When it was released in the winter of 1977, Herbert Ross’ The Goodbye Girl carried the tagline, “thank you Neil Simon for making us laugh at falling in love…again.” It should be noted that the great movies are not necessarily the ones either to have broken ‘new ground’ or challenged the aged crusts of prejudice in social mores and manners. There is nothing new about The Goodbye Girl, as an ‘original’ piece of award-winning stagecraft expressly written for the screen by playwright Neil Simon. And yet, under Ross’ careful management, and the expert play-acting of its stars, Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason and Quinn Cummings (as Lucy, the much too self-aware and determined pint-sized intellectual moppet of the piece), The Goodbye Girl survives and even excels as a prime piece of stagecraft real estate, expertly transposed for the big screen; an unabashedly ole-fashioned ice cream sundae of a ‘feel good’ love story with the then ‘new-fangled’ added twist of taking a refreshing look at ‘single’ and ‘working’ motherhood – mom finding love the third, fourth…or even fifth time around. You see, Broadway chorine Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) has absolutely no luck with men, chiefly because she is always falling for aspiring actors who put their careers ahead of the proverbial ‘good woman’ who could make all their dreams come true…given half the chance. Yep, Paula’s a door mat. Oh, but is she in for a rare treat by way of a temporary nightmare…because Paula has never met a guy like Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss). The two clash ‘cute’ after Paula’s newly departed ‘married’ ex, Tony DeForrest (whom we never meet) has promised Elliot the apartment he and Paula shared. Oh golly Moses, not another actor! Particularly, not tonight – despite the rain – and definitely not someone as openly opinionated as Elliot Garfield. Well…
Tough tootles, as far as Paula is concerned. After all, she has been down this road before and knows how it will end – in break-up and spoilt feelings. Frustrated sighs…who needs it? As Paula and audiences were quick to discover – we did…and still do! In the midst of a decade buffeted by political uncertainties, a presidential resignation, oil embargo and hostage crisis (to name but a few of the fun and happy times rocking the nation), The Goodbye Girl hit theaters to ebullient acclaim; a refresher course in pie-eyed optimism a la the classy – and classic – screwball comedy; tempered and offset by Simon’s one-off bravura, more aptly suited to the dour decade, but otherwise, transmitting kilowatts of magic beyond the footlights. Neil Simon’s great gift to the American theater (and, by extension of his popularity, the American movies spawned from his pen), remains his uncanny humanist approach to ironing out all the kinks and wrinkles in some very complex human relations. Never coating the bitter pill with saccharine, though, on occasion, gilding a few lilies with his inimitable brand of ‘laughter through tears’ – both friendly and ‘un’ – comprising the very best of human bing-bang devoted to grand amour, Simon’s prose cut to the heart of some fairly techy subject matter; abortion, divorce, extramarital affairs, unwanted pregnancies, indiscriminately casual sexual encounters with multiple partners (not such a ‘biggy’ these days), homosexuality (dealt with tongue firmly in cheek), etc. et al: nothing, it seems, was off limits to Simon, yet none of it perversely exploited for either dramatic ‘shock’ value or farce-laden giggles to debase, embarrass of marginally bemuse and talk down to his audience.
Not exactly sure how he does it, but Neil Simon draws us into great theater almost as an afterthought to these foibles of life exposed upon the wicked stage, The Goodbye Girl, a window of golden opportunities to reexamine real issues genuinely resolved; rose-colored memoirs turned asunder at the beginning, yet thoroughly validated in the end; the silver-lining stitched into Simon’s revelations and truths, and, with a wink/nudge butterfly effect tossed in for good measure. The Goodbye Girl is perhaps Simon’s best known, and, arguably, finest movies to date; with honorable mention and nods to The Odd Couple, The Out-of-Towners and The Sunshine Boys. Largely due to his rare facility with dialogue, Simon is equally grounded in realism, yet superior stagecraft; the counterbalance of wit, heart, levity and earnestness, weighing in on his sometimes transparently autobiographical recollections. There has never been another playwright quite so tuned in to the human condition; providing healthy dollops of critique, empathy, intuition and reflection, clever with subtlety to express the more serious concerns afflicting just average people. We feel for the characters inhabiting any Neil Simon play because at some level they speak to us as a part of ourselves. And Simon’s life-affirming denouements give the rest of us hope that a brighter future for all is right around the corner. Sparkle and luster is one thing. But Simon’s case studies are a masterclass in the miraculous quality of life itself, oft forgotten, mislaid or callously pitched under the proverbial bus as the stresses and pressures of merely existing prepare their daily intrusions on our hopes and daydreams for a more ‘perfect world’.
