After a cheeky title sequence of satin cushion tossing, Pillow Talk gives us an opening shot worthy of a pre-Code movie: nimble hands smoothing a stocking along a shapely leg that ends in a sparkly blue kitten-heel mule.
But the camera doesn’t linger to turn this gam into an abstracted pin-up image. It tracks back to reveal the toned and self-assured entirety of Jan Morrow in a blue silk slip as she prepares for a day’s work.
We’ll soon learn that Jan is an interior designer, a talented and sought-after career girl. For now, the way she moves tells us that this is a woman who’s comfortable in her skin. Jan rises from the bed with a playful swing of her hips, then strides across the bedroom, her arms suspended with the buoyancy of a dancer making an entrance.
She pulls a robe from her closet. A lacy blue robe. The same shade of blue as the sparkly mule and the silky slip. Note: This is a woman who coordinates. Jan pauses to primp her hair in front of the mirror, then checks her watch. Doris Day could convey extreme insecurity when she wanted to. Here she does the exact opposite. In a few seconds of this briskly sensuous routine, Day communicates that Jan Morrow is a woman who knows she’s desirable and has desires of her own. The audience needs to embrace Jan as a living, breathing woman making difficult choices—not a cardboard cutout of menaced virtue—in order for this movie to succeed. And succeed it does.
A longtime favorite of mine, Pillow Talk serves up enough witty dialogue and hilarious hijinks to fill 2 or 3 above-average comedies. It’s the kind of movie you find yourself quoting (“pot-bellied stove on a frosty morning” is often bandied about by my family) and spontaneously remembering with a chuckle (Rock Hudson trying to squeeze into a tiny car = comedy GOLD). You know a movie is funny as hell when Thelma Ritter, playing a boozy cleaning lady, seems like a bonus. Without exaggeration, I’d call it one of the best rom-coms ever made.
The first film pairing of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Pillow Talk is sort of a naughtier mid-century modern cousin to The Shop Around the Corner. Womanizing composer Brad Allen just won’t stop hogging the phone line he shares with Jan Morrow, a single gal who’s saving herself for Mr. Right. Jan and Brad have never met in person, but they bristle at the mention of each other. However, once Brad’s friend Jonathan Forbes, a millionaire in love with Jan, extols her beauty, Brad resolves to add Jan to his list of conquests. When a chance encounter brings Jan and Brad together, he recognizes her and tries to trick her into bed by assuming an elaborate false identity: little ol’ folksy Rex Stetson from Texas, ma’am. Will his seduction succeed? Or will Jan turn the tables on him?
The more I watch Pillow Talk, the more I’m struck by its balance of candy-colored escapism and humor drawn from dark, hard truths. Consider this moment of light-hearted banter, which nails a certain toxic attitude of monied self-pity and entitlement that’s still very much in circulation.
Above all, I appreciate Pillow Talk as a movie that empathizes with the problems of working women and takes their concerns seriously. As director Michael Gordon noted, “No matter how absurd the situations may appear to the viewer, to the people involved, it’s a matter of life and death. Comedy is no laughing matter.”
Paradoxically, the film’s joyful, zany aesthetic supports its sensitive depiction of a woman’s trials and tribulations, rather than mocking or undermining her experience. It’s as if the movie were saying to its female audience, “You deserve a movie that understands what you’re dealing with and offers you beautiful things to touch with your eyes. You shouldn’t have to choose between representation and pleasure, between the relatable and the aspirational.”
Indeed, Pillow Talk tickles us with a color palette of bright, saturated blues, bold reds, pastel pinks, and buttery, sophisticated neutrals. Jan’s profession as an interior decorator affords plenty of opportunities to delight us with odd bibelots and living spaces in a range of different styles. Even the split screen sequences provide a visual charge through the pointed contrast between Brad’s and Jan’s decorating. Speaking for myself, empathy feels more comforting when it comes clothed in fuzzy, covetable hats and Jean Louis gowns than in grimy naturalist rags.
In this sense, this 1959 comedy reminds me of the pre-Codes I love, like Our Blushing Brides and Gold-Diggers of 1933. All three of these films explore the daily struggles of women through dazzling, but by no means frivolous, spectacle. By immersing us in the worlds of fashion modeling, theater, and interior decorating, these movies help us identify with the heroines and respect the challenges of their work.
