When I learned that I was one of the lucky IU Cinema employees to be randomly picked for the Staff Selects series, I was over the moon. I mean, a chance to program a film at one of my favorite places in the world? Seriously? Incredibly enough, my first choice worked out — a 1953 charmer called Easy to Love, starring two actors I’m obsessed with, Esther Williams and Van Johnson — but I would’ve been thrilled with any of my selections, which included Jane Fonda and Rod Taylor’s marvelous ’60s rom-com Sunday in New York. Funnily enough, Ms. Fonda still made her way onto the Cinema’s screen thanks to our Business Manager Carla Cowden, who chose one of the actress’s best-loved films, 9 to 5.
Before she was Judy Bernly, crusader of workplace equality, though, Fonda was Eileen Tyler, a young woman who decides to visit her airline pilot brother Adam (Cliff Robertson) in the big city after a break-up. We soon learn that, although her fiancé Russ (Robert Culp) was everything she could want, Eileen couldn’t bring herself to become intimate with him, admitting that it “just didn’t feel right.” Frustrated, Russ, like all her previous boyfriends, ended things. Adam assures his sister that she was right to stay chaste and even lies that he is still a virgin himself, which subsequently derails his planned rendezvous with girlfriend Mona (Jo Morrow). Adding to Eileen’s conflicted feelings is Rod Taylor’s Mike, a handsome stranger she winds up spending the day with after his jacket became caught on her corsage on the bus.
If this plot premise sounds dated to you, I get it. Films that deal with sex, particularly films from the 1950s and ’60s when Hollywood was starting to chip away at the Production Code, can be cringeworthy. They seem to either preach chastity or go about the subject with no intelligence or subtlety. Sunday in New York, thankfully, doesn’t really do any of that. Although it is certainly a product of its time — the sets, costumes, and slightly coded language are dead giveaways — the film still has a modern sensibility. For example: Eileen never says her problem is with premarital sex, but rather the fact that she just hasn’t found the right guy, which makes her feel like something is wrong with her.
It’s no wonder Eileen feels so pressured about sex — everywhere she goes, she seems to be ogled. At one point, she tells her brother the routine men use to flirt with her, only to see Mike enact it to the letter a few scenes later. Fed up, Eileen decides to throw caution to the wind and attempts to seduce Mike after a torrential rainstorm makes them retreat to Adam’s empty apartment. Needless to say, it becomes an embarrassing disaster as Mike learns she is a “beginner” (his word) and Eileen boldly states that she has the right to make choices about her body and her sexuality. As the film goes on and Russ suddenly appears, fully ready to take Eileen back, her main conflict isn’t choosing between Russ and Mike — come on, who would turn down Rod Taylor? — but rather her struggle with the double standards expected of women. While Adam and Mike have the freedom to be swinging bachelors, women have to face the policing of their sexuality and we rarely win no matter what decision we make. By not giving in to Russ, Eileen is frigid, but if she had given in and others found out, she would likely be shamed. Adam believes she should stay a “good girl,” but that ignores that she even has any sexual desires or needs. What’s particularly delicious about this film is that Eileen is able to confront both Adam and Mike about their hypocrisy. She also (spoiler alert) doesn’t end up with Russ but instead a man who listens to her perspective and empathizes with it.
Fonda does a tremendous job of showing how unsure Eileen is while still keeping her character’s intellect and maturity intact. Sunday in New York was her sixth film, and it came at a time when she was primarily playing ingenues. Although it isn’t discussed nearly as much as, say, Klute or Cat Ballou, the movie did hold some importance for Fonda’s career. Financially, it was her first moneymaker; professionally, it allowed her to demonstrate her flair for sophisticated comedy; and personally, she has said that it was the first time she enjoyed making a film and believed she could act, all because of gorgeous Rod Taylor, who makes my heart melt without fail during every viewing.
With every decade of her career, Jane Fonda has continued to show us new facets of her artistry. Although she’d be the first to tell you that nothing came easily, her performances are always exquisitely self-assured, brilliantly dynamic, and immensely strong. Personally, I have a soft spot for the actress as a comedienne, her woefully underrated timing and playfulness making films like 9 to 5, Any Wednesday, Barefoot in the Park, and Sunday in New York all the more delightful and, frankly, empowering. If I ever get the opportunity to be a part of the Staff Selects series again, it’s a pretty good bet that I’ll be choosing to spend Sunday in New York with Ms. Fonda.
And Rod Taylor.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Publications Editor. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.