Ten years after the landmark film The Moon is Blue marked the erosion of the Hollywood Production Code, several films continued pushing at the boundaries of the sex comedy. Many simply relied on an absence of tact, presuming that sex comedies need nothing more than talking about the act bluntly or stupidly, generally with a buxom lady providing enticement. Sunday in New York takes the sex comedy down a more skillful path with humor and insight.
Eileen (Jane Fonda) is a buttoned-down 22-year-old who believes she’s the last living virgin in New York. As her philandering brother Adam (Cliff Robertson) scours the globe to hold on to one of his ladies, Eileen takes up with Mike Mitchell (Rod Taylor) who can’t seem to understand her.
Comparisons to The Moon is Blue abound, and by 1963 Sunday in New York’s reviews commented on how passe this latter film was, riding the former’s coattails. Both movies feature a straight-forward young woman curious about sex, a love triangle, and a romantic interest unable to handle her frankness. The Moon is Blue has a wittier script, but advancing the story ten years allows for more analytical discussion about sex, and an even franker tone of voice.
It helps that the cast is fairly sexy, starting with Cliff Robertson, Mr. Kahuna himself, as Eileen’s brother, Adam. He provides the male womanizer counterpart to Eileen’s questioning virgin. Much of his plotline involves his failed attempts at seducing a galpal named Mona (Jo Morrow), his dialogue walking the fine line between skeezy and hot, pushing towards the latter because of Robertson’s charm. Then again, every line he says seems nasty void of context – he propositions Mona by saying the rain is the “sexiest rainstorm.” Of course, it’s the 1960s, so there’s also a thin veneer of condescension to Adam. He calls every woman “babe,” “baby,” or “honey,” and he continually tells Eileen – his sister – that “every man wants a decent girl” and that she shouldn’t have sex…ever. Oh, and he’s got a mirror over his bed…use that information how you will.
The brother/sister angle is actually Sunday in New York’s best, and weirdest, element. Adam’s arrival and attempts to rendezvous with Mona get us past the opening credits, and it’s juxtaposed with sequences of Eileen heading to the apartment. When Adam opens the door expecting Mona but sees Eileen, I immediately asked why this plans like they’re married or dating? If you went in blind, you’d be safe in assuming they’re together only to be grossed out at the realization they’re brother and sister. I’ve documented weird familial dynamics in classic films before, so a brother and sister openly discussing their sex life together didn’t creep me out like other movies – nope, that distinction still goes to A Summer Place – but it’s still off-putting even if it’s rationalized by Eileen’s “[sex] is not a topic you bring up with strangers.”
Because this is about Eileen’s coming-of-age, it helps that the movie casts a woman who wouldn’t be shy about voicing her opinion a few years later, Ms. Jane Fonda. Eileen isn’t as feisty as Maggie MacNamara of Moon, but her reservation belies a deeply pensive personality, complimented by the script which gives her several in-depth speeches and debates about women and dating. Adam is a prude where his sister’s concerned, and Eileen isn’t afraid to call out members of his sex for pushing the envelope on what’s appropriate purely because she’s consented to go out on a date with them. Eileen makes Adam swear he’s never slept with anyone – remember those days when siblings could make a virginity pact?! – only to be woefully disappointed in finding women’s lingerie in his house. Robertson sidesteps the issue, rather comically, by arguing the semantics of “slept together.” This is a great moment of cheek by the film, and it’s not utilized enough, too often going for the more outlandish innuendos – Fonda tells Adam her last boyfriend was sick of going to the gym and “playing handball” – than the subtle, but either way the script isn’t letting any act off the hook; in discussions of sex, semantics are always fluid depending on gender and situation.
Eileen’s forward momentum revolves around her desire to lose her virginity, a plot that can only go so far due to the eroding, but not eradicated, Code mandates. “A girl has to start sometime,” Eileen declares, and while she realizes men are turned off by promiscuity, they’re even more disturbed by a virgin. Upon meeting Rod Taylor’s Mike, the two end up in a series of hijinks leading back to Adam’s apartment. Eileen prepares to do the deed but Mike balks under the fear that a virgin is a nice girl…one you marry. Ultimately, there’s no winners in this game unless you’re a man. All the men in Eileen’s life want to mandate who she sleeps with, but they have no interests in her desires; they tell her what to do and when to do it.
I’ve never seen Rod Taylor’s appeal and he remains as stiff as ever. He never seems like Fonda’s equal; she’s so vibrant and he’s so blah. They could have just swapped the roles, placing Robertson as Mike, as there’s more chemistry between him and Fonda than Fonda and Taylor. Robert Culp plays the man Eileen purports to love, yokel Russ Wilson. The movie turns away from the sex comedy in the third act to focus on Russ and his newfound dream of marrying Eileen who, by this point, is falling for Mike. There’s a few other comic pieces in place – mainly Russ’ belief that Mike is Adam, and they’re all funny in their own way. I could watch Robertson and Taylor dance with each other all day (watch the movie for the explanation why). The music is also way too on the nose; Russ’ arrival plays to “Charge” fanfare and too often moments are dampened by accompanying music.
Despite a sour leading man, Sunday in New York is a great transformation of the sex comedy aligning with the crumbling Production Code. Jane Fonda and Cliff Robertson are amazing, and, honestly, the movie would have been aided by making them the couple like it’s alluded to.
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