Modern audiences approaching Pillow Talk may want to snicker over Jan’s dogged resistance to premarital sex. Why, just the other day I read an article in a respected publication that dismissed the “prudery” of 1950s Americans films as a whole. Oscar Levant’s famous quip—“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin”—evokes laughter in the key of hurr-hurr-hurr because it skewers Hollywood’s sanitization of onscreen relationships as well as star images.
But that bon mot and the diagnosis of prudery don’t quite tally with the character Doris Day creates in Pillow Talk. Jan Morrow isn’t naïve, immune to charm, or even repressed. Pillow Talk repeatedly highlights Jan’s healthy attraction to Brad-as-Rex.
The film’s most memorable shot—the dual bathroom split screen—establishes Jan and Brad as equals in desire through a symmetrical composition. Their feet “touch” and they both seem to feel the impossible point of contact in a moment of comical awkwardness, as though their steamy chemistry transcends the bonds of time and space!
Doris Day’s big song “Possess Me” gives voice to Jan’s lusty excitement as “Rex” drives her to the cozy country house where they intend to consummate their relationship—without the benefit of matrimony. Soft, bluish moonlight caresses the contours of our leads’ faces. Night breezes tousle their freakishly luxuriant hair and the fur collar of Day’s coat. The movie celebrates Jan’s passion rather than judging it.
Her inner monologue bursts into an unabashedly sensual hymn of anticipation and desire for a man she’s grown to like, trust, and love: “Hold me tight and kiss me right. I’m yours tonight. Possess me…. Tenderly and breathlessly make love to me, my darling. Possess me.” Yet, the dramatic irony of situation permeates this dreamy pre-glow with melancholy and suspense. We the viewers know that Brad has tricked Jan into feeling this way and apparently doesn’t give a damn what happens to her afterwards.
At the moment of Jan’s greatest shock and humiliation, we watch the realization dawn in her eyes only. Sheet music blocks the rest of her face, so we have to lock eyes with her and dwell with her feelings of surprise, betrayal, and even a bit of fear. In those wide cornflower-blue eyes, we read what she was accused of all along: frustrated desire. But not frustrated by her own “bedroom problems,” but by the callousness of the very same man who accused her of having them. We laugh at her epiphany, sure, but it’s a laughter tinged with relief and sadness.
Jan’s emotional tug-of-war, between her desire for Brad-as-Rex and her well-founded worries of what might happen if she sleeps with him, anchors this airy rom-com in sharp reality. While the conceit of waiting for marriage (or the reasonable expectation of one) may seem unrealistic even for the late 1950s, classic movies like Pillow Talk knew what was up. The men and women who voted on the Best Original Screenplay of 1959—and chose Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin’s script for Pillow Talk—weren’t a naïve bunch. In Pillow Talk, sex is merely the chessboard on which the tense stakes of gender inequality play out. It’s not merely about pleasure when that pleasure comes with far higher risks and responsibilities for one party than the other.
For Brad, the decision to sleep with a willing woman depends on whether he feels like it. For Jan Morrow, the decision to sleep with a willing man is not only a question of personal desire, but also an occasion for socioeconomic cost-benefit analysis and deep soul searching. How sex-positive can a woman realistically be in a society that punishes her for having sex outside of marriage?
Jan has to manage her passions carefully or face all the consequences that 1959 could throw at a fallen woman—unplanned pregnancies, dangerous abortions, unemployment, eviction, and general ostracism from society. A total loss of respect and independence, basically.
Pillow Talk alludes to pregnancy 8 minutes in. That’s no accident. The phone company executive explains to Jan that she might qualify for her own phone line, “If some emergency arose. If you were to become pregnant for example!” The clueless eagerness of this suggestion is downright comical. He’s so detached from the basic realities of Jan’s life that he recommends the occurrence most likely to ruin her.
All the key male characters in Pillow Talk share a blithe indifference to what women are actually feeling. Jonathan wages a campaign to wear down Jan’s resistance and convince her to marry him. Heck, he tries to give her a sports car outside her workplace as a way of pressuring her into a relationship. She wisely refuses, sensing an implied quid-pro-quo. Most significant, he kisses her without warning in his office. Jan responds tactfully, but the look on her face betrays more than the barest trace of annoyance.
Jan is almost always wrestling with men, literally and metaphorically, who try to usurp her time, her ability to do her job, and her agency. The most egregious of these men is Tony Walters, the son of Jan’s wealthy Scarsdale matron client. This cocky Harvard student, charged with driving Jan home, pulls over and tries to rape her. Here, Pillow Talk viscerally encourages us to identify with Jan by depicting the violation of her personal space. We see Jan crammed into the side of the widescreen frame, already made more claustrophobic by windshields and car windows.
