Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)

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Looking for Mr. Goodbar
Dir. Richard Brooks
Premiered October 19, 1977

Sorry if what I’m about to describe sounds like a really weird, really stupid dream. I wish it had been. That would’ve been funny. But no, this was made, on purpose, by people.

In addition, there’s no way to describe this movie without making it sound like porn, so be prepared.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar isn’t the worst movie of 1977, but it’s the ickiest, for many, many reasons. It’s the unsexiest movie about sex that I’ve ever seen (so far), and it’s made even more inappropriate by the context, but that’s the tip of the iceberg.

Even its reason for existing is kinda gross. In 1973, in the opening salvos of the Sexual Revolution, a New York schoolteacher named Roseann Quinn was murdered by a man with whom she’d had a one-night stand. All things considered, and especially it being the 1970s, the golden age of random sex and random violence, it wasn’t that unusual. But involving as it did the novelty of “singles bars” and the dark side womens’ lib, it was ripe for sensationalism. Journalist Judith Rossner wrote an article on the killing, then tried turning it into a true crime book, but adapted it into a novel to avoid being sued. It was a #1 bestseller, so naturally it had to become a movie. And here…here we are.

For the most part, Looking For Mr. Goodbar is extraordinarily awkward. The opening credits are awkward. The montages are awkward. The random, pointless fantasy sequences are awkward. The film’s version of San Francisco, which looks nothing like San Francisco and an awful lot like Chicago for tax purposes, with a good heaping of the Paramount lot and an occasional bout of last-minute b-roll Los Angeles, is pretty awkward. A late sequence in which a New Years’ party randomly devolves into a homophobic riot is awkward. Diane Keaton’s sex scenes are really awkward, and ultimately define the film as the cinematic equivalent of seeing your parents having sex.

Theresa Dunn (Diane Keaton) is a young woman in the prime of life and in the mood for some serious dick. After being deflowered by her professor (Alan Feinstein), she begins teaching deaf children, deals tangentially with a bunch of stuff with her sister (Tuesday Weld) that seems to only be there because it was in the book, moves away from her over-the-top Irish Catholic strawman parents (Richard Kiley and Priscilla Porter), and plows her way through the legendary trials and tribulations that director Richard Brooks seems certain the erotic ennui of the mid-70s will be remembered as; vacillating mainly between a goody-goody welfare administrator (William Atherton) and coked up guido Tony (Richard Gere), who possesses both a permanent erection and, I don’t know how else to say this, a tiny lightsaber.

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Gere, incidentally, hams it up into the stratosphere and is easily the most entertaining part of the movie. Tony’s a bad guy, but then everyone in this movie is the bad guy. That includes Theresa, allegedly, for sleeping around and getting herself murdered, despite the fact that the killing here is born of a chance encounter with a violently closeted gay man (Tom Berenger). This, the moment everyone has been waiting for, is truly disturbing and, in a sudden genre shift, is pure slasher horror.

It also might be the worst performance of Keaton’s career. I’m really sorry, I don’t mean to say bad things about a justifiably beloved actress, but she got a Golden Globe nomination for this, and that goes a long way toward explaining why people used to make fun of the Golden Globes, because if your idea of a great performance is watching someone chirp her way through a bad off-Broadway soliloquy about “papa!” and “scoliosis!” as if she’s still riding the mini-helicopter in Sleeper, this might be the movie for you.

But it’s not just that it’s boring, or awkward, or that it tries to have it both ways, morally opposing Theresa’s self-destruction while constantly delighting in its supposed sensuality. It’s not just that it’s fucking interminable, carrying on aimlessly for over two hours with no discernible point and purpose; and it’s not just that it probably ended up that way because Brooks assumed audiences would already be familiar with the story from the real events and subsequent trashy novel that collectively inspired it.

What’s truly most bothersome about Looking for Mr. Goodbar is just how keen it is to immortalize the then-present and recent past– not just to embrace the period, but to ascribe to it a level of historical importance and profundity that this story doesn’t remotely earn. Get over yourself, movie. You’re not All The President’s Men, or Dog Day Afternoon, or Nashville, or Saturday Night Fever. You’re a proto-Cinemax-Lifetime co-production with a hero complex, an above-average soundtrack, and a star who, Golden Globe or no, clearly doesn’t want to be there. And she’s right.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The opening montage is a mix of light jazz, disco, uptown funk, and soundtrack ballads set to black and white still shots of the gritty San Francisco everybody remembers from Dirty Harry. People go to analysts and read Hustler on the train. Theresa initially believes that her congenital scoliosis is the after-effect of a childhood bout with polio. Sleeping with a married man is not only commonplace, but fashionable. Premature ejaculation is still common. People smoke everywhere. Theresa attends a swingers’ party where people watch silent, black-and-white porn on an 28mm home projector. She reads a first-edition copy of The Godfather. When Richard Gere sees her reading it, he suggests they go see an Al Pacino movie. The Jimmy Carter presidential campaign serves as frequent background noise. A small discotheque has the novelty of closed circuit television. Quaaludes are brought into the picture. Theresa takes offense at one of her lovers using a condom– the only one she’s ever seen. Motels advertise that they have porn. “Sexist” is used as a standard term for a promiscuous woman rather than a misogynist– though this seems particularly far-fetched.

And in a series of events not remotely reminiscent of 1977, sister Katherine (Tuesday Weld) inexplicably has to go to Puerto Rico to get an abortion.

How Did It Do?
Jumping as it did on the popularity of a novel, a famous murder, and the freshly de-stigmatized concept of sleeping around, Looking for Mr. Goodbar did way better than it should have, earning $22.5 million. It also, incredibly, received two Oscar nominations, for Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actress for Tuesday Weld (who, of course, lost to Vanessa Redgrave).

Looking for Mr. Goodbar now finds itself in the bizarre position of having received overwhelmingly positive reviews in its own time and nothing but embarrassment and scorn ever since. Perhaps this is why, despite the accolades, Paramount has never released it on home video in any format.

Next Time: Damnation Alley

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