Friday, April 18, 2014

The Goodbye Girl


As I write, I am winging my way to Baghdad for the premiere of my morale building USO tour, Vicki Lester is Shocking Awful. Joseph, my manager, has hired a very Teutonic looking woman, Hildegarde something or other, to be my on the road producer. She's barking orders into a satellite phone trying to make sure there's a suitable venue for the debut performance. Apparently the Iraqi National Theater was damaged in an unfortunate fire but there's lots of lovely space available at a building nearby that used to be some sort of museum. All they have to do is sweep the broken glass out of the building.

I've been working on some ideas for the finale, a piece dedicated to modern war weaponry. We have this fantastic entrance worked out. I descend from the flies, dressed in a patriotic red white and blue sequin sheath riding astride a small warhead a la Dr. Strangelove singing that old Sondheim standard, I'm Just A Baghdad Baby. I just haven't figured out how best to really involve the audience appropriately and break that fourth wall with Brechtian technique. Rob Marshall thinks we should fire tracer bullets over the audience's heads in carefully choreographed patterns, but I think that might be a bit over the top. Joseph has hired Great White pyrotechnics to do the stage effects; I'm sure they'll be able to come up with something.

While flying somewhere far above the Atlantic Ocean, I turned on the entertainment system to find it playing a golden oldie, Neil Simon's The Goodbye Girl with Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss (in his Oscar winning role) from 1977. Simon was the king of the romantic comedy in the 70s and early 80s, with a string of hits, often in tandem with director Herbert Ross. This was one of his first ventures in writing directly for the screen, rather than adapting one of his stage plays. (It was turned into a stage musical many years later with Bernadette Peters and Martin Short in the central roles - it wasn't good.)

Marsha Mason plays plucky Paula McFadden, an aging Broadway chorine who's a single mom to ten year old Lucy (Quinn Cummings). One day, she returns home to her shabby chic New York apartment to find that her latest boyfriend, Tony, has up and left her high and dry. Not only that, but Tony has sublet the apartment to another actor, Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss), recently moved from Chicago to make his name in New York in the title role of an off-Broadway production of Richard III. In true romantic comedy style, neither Paula nor Elliot can truly afford to make a go of it economically alone so they agree to become apartment mates; at first loathing each other, their personal habits, and their approaches to life. Any student of Romantic Comedy 101 will deduce after ten minutes that they're made for each other and there will be a happy ending. On the way to that foregone conclusion, Elliot performs an unforgettable Richard, under the direction of a certifiable idiot (a brilliant Paul Benedict) and Paula attempts to re-establish her dance career with deep knee bends and a stint at the auto show.

Supposedly, the plot was inspired by Dustin Hoffman's early years (pre The Graduate) as a struggling actor in New York. He wanted a part in the film but there was nothing suitable available. The film went into production under the title Bogart Slept Here with Robert DeNiro as Elliott and Mike Nichols as director. The usual 'artistic differences' forced Nichols and DeNiro out after two weeks of shooting and Dreyfuss and Herbert Ross were brought in. Who was differing with whom is a bit unclear, but I have a feeling that Neil Simon wanted one sort of approach to the material while Nichols wanted another and Simon was the muscle behind the project.

Neil Simon writes comic one-liners better than anyone in the business and has been doing so for decades. He's in good form here with decent jokes and some unforgettable scenes (especially those detailing the working lives of performers.) More importantly, he's created real people in his lead trio. Paula, Elliot and Lucy are complicated folks with fully realized interior lives and mixed emotions and motivations. Their interactions have an edge to them which aren't always found in this sort of film.

The movie belongs to Richard Dreyfuss. Only 29 at the time of its filming (with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third King behind him), he was allowed to show a comic versatility that few imagined he possessed. His transitions from high strung actor to love struck swain to flouncy medieval king are a wonderful look at the high wire act of acting choices. He thoroughly deserved his Oscar, which was heavily favored to go to Richard Burton that year for Equus. Marsha Mason, Neil Simon's then wife, is an abrasive Paula. In retrospect, it seems a little odd that a man as charming and talented as Elliot would fall for her. She's also cursed with that face which makes her look like a rapacious pug on amphetamines. Quinn Cummings was one of those natural child actresses and her scenes with Dreyfuss, especially, have a surety unusual for young performers.

The film was a huge hit in its day and was nominated for multiple Oscars including best picture, screenplay and performance nominations for all three leads. Dreyfuss and Mason also won Golden Globes for their performances. The theme song, sung by David Gates of Bread, was also a huge hit on top forty radio.  Like most good romantic comedies, it's a great feel good film for curling up with on the couch some rainy afternoon.

Spaghetti in street. Cheap Chianti. Fonzie poster. Naked guitar playing. Pantyhose hanging. Rooftop dinner. Idiot producer lady. Bad Subaru demonstration. Horse drawn carriage ride. Rainstorm conclusion.

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