Screening Room #3: The Goodbye Girl

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I found about Neil Simon’s passing while we were driving to church (well, she was driving, I was reading), and I mulled it over throughout the morning. It felt strange, coming on the heels of the John McCain news. There’s nothing unusual about celebrity deaths coming in bunches, but this felt like a division of resources. I didn’t know which one to focus on, or why.

Neither was unexpected, but McCain’s final months were all about expectation, wondering if he’d make it back to the Senate, wondering if there were some final salvos against the leader of his party. The theatrical last gesture, etc. It was quite an exit, and honors are certainly deserved. I disagreed with him quite a bit in the past 10 years of his life, and became disillusioned and disappointed, but the man was an American hero and those are rare by definition.

Simon, on the other hand, just disappeared into old age, to the point that many were surprised he was still alive. I tried to recall any significant moments or memories around Neil Simon, but even given my pretty extensive theater history I was coming up empty. I saw and read the plays, I watched the movies and TV shows. I dug into parts written by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Pinter, Hellman, Shaw, Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Moliere, Clifford Odets…but no Simon on my resume. I wasn’t indifferent. I wasn’t all that interested. I looked at the list of works and couldn’t get worked up about anything. His canon was definitely part of my life, and his characters part of the landscape, but he seemed kind of minimally significant to me.

Except.

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Neil Simon had this idea about a small-time actor who made it big. He had Dustin Hoffman’s career in mind, in fact, and he wrote a screenplay about this guy hauling his family from New York to L.A. to make a film, which turns him into a huge star, and the aftereffects of that. He cast Marsha Mason as the wife and Robert DeNiro as the actor. This would have been right after Taxi Driver.

DeNiro turned out to be too subtle for the wisecracks, and he was released, the screenplay was rewritten to be less dark, and Richard Dreyfuss was cast as Elliot Garfield, a neurotic Chicago actor who moves to NYC for a big break and discovers Marsha Mason living in his apartment, with her 10-year-old daughter.

You know all this, I guess, or probably. It was a big hit in 1977, earning Oscar nominations and a Best Actor win for Dreyfuss, at the time the youngest man to ever win that award. It was a BFD.

I saw it on Christmas Break from my sophomore year in college with my girlfriend. It was warm and fuzzy, much more comfortable than the other film I remember us seeing that season (Waiting For Mr. Goodbar). I identified with the young actor thing.

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And I kept watching. In those days, children, movies were ephemeral things, showing up and then disappearing from view, only to pop up on special occasions, matinees for the old folks or afternoon showings on cable. I watched it every chance I got. It became special to me, a part of my story.

I eventually taped it off TV and saved that cassette for years (I may actually still have it). My daughter still has vague memories of Goodbye Girl nights, when we’d put the movie on and build a tent out of blankets and pillows, and I’d make her a chocolate shake. Seriously. All of those details stuck around.

So I watched it again on Sunday. It holds up very well. Dreyfuss is controlled energy, taking what are now well-known Dreyfuss characteristics (the way he shoots imaginary cuffs or bounces on his toes when excited) and putting them to work in building a rich portrait of a man teetering between over-confidence and fear of failure.

Marsha Mason doesn’t hold up all that well. I never quite got on her bandwagon in the 1970s, never felt that she was quite up to par with her contemporaries (Glenda Jackson, Meryl, Jill Clayburgh, Sally Field). Her character is unpleasant, partly because of the storyline and partly because of the character’s apparent lack of ambition to do anything but spend some man’s money. It’s a remarkable portrait of a shallow, aimless adult looking to be rescued. Made today, it would be offensive. Looking back, it just feels bizarre.

As does one particular scene, a playful, blossoming-romance scene where Dreyfuss is flirting aggressively with Mason and she keeps resisting. It’s kind of funny (funnier back then, probably) but still feels a little sinister. Dude. She said no.

But those are 2018 eyes, and that’s not really the point. I just wanted to be reminded that this great writer, by far the most successful American playwright ever, gave me one of my favorites. It was still warm and fuzzy, and the ending? With Dreyfuss back in his flooded phone booth, Mason standing on the fire escape, holding his guitar up in the rain, and that insipid David Gates song starting on the soundtrack…oh yeah. Still warm and fuzzy. This was a good one, so thanks for that, Neil Simon. You were the best. RIP.

I wonder what happened to that DeNiro guy.

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Chuck Sigars1 Comment