Friday, 21 August 2015

Film Friday: "Barefoot in the Park" (1967)

To celebrate Robert Redford's 79th birthday, which was on Tuesday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the film that made the blue-eyed, blonde-haired "Sundance Kid" a star.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Gene Saks, Barefoot in the Park (1967) tells the story of Corie (Jane Fonda) and Paul Bratter (Robert Redford), a recently married couple who move into a fifth floor apartment in Greenwich Village, after spending their entire six-day honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel. An optimistic and free-spirited young woman, Corie is determined to turn the small, cold and leaky apartment, one that everyone has to climb several flights of stairs to get to, into the perfect little home for the two of them. The "stuffed-shirt" Paul, however, is utterly dismayed by the inconvenience and general drabness of the place. One of their many oddball neighbors is Victor Velasco (Charles Boyer), an eccentric, self-admitted libertine who has been living in the attic ever since being evicted by the landlord. 

Fascinated by his continental manner, Corie soon befriends Victor and decides to arrange a dinner date so that she can introduce him to her widower mother, Ethel Banks (Mildred Natwick). When they all go to an Albanian restaurant on Staten Island, Mrs. Banks eats and drinks everything that is bad for her ulcer, falls down a flight of stairs as they return home and ends up spending the night at Victor's. The eventful evening also precipitates a quarrel between Corie and Paul: she thinks he is too "proper and dignified" for her and confesses how disappointed she was when he refused to walk barefoot in Washington Square Park with her one night. The argument escalates and Corie eventually kicks Paul out, insisting on a divorce. Paul then goes on a drinking binge and starts running barefoot through the park in the freezing cold weather. After an enlightening conversation with her mother, Corie goes to find Paul and brings him home, but he crawls out onto the roof, feverishly determined to live up to her idea of fun. Frightened by her husband's bizarre behavior, Corie suddenly realizes that she wants "the old Paul" back and climbs after him to bring him down safely. When she reaches him, they kiss and a crowd of sidewalk spectators breaks into spontaneous applause as the young couple reconciles.

Corie Bratter: Paul, I think I'm gonna be a lousy wife. But don't be angry with me. I love you very much, and I'm very sexy!

Barefoot in the Park started as a zany Broadway romantic comedy written by Neil Simon in 1963 about a young couple of newlyweds experiencing "growing pains." Inspired by the early days of Simon's own marriage to his first wife, the play starred Robert Redford as the conservative husband, Elizabeth Ashley as the eccentric bride, Mildred Natwick as her lonely mother and Kurt Kasznar as the debonair upstairs neighbor. Legend goes that director Mike Nichols handpicked Redford for the part of Paul Bratter based on his theater background, however limited, and his Emmy-nominated performance in a 1962 episode of ABC's anthology series Alcoa Premiere (1961-1963). 

Redford thought he was wrong for the part and did not make much of an impression on the rest of the cast in the first weeks of rehearsals. During out-of-town tryouts, he was concerned when he barely got "a snort or two" out of the audience and Nichols had to talk him into staying with the show. After a thorough conversation with the director, Redford eventually connected with his character and his performance "tightened up enormously." Upon its premiere at the Biltmore Theater in October 1963, Barefoot in the Park was an instant hit with both the critics and the public and many people thought that Redford "had the makings of a fine comic actor." The play ran on Broadway for almost four years, but Redford left the cast before a year was up, as "saying the same lines, doing the same things night after night after night became wearying," and Barefoot in the Park marked the last time he appeared on a stage.

Robert Redford as Paul Bratter
Because he was passed over for the screen version of his earlier play, Sunday in New York, Redford was certain he would not be put into Barefoot in the Park either. He had a nonchalant attitude about it as well, saying that he was not sure he even wanted to repeat his Broadway performance by doing the film if it were offered to him. The 31-year-old actor was surprised when Paramount Pictures did offer him the role, but he had never really intended to turn it down. Thinking the story might be as successful on the screen as it had been on Broadway, and since he was in serious need of a hit at the time, Redford returned from his sabbatical leave in Europe specifically to make Barefoot in the Park.

Surprisingly enough, Paul Bratter was not a favorite role of Redford's. He feared that people might confuse him with the "tight-assed" character he was playing and would always wear a Stetson hat and cowboy boots when he was not in front of the cameras, in an effort to be as far removed as possible from the outfit of suit and tie with buttoned-down collar he disliked so much. Redford also worried about "staleness" with the role, feeling that he had "taken Bratter everywhere [he] could." With the help of director Gene Saks, an old friend of Neil Simon, who also wrote the film's screenplay, Redford "pushed to get through that barrier" and ultimately enjoyed working on Barefoot in the Park. Many years later, he would say he had based his portrayal of Paul Bratter on his father, who "was dogged all of his life by being told 'don't try this, don't try that, you're going to fail.'" "That was one of the reasons I was so impatient and rebellious. I didn't want that legacy," Redford explained.

