brown’s tome and prefiguring Betty Freidan’s The Feminist Mystique from 1963. Barbara’s theories embrace traditional representations of feminine beauty and style while undermining their passive display by wielding sexual power as a form of active female subjectivity. In order for love not to distract women from their career goals, they must learn to have sex like men — as often as they choose, and without emotional attachments. As Barbara tells the all white, male board of Banner Publishing, initially women must substitute chocolate for men; they will experience the same biological stimulation as sex, without conflating the feeling with “love.” Then, once women can easily separate sex from love, they can have sex “a-la-carte,” without messy emotional attachments. According to Barbara, the way to achieve equality for women is by adjusting sexual behavior through a series of substitutions — chocolate for men, sex for marriage, “hooking-up” for commitment.
Barbara seems to have snagged the only female editor in all of New York — Vicky Hiller (Sara Paulson), the sharply dressed, sharp-tongued young woman working for the overwhelmingly masculine Banner House, run by none other than Tony Randall as Theodore Banner, the company’s gruff patriarch. Randall’s presence within Down with Love is one of numerous intertextual allusions scattered throughout the film. Vicky’s publicity push involves getting Barbara on the cover of Know, a popular men’s magazine reminiscent of Tony Curtis’s employer, Stop magazine in the film Sex and the Single Girl (Richard Quine, 1964). Know’s star reporter is Catcher Block, an unremitting cad played with a sly smirk, knowing wink and a blasé hip swing by Ewan McGregor. His lean, wiry frame is more reminiscent of Curtis than Hudson, with a dash of rat pack finesse thrown in. As in the previous early 60s sex comedies, the film’s humor hinges on the seductive battle of the sexes between the perky Barbara and the suave Catcher.
Catch, thinking that Barbara is a “man-hating, embittered, spinster librarian,” keeps avoiding their meeting with a succession of flight attendants. When Barbara overhears the women gossiping about their time spent with Catcher, she enacts her revenge by humiliating him on the Ed Sullivan show. Thus the battle begins, as Catcher sets out to prove that Barbara is not a “Down with Love” girl, and just wants a man and marriage like all other women. Since Barbara has never seen nor met Catch, he is free to masquerade as the shy and politely attentive astronaut Zip Martin, McGregor’s contemporary version of Hudson’s feminized Texan hick in Pillow Talk or unsophisticated bumbling scientist in Lover Come Back. Still, Catch’s deception is only a shadow of the larger one perpetrated by our female heroine, who takes a page from both Helen Gurley Brown and post-feminist discourses in wielding her sexual and feminine wiles to achieve her desires.
Down with Love refracts this narrative through a contemporary mirror, adding broader instances of sexual innuendo and homophobic humor while still reveling in the formal and visual markers of an earlier age. One of the first blatantly sexual scenarios relies on an overheard conversation stripped of its context. While Catcher and his boss, Peter McManus (David Hyde Pierce), discuss the miracle of socks without garters, Catcher’s new secretary tries to learn how to use the intercom. She suddenly overhears a discussion, en media res, where the two men measure each others socks, and discuss how they stay up all day long. “Sixteen inches! How long does a man’s hose have to be?” exclaims Peter. Of course, she thinks they are discussing their penises, as the innuendo is made sledgehammer obvious. Down with Love also uses a ubiquitous technique of the sex comedy — the split screen — to showcase a more contemporary ribald humor. Pillow Talk wittily utilized the split screen to represent Jan’s (Doris Day) phone conversations with Brad (Rock Hudson). The most famous scene has the two characters in their respective bathtubs, their feet touching at the outer edges of the split screen frame. In other scenes, the characters are shown on the phone while in bed; nevertheless, Jan and Brad are always fully dressed in pajamas. Down with Love caters to contemporary sexual mores. As Barbara and Zip/Catcher converse on the phone, the scenes are composed so that Barbara’s face is aligned with Zip’s crotch as he towels off, or Zip is doing abdominal crunches so his face disappears into Barbara’s genitals. As he bends over to towel off his hair, she does an impromptu backbend, once again visually connecting in a sexual way as Barbara cries, “Zip, no man has ever done this to me before!”