Jan acts like she can and will beat the living bejeezus out of her twerpish attacker. Her nervous, half-yelled wisecracks—“I never met a young man with so many arms before!”—might elicit nervous chuckles, but it’s a tense scene, one that makes us angry and uncomfortable on Jan’s behalf. Although Tony has little significance to the plot, his presence in the film suggests the everydayness of violent harassment and assault.
What about Brad? Rock Hudson doesn’t shy away from the songwriter’s smug selfishness while compensating with an insouciant, molten charm. It’s tempting to interpret Brad Allen as precursor of the Swinging Sixties and free love. However, his blatant dishonesty and disrespect for women unmask him as a grade A slab of standard mid-century misogyny. He speaks the fashionable lingo of repression and liberation only to weaponize that jargon against Jan’s obstinate free will. He doesn’t pause to consider his own pathology until Jan calls him out for it.
Brad’s assortment of lost puppy expressions don’t soften the meanness of his lies and the trail of broken hearts he’s doubtless left in his wake. Alas, he has the kind of face you want to make excuses for. On some level, we’re all Perry Blackwell, the nightclub singer, who knows what Brad’s up to but, even as she sings, “You lied, you dog, and you’ll be sorry…” she can’t resist a smile in response to his wink.
I’m impressed by what Hudson does with his voice as Brad. Compare the honeyed tones Brad deploys on his bevy of dates with the harsh, dictatorial edge in his voice when he mansplains Jan’s life to her. That contrast tells you that Brad sees women as only as conquests or discards.
And yet, Brad is the most sympathetic male character in the movie—not only because he does improve over the course of the film, but also because he eloquently suggests that the 1950s social order hurts men too. Just as premarital sex comes with a high price for women, marriage comes with a high price for men. The script of Pillow Talk gives Brad a poetic, Muir-ish speech about rugged pines converted into shellacked furniture… and self-reliant men milled into dull husbands, shackled by responsibility. He’s not wrong. I can’t think of another actor who could imbue the speech with the same wistful, stirring quality, hinting at the fear of being trapped that drives Brad’s womanizing.
Rock Hudson has less depth to work with in Brad than Day does with Jan. Still, he sculpts a surprisingly lovable and exasperating character out of sheet music, a skinny tie, and a selection of well-appointed bachelor pad switches (lights off! lock on! bed unfurled! record turning!). In the hands of a lesser actor, Brad’s sudden change of heart could give an audience whiplash. He pivots from “I’m going to lie to this woman until she sleeps with me” to “I will renounce my wicked ways and devote myself to earning Jan’s forgiveness” in about a day! As director Anna Biller notes, “Many of the classic movies were about socializing men…. If a man saw that a sexualized woman was also a human being… he would treat women he was attracted to with more respect.” Hudson conveys this subtext beautifully, despite a lack of development in the script.
In carrying out and maintaining the elaborate pretext of Rex Stetson, Brad feigns gentleness, patience, and consideration to the point where he’s training himself in the positive features he never cared to cultivate. In some ways a send-up of the hunky, wounded arborist he played in All That Heaven Allows, Rex reveals that Brad knows what women want to an uncanny degree. To his dismay, Rex Stetson, the unreal man, a concession to a woman’s fantasies, bleeds back into Brad Allen, forever altering the composition of his identity. He stretches himself to feel empathy for Jan and cannot un-stretch. A fake courtship is still a courtship. Having experienced companionship and the slow, warm process of getting to know someone, can he really go back?
Fittingly, the woman who tames Brad Allen—without turning him into suburban furniture as he feared—is a woman who transforms environments and reinvents spaces for a living. Her creative talents as an interior designer acquire almost magical dimensions in the wild, jarring revenge apartment that she prepares in response to Brad’s contrite request. While the blood-red drapes, pink piano, moose head, tassels, pointy chair, kitschy bric-a-brac, and, yes, pot-bellied stove all horrify Brad and Jonathan, the redecorated apartment throbs with an aggressive, triumphant energy. The harmonious eye candy of Pillow Talk crescendos into a startlingly original installation of female rage and libido.
In that Freudian fruit salad of signifiers, perhaps Jan has sanctified a space outside the jurisdiction of social norms, a pocket of relief from the zero sum sex games of the outside world. She’s built a den for that rarest of unicorns, that most alien of phenomena, a relationship based not on illusion, but trust.