There’s nothing very appealing about Henry Orient. Wispy, coiffed, and falconic in countenance, this notorious concert pianist spends his days hounding after married women and his afternoons avoiding dress rehearsals. He carries himself with the bruised, foppish dignity of an aristocrat struggling to regain their composure after slipping on a banana peel on a crowded street corner. He fills his apartment with gauche, modernist decorations—including a phone resembling a Kubrickian sex toy—and his concerts with even gaucher modernist music. He is, in a word, repulsive.
All the more curious, then, when fourteen year old Val Boyd falls totally, irrevocably, incomprehensibly in love with him. Even more curiously, she manages to convince her best friend Marian “Gil” Gilbert to help her in her absurd schemes to stalk him and eventually win his heart. It’s all innocent frivolity, the ignorant actings-out of first love. But to Henry, the two girls become a terror beyond his wildest nightmares. Herein lies the comedy at the heart of George Roy Hill’s superb The World of Henry Orient.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nora Johnson, the film—available now on Blu-ray from Twilight Time—is one of the warmest, most delightful, and honest portrayals of female adolescence in cinema. When the girls aren’t fawning over their grotesque victim—brilliantly performed by Peter Sellers—they spend their time daydreaming and laughing, comparing braces and fooling around 1960s New York City. In one of the film’s most justifiably famous sequences, the two girls go “splitzing” their way through Lower Manhattan, leaping over fire hydrants, jumping over small children, and springing into the air in glorious slow-motion in front of the Washington Square Arch. It’s as perfect a moment of kinetic poetry ever captured on celluloid.
Both outsiders in school, Val (Tippy Walker) and Gil (Merrie Spaeth) find in each other some kind of comfort cheated from them in their home lives. Though fabulously wealthy, Val has almost no relationship with her parents. Dumping her with paid caretakers, they travel the world in bitchy magnificence, the hapless husband Frank Boyd (Tom Bosley) living in a near-perpetual state of cuckoldry at the hands of his venomous wife Isabel (Angela Lansbury). So even their rare receptions with their daughter are strained and detached. Gil fares much better. Despite her parents being divorced, she lives relatively happily with her mother and her mother’s “live-in female friend.” But a deep undercurrent of loneliness, of longing for her estranged father keeps her isolated in a world of hopeless fantasies of parental reconciliation.
A palpable melancholy infects all of The World of Henry Orient. Val and Gil may carry out preposterous shenanigans—they enjoy acting out in public and bamboozling bystanders a bit too much for their own good—that result in pratfalls and street corner chaos, but one gets the sense that deep down both these girls are unhappy. Because there is an emotional underpinning, the film remains more vital and effective than its contemporary Zazie dans le Métro (1960) by Louis Malle—another early 60s film about a young girl running amok in a major city. Though ruthless in its stylistic audacity and originality, there is almost no soul beneath its veneer of female youth gone wild.
Boris Kaufman and Arthur J. Ornitz’s luscious cinematography helps add to the sublime sense of sadness. As the seasons change the girls cavort through the rich autumnal colors of Central Park and the white vistas of snow-covered streets. These painterly compositions are somewhat juxtaposed by the interiors dominated by bright pastels and the garishly colored clothing of the adults; an old school shopping magazine aesthetic reminiscent of Douglas Sirk. There is so much life and beauty in The World of Henry Orient. And so much truth, as well.