The Goodbye Girl (1977)


The Goodbye Girl
Dir. Herbert Ross
Premiered November 30, 1977

When Richard Dreyfuss won his first Academy Award for 1977. And it wasn’t for Close Encounters. It was, in fact, for The Goodbye Girl.

Actress Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) has big plans to move to California with her sarcastic, foul-mouthed ten-year-old daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings) when her deadbeat boyfriend Tony runs off to Italy to perform in a Bertolucci film. Stuck in New York, she discovers too late that Tony has already sublet the apartment to Elliot Garfield (Dreyfuss), a stubborn, self-absorbed actor who’s come to town to perform in an off-off-Broadway production of Richard III, only to discover to his horror that he’s playing the titular role as an embarrassingly over-the-top gay stereotype– and this is the ‘70s we’re talking about here.

Having just been dumped, Paula naturally has her defenses up, but Lucy’s affection for Elliot’s high-energy and sense of humor ensures he’ll be around long enough to develop some serious feelings for Paula.

With that kind of plot, The Goodbye Girl walks an impressive tightrope. It would have been really easy to make Elliot a pretentious douchebag. The man meditates and plays acoustic guitar, and bear in mind that Animal House is only eight months away. But he’s not a jackass. As Paula and the audience get to know him, we feel for his struggles, his ambition, and a mixture of tenderness and mutual respect he develops for the two women in his life that I don’t think we have a word for in English. It helps that he’s played by a guy who really has all of those things.

As a side note, the role of Elliot was originally going to be played by Robert DeNiro. Fine actor, but it would never have worked, and would-be director Mike Nichols saw as much before he too left the project.

Similarly, the character of Lucy ran the risk of being intolerably cloying and saccharine, but she’s written well, coming off much like a real kid of that age, and Quinn Cummings pulls it off. This was her first film role, and she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s clear why the Academy felt so strongly.

The Goodbye Girl is directed by Herbert Ross, but the original screenplay is by Neil Simon, which explains why it feels so comfortably familiar. Much like Simon’s defining work The Odd Couple, The Goodbye Girl revolves around a couple of housemates on the Upper West Side who can’t seem to get along. And while it’s not as funny as The Odd Couple, it’s certainly worth seeing if you like your romantic comedy with actual brains and a solid dose of grit.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Paula gets mugged in broad daylight on a main avenue. Lucy owns a poster of the Fonz. CB radios get referenced.

Additional Notes
Composer Dave Grusin: still a total hack.

How Did It Do?
“If you ever win an Academy Award, I’ll be happy for you.”

Congratulations, Elliot: The Goodbye Girl got Dreyfuss his first and only Oscar. The film was nominated for four others; Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay; and grossed a whopping $102 million to become the fourth highest-grossing movie of the year. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive (88% on RottenTomatoes), though Roger Ebert and a handful of others found Marsha Mason’s performance to be underwhelming, which I frankly agree with. But I’ll let it slide.

Next Time: Saturday Night Fever


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