Based on Helen Gurley Brown’s bestselling book of the same name, Sex and the Single Girl tells a tongue-in-cheek tale about Gurley Brown (played by Natalie Wood) and Bob Weston (Tony Curtis), a borderline sleazy tabloid journalist who is out to reveal Brown’s lack of personal experience in sexual matters. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that they fall in love, the ending is written before the first 20 minutes are up; that’s not necessarily to the film’s detriment as the forgone conclusion allowed director Richard Quine to include some well-timed gags, especially during some of the later scenes.
In fact, the title is a little misleading. In the 1960s (the film was released in 1964) that short three-letter word came with a lot more scandal attached than it would today. Watching the film from a contemporary viewpoint, it’s more than tame, a light and glossy rom-com with an inevitable conclusion. The title might have been written to draw audiences in, but Gurley Brown’s advice manual (published in 1962) would have already set the scene. Her book encouraged women to become financially independent and to experience sexual relationships before marriage.
Brown’s book was a revelation to many young American women and her ideas reached an even larger audience when she was appointed editor of Cosmopolitan (a position she held from 1965 until 1997). In fact, Brown is widely credited with being the first to introduce frank discussions of sex into women’s magazines, but her feminist credentials have been (and still are) questioned. In her own words, she was ‘a feminist…I am for total equality’ but many derided her particular brand of ‘stiletto feminism’, or do-me feminism as it was also called. It wasn’t until Brown died in August 2012 that popular feminist opinion swung back in her favour, although that might have more to do with an unwillingness to speak well of the deceased than reassessed judgements.
Brown might have inspired Wood’s character, but the inspiration didn’t stretch much further than the superficial. Wood-as-Brown is somewhat bland, nothing like the spirited author – but that’s where the problems with this film begin. The film isn’t really interested in saying something about single women and society but keen to capitalise on prior success. Whilst the film would never have been made without the book, it’s undoubtedly the book (and Brown’s) legacy that has allowed the film to retain its popularity; it surely would not have survived on merit alone. Disappointing, considering that the cast also includes Lauren Bacall, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer.
The 1960s was the most turbulent decades of the 20th century and, as film censorship was slowly abolished in the US, celluloid caught up. New subject matters, attitudes towards sex and violence and permissivenes were explored on screen. In 1961, Natalie Wood starred in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, a film that featured Hollywood’s first on-screen, open-mouthed kiss and considerable nudity. Considering this history, Wood was perfectly placed to recreate Brown’s ideas, but Sex and the Single Girl never reached its full potential. According to Wood’s biography, the actress wasn’t completely satisfied with the finished film and was keen to take on more challenging roles, Sex and the Single Girl had the potential to be that film – but easy laughs and true love were to be the order of the day.
Costume notes: Edith Head designed Wood’s costumes. The pair had a close working relationship and Head even designed the actresses wedding dress. In most scenes, Wood is dressed in black and white, the graphic simplicity complements Edward G. Boyle’s sets but also represents Wood’s black-and-white view on life. Her white ‘doctor’s’ jacket comes with cropped sleeves and a slit back, and is worn with a black pencil dress and heeled court shoes. Later, Wood dons a white satin cocktail dress, complete with a sweetheart neckline and pendant, opera gloves and a luxurious fur-trimmed white coat.
The notable exception to the black and white theme comes in the final scene, when Wood dons a charming canary yellow dress, accessorised with pearls and perfectly colour-matched courts. She has finally found – and accepted – love, and this dress is the perfect expression of her joy.