It seems ironic The Goodbye Girl should not have begun its life as another Simon Broadway smash, the concept initially slated as ‘Bogart Slept Here’, essentially a fictionalized account of what happened to actor, Dustin Hoffman after he became a star. In its preliminary stages, The Goodbye Girl was all set to costar Robert DeNiro and Marsha Mason with Mike Nichols to direct it. Mercifully, things did not go according to plan; Simon’s thumbnail sketch of a marriage on the rocks after an off-Broadway actor gets his big break in Hollywood, unravelling as DeNiro’s performance seemed incapable of achieving the lighter moments in what was essentially a much darker story idea to begin with. At some point, Simon brought pressure to bear on the studio to recast DeNiro and Nichols, displeased by their acquiescence to these demands, quietly bowed out of the project shortly thereafter. Hiring Richard Dreyfuss, Simon noted an immediate palpable chemistry between his two costars. Only now, it was his own screenplay that dissatisfied him. Retiring for six weeks of rewrites, Simon returned with a story funnier and more romantic than the one initially plotted. Instead of beginning at the end of a troubled marriage, the story now concentrated on the awkward, though nevertheless magical beginnings of a love affair yet to follow. While Simon, Dreyfuss and Mason embraced this new approach to the material, Warner Bros. briefly contemplated scrapping everything, or at least selling off their interests to MGM. In the final round of negotiations, the studio elected to instead partner with Metro on the picture; the shoot divided between exteriors in New York City and interiors lensed on sound stages in L.A. As was fast becoming the standard, Warner hedged its bets for a hit title song to help ‘sell’ the movie; David Gates’ ‘Goodbye Girl’ hitting the charts at #15 where it would remain on Billboard’s Hot 100 for most of the year.
We begin with dancer, Paula McFadden and her precocious ten-year old, Lucy. Mother and daughter reside in a cramped but cozy Manhattan apartment with Paula’s married boyfriend, Tony DeForrest. Only on this afternoon, the pair returns home to discover Tony has vacated for a split-second offer to star in a movie being made in Italy. Obviously no prince, Tony has compounded the insult by subleasing the apartment to casual friend and fellow actor, the fixatedly nutty, Elliot Garfield, who shows up uninvited on a rainy night, expecting to move in. Paula is unwilling to budge. But Elliot makes it clear he is now the custodian of their home. If anything, he will allow Paula and Lucy to share these overly cluttered rooms with him, not the other way around. Unable to reason her way out of Elliot’s ironclad contract, Paula nevertheless makes it blatantly clear she is not happy with this arrangement. Moreover, she makes no bones about loathing Elliot’s quirkiness. Determined she should start anew and find another place to live, but sorely lacking the funds to make this pipedream a reality, Paula elects to return to her first love – or rather, last resort; auditioning for chorus work in another Broadway show. Alas, living with Tony has made Paula soft. Time to get back into shape. Too bad for Paula she is not nearly as young or as supple.
But Paula has spunk, and heart, and a great set of gams. Meanwhile, Elliot returns to the apartment absolutely elated to have just landed the lead in an off-off Broadway production of Shakespeare’s Richard III; a juicy role any actor would give his right arm to play. Alas, the play’s director, Mark (Paul Benedict) sees Richard as ‘the queen who wants to be king’; forcing Elliot to adopt a hammy homoerotic subtext that finally devolves into gross caricature. On the home front, things are hardly an improvement. In the raw, Elliot strums soothing melodies on his guitar at three o’clock in the morning. He burns incense in the living room and conducts himself in an exemplarily odd and highly ritualized regiment of healthy alternatives to set his mind at ease. Unhappy circumstance, all this is lost on the more pragmatic Paula, continuing to wear thin on both her patience and goodwill. Agreeing to attend the opening night of Richard III, Paula is amused by Elliot’s implosion as the effetely mannered tragic hero. Deriving no pleasure from his failure, much less the way critics eviscerate both the play and Elliot’s performance; the show’s flop proves the beginning of a slow reconciliation between Paula and Elliot.
Under the banner of ‘misery loves company’, Paula empathizes with Elliot. His eccentricities suddenly seem charming – if sincerely flawed. The two fall in love and wind up in bed together. It’s Elliot’s impetuosity that wins Paula over; his impromptu invitation to a rooftop rendezvous where he stages an elaborate dinner for two, only to be rained out; the pair spending their romantic moment cramped inside the stairwell, sipping champagne by candlelit instead. Paula is smitten. Only now it is Lucy who is disgusted, not because she dislikes Elliot, but rather, because she sees her mother about to repeat the same mistakes made with Tony. While Neil Simon is light to downright noncommittal about the fallout of familial instability – what a rocky home life and single parenthood does to the social insecurities of an impressionable mind (indeed, Lucy is about as unimpressionable as prepubescence gets, possessing more ‘common sense’ and wherewithal than any of the adults in her midst) – Lucy’s angst is quelled when she confesses to sincerely liking Elliot; reiterating her fear he will abandon them both as Tony did once his big break comes along. Elliot implores Paula to reconsider their relationship. He is not Tony, after all, and further pledges, in a rather heartwarming scene, to remain Lucy’s steadfast guardian, friend and mentor. Picking Lucy up from school, Elliot shares a carriage ride with the girl through Central Park. She confides she likes him too much to get invested in someone who may or may not stick around and he professes to do his utmost to honor her faith in him from now on.
