|Goodbye Girl, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 18 January 2000|
THE GOODBYE GIRL is still so fresh, funny and quietly romantic that it plays like it was made yesterday rather than almost 25 years ago. It features Richard Dreyfuss' best comedy performance, and one of the warmest by Marsha Mason. It's one of the best movies of director Herbert Ross, really topped only by THE ODD COUPLE, also by Simon, of course.
It has almost been a reliable rule that if Neil Simon adapts one of his plays, the movie is likely to be good; if he writes an original screenplay, the result is pretty bad. But THE GOODBYE GIRL is the exception: this original screenplay stands with Simon's best plays-into-movies -- and was itself later turned into a play. (However, despite actually beginning production at least once, "Bogart Slept Here," Simon's sequel to THE GOODBYE GIRL has never been filmed.)
The meaning of the title is a little foggy; perhaps in revisions Simon toned down the idea that men are forever walking out on Broadway chorus dancer Paula McFadden (Mason); as the movie stands, it's only happened a couple of times, hardly enough to make her "The Goodbye Girl." Whatever.
The movie opens as she and her young daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings) learn to their shock that Tony, the actor they've been living with, has left New York altogether to appear in a Bertolucci movie shooting in Europe. And he won't be back. On top of this, Paula also discovers that the cad Tony has sublet the apartment, which was in his name, and that she and Lucy are expected to vacate the premises.
Out of a rainy night and in from Chicago comes intense, vibrant Elliott Garfield (Dreyfuss), the friend to whom Tony sublet the apartment. After a sizing-each-other-up quarrel, Paula and Elliott agree to share the apartment; neither has much choice. Over the next several months, they fall in love.
That's really all the plot there is to THE GOODBYE GIRL; it's really a series of memorably funny set pieces energetically and entertainingly played by Mason and, particularly, Dreyfuss -- who deserved the Best Actor Oscar this brought him.
Their first scene together is, as the saying goes, worth the price of admission alone. Sharply written and tightly played, Dreyfuss and Mason verbally fence, already definitely attracted to one another, but trying hard to ignore this. This cadenza of fizzing outrage and tight-lipped wit may be Dreyfuss' funniest fifteen minutes as an actor; he's annoying, he's endearing, he's funny and he's utterly convincing as this self-obsessed actor from Chicago. (Dreyfuss once shared a room with kinetic writer Harlan Ellison, and has said that he based some of his role in THE GOODBYE GIRL on Ellison; anyone who knows Ellison's distinctive style of speaking, even of moving, will find this particular sequence awfully familiar.)
Instead of a plot, Simon gives us well-observed glimpses into areas of the New York theater world that movies often ignore. Paula hasn't worked as a dancer in several years, so when Tony leaves, she has to work hard to get back into shape for tryouts. There's a sad authenticity to these scenes, which are treated realistically and honestly.
Meanwhile, Elliott begins rehearsals for the play that brought him from Chicago. He's to star in an adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III, a challenging role for any actor. But his director, apparently with his own horses to ride, declares that Richard and, for that matter, Shakespeare were flagrantly gay, and insists that that's how Elliott play the role -- as the queen who wanted to be king.
The scenes of Elliott heroically struggling against his own instincts as an actor -- and the very text, for that matter -- are both a tribute to the courage and imagination of actors, and a sharp, witty spoof of this particular kind of avant-garde theater. Paul Benedict is dryly amusing as the pretentious, egocentric director.
Marsha Mason is good as Paula, but despite the title and, probably, Simon's intentions (they were married at the time), she turns out not to be the central character in the film. Even with the lion's share of the footage, she could hardly be the central character with the likes of Dreyfuss in full roar to contend with. Mason gives her usual solid, professional (and somewhat sentimental) performance, but Dreyfuss runs away with the movie. He wasn't trying to; he just couldn't help it.
What's great about Dreyfuss' performance isn't the big scenes, as when he's actually, haplessly, doing Richard on opening (and closing) night; those are wonderful, but he's done this kind of thing before, as in THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (his own least favorite performance). Instead, it's in the quieter moments, particularly those opposite Quinn Cummings, where Dreyfuss really shines; he is great in the noisy scenes, but his carriage ride with Cummings is tender and moving without his losing Elliott's sharp edge in the slightest. As great as he is in the scene where he and Mason first clash, as fast and precise as his performance is in those sequences, the quieter moments are even more impressive on an acting level. His Elliott is still the same person, whether he's ranting and raving about panties on the shower curtain rod and sleeping "a buffo," or when he's making little jokes with Cummings. (Who went on to the "Family" TV series, then evidently retired from acting in 1989.)
The dialog is sparkling throughout, as when Lucy first smells Elliott's incense. "What's that?" she asks. "It smells like strawberries burning." Paula knocks on Elliott's door; when he assures her he's decent, she enters to find him nude, strumming a guitar. "I am decent," he smugly, serenely explains. "I also happen to be naked." Lucy wants to keep Elliott; "he reminds me of a dog nobody wants." And that's true: Elliott really does seem like someone who's never had a roommate, never had to put up with anyone else, but who's also basically very lonely. Now he has found someone, but he's driving her nuts, because she's afraid she's falling in love with an actor again. "I hate that goddamned it's wonderful to be alive feeling," she wails.
THE GOODBYE GIRL was a major hit, had several Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture (ANNIE HALL won; it was a good year), Best Actress, best supporting actress (Quinn Cummings), screenplay, and of course, Dreyfuss did win. (Ross' THE TURNING POINT was also nominated for multiple awards that year.) So why hasn't Warner Bros. given it a better treatment on DVD? The print is fine, and as usual, both the ugly screen-filling "standard" version and the far preferable widescreen version are offered on alternate sides. But good grief, this movie really deserved a narration track from Ross, Dreyfuss and/or Neil Simon. They're still around, and probably would readily have done it.
Nonetheless, this is one of the best romantic comedies of the last 25 years, and deserves a space on almost any home video shelf.