Monday, December 5, 2016

Looking For Mr. Goodbar

One of the most quietly electrifying performances I can recall is that of Diane Keaton in 1977's LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR.  You can call it brave, fearless, go-for-broke, a tour de force.  All true. But never desperate or over baked, as such a role could've easily become.  She plays Theresa Dunn, a thirty-ish single woman attempting to navigate a promiscuous lifestyle in the big city in tandem with her job as a teacher of deaf children.  A double life that will have the inevitable overlap, and dire consequences.  Keaton seems to understand Judith Rossner's (author of the novel upon which this film is based) character with an insight that almost seems to be a peer into the author's head, but also distinguished by her own wise choices.

Guiding her is director Richard Brooks, overseer of such classics as ELMER GANTRY and IN COLD BLOOD.  I was surprised by how sensitive his methods are.  He too seems to have a real handle on Theresa, a woman who is repelled and enticed by the sexual inhibition she observes in sleazy bars and night clubs.  Such an attitude is foreign to her psyche, one deeply forged by a Catholic upbringing.  Rossner more than suggests that the fundamentalism still fervently practiced by her parents (mom even slips a Bible into Theresa's purse) has given her a warped, unhealthy view of sexuality, especially her own.  Theresa is also  branded with a physical scar on her back, a constant source of embarrassment, the result of surgery for scoliosis when she was a child.  A mark of shame.

Women are often simplistically assigned the role of "Madonna" or "whore".  Does Theresa transform from one to the other? Was she always just one, trying to break out of the other? The roles of some of the men in Theresa's life are fairly clear.  Tony (Richard Gere) is the stud, the "you don't bring home to momma", unreliable party boy who excites and terrifies Theresa, particularly when he jumps around her apartment wielding a glow in the dark switchblade. James (William Atherton) is the nice, responsible welfare caseworker who helps one of Theresa's students get a much needed hearing aid.  He bonds with Theresa's parents.  He wants monogamy, but a liberated gal like Theresa will have none of it, feeling restricted by such traditions.

But in an interesting scene, James tells a sad story that moves Theresa to tears as she invites him into bed.  She mocks him for wearing a condom (this was pre-AIDS).  He then jumps up and laughs, revealing he made up the story as he stumbles out.

Theresa's low self esteem and confusion is furthered by the behavior of her sister Katherine (Tuesday Weld), a flighty young woman whose relationships/marriages reflect the swinging times - orgies are commonplace and affairs are almost written in the contracts.  Katherine was always clearly dad's (Richard Kiley) favorite, a "perfect" little girl without any flaw in his narrowed eyes. Our glimpses of Katherine make Theresa seem angelic by comparison. 

LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR is a reminder of what films aimed at grown ups used to look like.  Brooks achieves a deep grittiness that, despite some backlot shooting and use of rear screen, feels palpably real.  The director's often maligned use of fantasy sequences throughout the movie worked fine for me, for the most part. There is much humor in them but always with the undercurrent of portent. And death imagery is everywhere in this movie, which bears quite a bit of similarity with the same year's SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.  Not just in tone.

GOODBAR might be viewed as a conservative tract against a hedonistic existence.  Or perhaps even worse, a hypocritical "double life".  A cautionary tale of what can happen to a sinner who rejects not only faith, but traditional goals like getting married and having children.  The movie can also be viewed as a feminist diatribe against the Establishment, against the double standard of prizing males for the hunter/gatherer/stud role and damning women who seek the same.

You might conclude that her fate may have in part been due to a lack of role models.  She does reach a moment where she realizes her life is nowhere.  But then she meets a guy named Gary (Tom Berenger).  Curiously, the film's point of view shifts from Theresa's to his.

I won't reveal the ending, but it is a shocking, brutally effective piece of film that is guaranteed to haunt your thoughts.  And honestly, it should.  Whether you feel Theresa has paid a price for her sins or became a martyr for feminism will depend on you, invisible audience.

P.S. No, this film is still not available on DVD.  I keep reading this is due to music rights.  The film does have a very effective medley of disco tunes.  TCM has shown it recently.  There are a few uncut YouTube uploads as well.
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