As things improve at home, so too does the future forecast for Elliot’s career. He lands a gig at a local ‘improv’ theater. The work allows him to be home every night and to establish even more permanent ties with Paula and Lucy. Alas, during one of these shows, Elliot is spotted by Oliver Fry (Nicol Williamson), the famous Hollywood director who offers Elliot his big break in a movie shooting in Seattle. Accepting the offer, though realizing it will not be popular at home, Elliot is momentarily wounded by Paula’s sudden callousness. It’s over as far as Paula is concerned. Elliot will not be coming back. Not after he has had a taste of the ‘big life’ and four weeks in another town. The two part bittersweet in the hall, a scene witnessed by Lucy. However, later that evening as rain begins to fall, Paula receives an unexpected phone call from the payphone just across the street. It’s Elliot; his plane delayed for two hours by the storm, encouraging Paula to pack her bags and join him on location. So, he really does love her after all. Realizing trust in their relationship as paramount, Paula elects to remain at home with Lucy instead; Elliot, asking her to have his prized guitar restrung while he is away. As Elliot would never leave his guitar behind without every intension of coming back, Paula knows for certain she has found the right man to make her life complete once and for all: a goodbye girl, no more.
The Goodbye Girl is an implausibly happy-go-lucky charmer; brimming full of Neil Simon’s avuncular and sage wisdom. There is always something allegorical about Simon’s work; at times, almost psychoanalytic in its riffing on the ever friction-making male/female dynamic we laughingly coin and distill in the movies as ‘romance’ but hinges – and often implodes – on a single word or phrase uttered in passion or to our ever-lasting regret. The characters populating Neil Simon’s world are sincerely more perceptive than the status quo. Like those inhabiting the alternate New York fantasias put forth by Woody Allen in his prime, the people we come to love in a Neil Simon play or movie are an amalgam of the various ‘types’ both geniuses have encountered from their own lives. However, unlike Allen’s proto-intellectuals, frequently stricken with uber-clever bouts of verbal diarrhea, analyzing their emotions all out of proportion to an almost neurotic – if still highly enjoyable – effect; Simon’s wanderers are neither particularly cerebral nor enterprising in their pursuits. They do not know what it is they want from life other than that invisible signifier - ‘happiness’. Like the rest of us, they are bunglers of life who clumsily figure things out in an awkward trajectory while bumping into the furniture and each other.
Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss have genuine on-screen chemistry; both, as antagonistic roomies and later to be unearthed passionate soulmates destined to remain so for all time. In this day of predictable romantic comedies where virtually no doubt remains the lovers introduced to us at the beginning will reconcile before the final fade out, Mason and Dreyfuss play it cagily throughout as their game of ‘he said/she told’ unravels, gets stitched back together, unravels again, and finally crescendos into Hollywood’s prerequisite ‘happy ending’. It is sheer joy to watch these two pros go toe-to-toe, butting heads, breaking hearts and finally discovering a way to make beautiful music together. Dreyfuss is delicious as the perpetually frazzled Elliot who suffers his moments of indignation with a sort of manic resolve to ‘do better’ the next time. Laying out the ground rules for his placement in the apartment, he is as spirited as a mountain goat. On the flipside is Mason’s perpetually restrained single mom, weary more than anything else and frankly tired of being the self-professed cheerleader to these men who indiscriminately come and go from her life. In the final analysis, and to paraphrase Shakespeare, The Goodbye Girl is a tale told by ‘two idiots’ teeming with the ‘sound and fury’ of life’s little foibles. Simon’s subliminal commentary ensures the audience a good time as well as teachable lessons dedicated to this age-old pursuit - finding love in the unlikeliest of places.
The Warner Archive’s (WAC) Blu-ray release is again of the ‘reference quality’ we have come to expect from them; bright, bold colors, natural-looking flesh tones, razor-sharp crispness throughout, exhibiting some startling fine details, and a light smattering of film grain looking indigenous to its source materials. Age-related artifacts are nonexistent and the image has that wonderfully ‘dated’ quality of a movie released in 1977, while the picture elements have been revitalized to adhere to our contemporary movie-viewing expectations. The audio is DTS 2.0 mono as originally recorded and ideally suited for this dialogue-driven movie. We really need to tip our hats to the Warner Archive. As 2016 draws to a close, the archive has given movie lovers everywhere an embarrassment of riches. We will wait with bated breath to see if 2017 continues this trend, though I have no reason not to suspect as much. The Warner/MGM back catalog is a myriad of treasures yet to be mined. But WAC has illustrated a business axiom capable of satisfying both movie lover’s daydreams and their own profit-driven bottom line in tandem. We support and champion their cause wholeheartedly and cannot think of another studio in this past twelve months that has so consistently achieved such solid results and done so much for fans yearning to digest more from their magical movie-land back catalog. All gushing aside: it has been one hell of a good year to fall in love with the past all over again. As we say ‘goodbye’, both to 2016 and The Goodbye Girl, we are earnestly preparing to say ‘hello’ to a lot more from where this came.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)