REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977)

In Comedy, G, Motion Pictures, Romance on May 9, 2010 at 1:04 am

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.

CAST — Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason, Quinn Cummings, Paul Benedict

DIRECTOR — Herbert Ross

MPAA Rating: PG

In the history of motion pictures, there are a few select years in which the Academy got them all right, and it’s almost a sure thing that you have seen at least one Best Picture nominee from that year. The usually-mentioned first “great year” was 1939, when Gone with the Wind took Best Picture. There were nine other nominees that year, including Ninotchka, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, and a little-known fantasy called The Wizard of Oz (perhaps you’ve heard of it). 1977 is said to be another such year, with Woody Allen’s Annie Hall taking the honors, while another small film called Star Wars waited in the wings. Here is an interesting fact: Director Herbert Ross helmed two of the five Best Picture nominees in 1977, The Turning Point and The Goodbye Girl. And, like Star Wars, they also watched while Woody Allen won. I have seen both of these movies, and both are excellent. One is a drama, the other a comedy, and both are about dancers. Today, I focus on the lighter of these two movies.

Paula McFadden (Best Actress nominee Marsha Mason) is an ex-dancer in New York City. For the last couple of years, she and her daughter Lucy (Best Supporting Actress nominee Quinn Cummings, in her official motion picture debut), have been living in an apartment with a stage actor named Tony. We first meet Paula and Lucy on their way home from a shopping spree, eagerly anticipating their upcoming move to L.A. (Tony got a TV gig). But when they get home, Paula finds a “Dear Jane” letter from him, saying he took a six-month movie shoot in Italy instead. But it gets better! Later that day, she finds out Tony had sublet the apartment to somebody else!

Paula (Marsha Mason) and Elliot (Richard Dreyfuss) discuss the living arrangements

Enter Elliot Garfield (Best Actor Richard Dreyfuss), an actor from Chicago who is about to start rehearsals for his first New York production. He enters the apartment building from the pouring rain, sticks his key into the lock, turns it… and discovers the door is chained from the inside! Puzzled as to why he can’t enter, he hits the buzzer to figure out what’s going on. To say this relationship starts on a rocky note is an understatement, but seeing that he has the legal right (and the money) and she has a child to take care of, they agree to share the apartment.

This is why I like Neil Simon. I have regarded him as one of the greatest American playwrights. He is to contemporary comedy what Tennessee Williams was to Southern melodrama. There is really no other way to put it. Now, most movies with Simon’s name on them start out as plays, like The Odd Couple or Barefoot in the Park. But The Goodbye Girl was written directly for the screen, and with Simon’s (then) wife, Marsha Mason, in mind. But it still looks and feels like a Neil Simon play. One of his trademarks is how he writes conflict into his scripts: Two characters (usually the leads) start yammering about two completely different things, then the conversation comes closer and closer to the subject at hand until they are both talking about the same thing, only to drift off into opposite directions again (I picked that little gem of information up from my high school drama teacher, Susan Stauter. See? It is possible to recall things you learned in high school! Wherever you are, Ms. Stauter, I hope you are well).

Anyway, The Goodbye Girl stands out as one of the great romantic comedies of the 1970s, and arguably of all time. Both Dreyfuss and Mason are a delight to watch, especially when they first meet! On that first night, you will be thinking “Wait a minute! These people hate each other!” And they do. Just watch it for yourself, and see what happens. Both Dreyfuss and Mason give energetic performances. And, since a performance is sometimes based on the quality of the script, it stands to reason that the screenplay is also top-notch.

As for Quinn Cummings, who makes her official debut in this movie (she also had an uncredited role in Annie Hall that year), her portrayal of Lucy was spot-on. Lucy is our eyes and ears in this movie. Let me explain. Good drama requires two basic types of people, participants and observers. Paula and Elliot are obviously participating in a developing relationship. Lucy is on the outside. She is watching these events unfold as an independent third party, making her the observer. And before you say “But she is her mother’s child”, remember that Lucy is not the one directly dealing with Elliot, Paula is. Therefore, as an observer, she get to be our eyes and ears, as we watch Paula and Elliot’s relationship develop. As for the character herself, Lucy is supposed to be at just that right age when she is learning and discovering how things really work in this world. As a result, Lucy is supposed to possess a special curiosity and innocent wisdom, as evidenced during the opening credits, when Paula tells Lucy she was “born [at age] 26”. As played by young Miss Cummings, Lucy comes off as a child with that kind of precociousness.

I will be the first to admit that The Goodbye Girl isn’t my personal favorite of Neil Simon’s work (That honor goes to The Odd Couple), but it is among the best that Neil Simon has to offer. A note to all you guys out there: This is a great movie to pop into the DVD player with your other half on a rainy night, just you, her, the movie, and a giant bowl of popcorn. Trust me. If she hasn’t seen this one, she’ll be glad you introduced her to it. It was great to watch 30 years ago, and I can still watch it today. And even now, it will still make me smile.

4 out of 5

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  1. I personally think Neil Simon is the greatest playwrite in the history of the English speaking language but my opinion combined with a nickle might get you on the subway! Rick, (that is Richard Dreyfuss to those of you without a personal relationship with the man) says not one word of the original script was changed from the day they received it to the day they shot it. It was written that perfectly. And I agree. The bantering between him and Marcia is incredible.
    And Quinn….the coolest little girl in the world. On my very best day as a child I was never half as cool as she was.
    Thank you so very much, Rob, for reviewing the single most influential film of my entire life.

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