Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

“Goodbye doesn’t mean forever"

The history of Neil Simon’s sole 1977 work, The Goodbye Girl, is a long, involved one. Using the same production team as with his two previous films, Simon penned a screenplay called “Bogart Slept Here,” in which a NY actor and his wife move out to California, neither making a smooth transition to a completely different culture. Marsha Mason was the wife and Robert De Niro the actor, but De Niro had difficulty with Simon’s punny dialogue, and so his role was given to Richard Dreyfuss. Simon decided the two had great chemistry, but that the script needed more jokes – and more romance – so he rewrote the script in six weeks (!), backdating his timeframe, telling the story of their first meeting. Well, the rest, as they say, is history.: The Goodbye Girl was the critical and commercial smash Simon had been waiting for, earning rave reviews, five Oscar nominations (one win for Best Actor), and a whopping 106 million at he box office. Simon’s name would be part of all his movie titles for the next ten years – that’s how you know you’re hot in this biz.

Mason plays Paula McFadden, a former NY dancer who gets dumped by her live-in boyfriend, an actor who packs up one morning and leaves for Italy, with only a goodbye note to mark the occasion. He leaves her nothing, except nowhere to go as he had sublet their apartment before he left, and now the new tenant, Elliot Garfield, shows up, wondering why a strange woman is in his new place. After much confusion and eventual clarification, they agree to split the apartment – with eve more squabbling over how Paula’s young daughter Lucy will fit into the equation.. But Elliot’s a free spirit; it seems as though he will get along far better with precocious Lucy than with her uptight, relationship-jaded mom.
Paula tries to nudge some extra income by going back to dancing, but it’s a competitive gig, especially when you’re 33 and out of shape. But Elliot has his own career crisis to deal with: he’s cast as Richard III, but due to a “mentally arthritic” director, he’s
forced to play the role “like a double order of fresh California fruit salad.” The critics don’t take too kindly to Elliot’s gay interpretation, and he finds himself out of work when the show closes as a result. Economic hardship ensues for them both, but misery loves company, and company soon finds its way to romance. When Elliot lands a film role in Hollywood for a month, Paula fears getting burned by a ne’er do well actor once again, but he allays her fears with a true declaration of love, and an invitation for her to come with. She declines, but sees his request as a commitment absent from former loves, and she wishes her new beau well, a “goodbye girl” no longer.

There’s probably no other Neil Simon work, before or since, that simply fills me with sheer joy and elation as I watch it. I just saw it today, for about the fifth or sixth time, and I literally have no idea where that hour-and-fifty-minutes went. In my mind, it’s Simon’s best work hands down; every line is perfectly written, and the story has just the right rhythm of highs and lows to keep it hugely entertaining throughout. Herbert Ross’s direction and Dave Grusin’s score never get in the way of the sublime writing, and the casting is the bet yet, particularly Richard Dreyfuss in a career-defining leading role. He hadn’t really been known for comedy before, but this solidified his skill in that genre. The man was red hot after this too; both this film and the nearly concurrent Close Encounters made him big enough to host SNL a couple months after.

Astounding that the man spent years writing Come Blow Your Horn and only six weeks penning Girl. I think it bears up my theory that writers are at their best under the gun. The fluidity of the puns is probably what impresses me most here; Simon gave us great jokes before, but not always coming from credible mouths. Here, Dreyfuss and Mason – and newcomer Quinn Cummings as Lucy – have a chemistry that only occurs once in a blue moon in a major motion picture. Dreyfuss’s Elliot, sort of the male version of freewheeling Corie Bratter in Barefoot, is naturally funny, so his lines feel perfectly natural. And antagonist Mason is aptly guarded, but guarded for just the right amount of time; too little would be incredible, too much would frustrate the audience.  

Funny how a perfect film stymies a critic (also true of truly bad films; must be an opposites thing). How do you begin to inspect the Mona Lisa? Or the Grand Canyon? Or Hamlet? Yes, I said it – this is Shakespeare for modern comedy writing. And speaking of, how about that Richard III subplot? Absolutely hilarious, and I also admired the scene in which the director (Paul Benedict) calmly discussed his artistic interpretation with Elliot, allowing the hapless actor a compromise. Simon didn’t make this guy a true heavy, rather a realistic avant garde director just looking for artistic originality, just as we all are.

Nothing else to add here. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading, and put it on your Netflix queue. Or stream it, or however people watch movies nowadays. Its not only great, it’s important. 

Stage in Simon’s life: an early real relationship, and his experience with NY actors, and their culture, clearly informed his perspective.
Rating: ****

P.S.: Oh, yes- I thought of one thing I didn’t like about this movie: Marsha Mason’s hairstyle. Too much like a boy. Kept me from seeing her as someone Elliot would really be attracted to. Oh, well.

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