Bob was trying to impress everyone that he hadn't gone Hollywood, so to speak, now that I look back on it. He had played Paul Bratter for so many performances on Broadway and, I think, come to hate the character, who had none of his sense of whimsy and humor. He might have tried to impress upon people a bit too hard that he was this wild, crazy guy, when he really wasn't. Fun, yes, but not as zany as all that.
(Gene Saks)

Redford and Fonda in a publicity still
The film role of Corie Bratter was originally offered to Natalie Wood, who had already played opposite Redford in two pictures, Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966). Wanting to take a break from the screen, Wood declined the offer and the studio then considered casting Sandra Dee, Geraldine Chaplin, Yvette Mimieux, Tuesday Weld, Sue Lyon and Nancy Sinatra, before giving the part to Jane Fonda. The 30-year-old actress was developing into a big box-office name, with hits like Cat Ballou (1965) and Any Wednesday (1966), and producer Hal B. Wallis decided he "needed her to carry Redford."

Fonda and Redford had recently worked together in Arthur Penn's The Chase (1966) and looked forward to reconnecting. In between setups when they were filming Barefoot in the Park on location in New York, the two would have long talks about their mutual love of horses, about growing up in West Los Angeles in the 1940s, about studying painting and about travelling and living in Europe. Redford also told her about a property he had just bought in Provo, Utah, where he would later found the Sundance Institute, a non-profit organization devoted to provide creative and financial support to aspiring filmmakers around the world. Redford and Fonda became close friends during the making of Barefoot in the Park and would reunite on the screen twelve years later to co-star in Sidney Pollack's successful adventure-romance The Electric Horseman (1979). 

There's something about Bob that's impossible not to fall in love with. We've made three films together, and each time I was smitten, utterly twitted-paced, couldn't wait to get to work, wouldn't even get mad when he was his habitual one to two hours late [...] Besides his male attractiveness, I find a Hepburnesque quality about Bob: You feel that he is somehow better than most other mortals. You want Bob to like you, so you are loath to do or say anything that might make him think less of you.
(Jane Fonda)

Robert Redford and Jane Fonda shooting in New York

Barefoot in the Park opened in May 1967 to solid box-office results and generally positive reviews from critics. Variety, for instance, called it "one howl of a picture [and] a thoroughly entertaining comedy delight about young marriage," rating Robert Redford as "outstanding" and Jane Fonda as "excellent." The notoriously stuffy Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was less enthusiastic, describing the film as an "old-fashioned romantic farce loaded with incongruities and snappy verbal gags." At the 40th Academy Awards, Mildred Natwick, who reprised her role as Corie's mother from the Broadway production, received a nomination for Best Supporting, but lost to Estelle Parsons for her performance in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). In addition, Fonda received a BAFTA nomination for Best Foreign Actress and Neil Simon earned a nod from the Writers Guild of America for his screenplay. The popularity of Barefoot in the Park later inspired a short-lived television series of the same name, which aired on ABC in late 1970 and became notable for being one of first American sitcoms to feature a predominantly black cast.

Barefoot in the Park is one of my all-time favorite films. I love the quirkiness of the characters and Neil Simon's snappy and witty dialogue makes me laugh everytime. Robert Redford and Jane Fonda are brilliant in their roles and have amazing comic timing, not to mention the incredible chemistry between them. Mildred Natwick and Charles Boyer are an absolute delight to watch as well. For those of you who have not yet seen Barefoot in the Park, I think I could describe it as a cross between a 1990s sitcom and a 1930s screwball comedy. I know it sounds like a very odd combination of genres, but if you do decide to take some time to watch it, I promise it will make up for 106 very well spent minutes.


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SOURCES: 
Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman by Patricia Bosworth (2011) | My Life So Far by Jane Fonda (2006) | Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (2011) | The Sundance Kid: A Biography of Robert Redford by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell (2006) | Understanding Neil Simon by Susan Fehrenbacher Koprince (2002) | IMDb | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review

4 comments:

  1. You've convinced me! Putting this on my 'to watch' list :)

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    1. YAY! I think you'll love it. :)

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    2. FINALLY watched this and it was every bit as good as I thought it would be. Especially loved Natwick and Redford :)

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