Friday, April 12, 2013

Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)

          A dark meditation on the Sexual Revolution that caroms wildly between sensitive vignettes and overwrought climaxes, Looking for Mr. Goodbar divided audiences during its original release but has since attained cult-movie notoriety, especially because, as of this writing, it has yet to be released on DVD or Blu-Ray. (Falling into obscurity often boosts a once-popular film’s reputation.) Adapted from a best-selling novel by Judith Rossner and written and directed by uncompromising auteur Richard Brooks, the movie is a cautionary tale, but it’s not entirely clear what Brooks wants to caution viewers against. Sometimes, it seems as if he’s castigating his lead character, a young professional woman with a wild sex life, for the sin of seeking physical fulfillment. At other times, it seems as if the villain of the piece is the lead character’s recklessness. And thanks to a gruesome narrative turn during the story’s third act, an implication is communicated that homosexuality is a malignant societal force. Suffice to say, the sexual politics of the movie have not aged well.
        Yet certain elements of the picture probably seemed damned weird right from the get-go—consider the awkward device of grown-up star Diane Keaton playing her character during college scenes, or such surrealistic flourishes as the trippy visual effect that’s featured during the final shots of the movie. In fact, Brooks takes a gonzo storytelling approach from start to finish simply by pitching the intensity level of key scenes absurdly high. Were it not for the supple textures of Keaton’s performance, Looking for Mr. Goodbar would feel like a cartoon, albeit a nihilistic one.
          The story follows Teresa (Keaton), a good girl from a religious New York City-area family, as she matures professionally and sexually. Following an eye-opening dalliance with her college professor, Teresa takes a job as a teacher at a school for deaf children, so right from the beginning of this young woman’s journey, her intellectual and physical lives are intertwined. Teresa’s older sister, Katherine (Tuesday Weld), is a high-strung swinger who gets in too deep with a sexually adventurous man, but instead of being frightened by Katherine’s experiences, Teresa is titillated.
          Soon, Teresa enters the swinger world and gets involved with men including Tony (Richard Gere), a small-time crook who introduces Teresa to cocaine. (One memorably campy scene features Tony, jacked up on blow, doing push-ups in Teresa’s apartment while wearing nothing but a jockstrap.) Teresa also becomes involved with James (William Atherton), a social worker who represents a “safe” choice of romantic partner. However, she shuns his old-fashioned normalcy in favor of freakier delights. Eventually, Teresa’s sexual wanderlust lands her in bed with Gary (Tom Berenger), a sexually confused young man with a prison record, which instigates the movie’s infamous final scene.
          Looking for Mr. Goodbar is strange on many levels, but the most noteworthy cinematic disharmony is the rift between the story Brooks is telling and the one Keaton is telling. Brooks delivers every narrative assertion with an exclamation point, eschewing subtlety for hand-wringing histrionics. Meanwhile, Keaton does extraordinary work, imbuing her performance with naturalism and spontaneity. In essence, Brooks tries to make a Grand Statement while Keaton sketches a character study. This has the effect of making Keaton feel separate from the rest of the movie, especially when Gere over-acts his way through a ridiculous performance that Brooks should have restrained. And while supporting players including Atherton, Richard Kiley, and Priscilla Pointer all deliver competent work, the only actor who achieves the same level of nuance as Keaton is Weld, a perpetually underutilized daredevil of a performer who is capable of incandescence in the right context. (Her work in this movie earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.) Ultimately, Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a uniquely disjointed movie—part melodrama, part tragedy, and part oh-so-’70s bummer phantasmagoria.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar: FREAKY


karl said...

One of my all-time favourite films...and its still surprises me that its never been released on DVD. Keaton is incomparable in this performance. A delight from start to finish.

Superb site, by the way.

Will Errickson said...


No seriously, I finally saw this in its entirety on Netflix Instant last year. Even read the novel afterwards! It is definitely uneven but a terrific slice of '70s singles Americana. And one note: Diane Keaton is reading the novel THE GODFATHER at the bar when she meets Richard Gere. Heh heh (of course a similar joke was made in ANNIE HALL).