Friday, February 10, 2012

Guest blogger Gregory Hess offers another in his series about films available on VHS only. Thanks Gregory!

Looking For Mr. Goodbar, directed by Richard Brooks from the novel by Judith Rossner, shares an interesting number of similarities with some of the most-talked-about films of 2011; it combines Shame’s story of sexual desire as symptom, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s bestselling pedigree and theme of violence toward women, and even Margaret’s side story of a young woman’s inappropriate relationship with her teacher. The film’s star, Diane Keaton, released her autobiography in 2011 as well, so now would seem the perfect time to examine this film. Based on a headline-grabbing real crime, the film poses interesting questions about the changing face of the fairer sex in America, in the 1970s and today.

The film gets off to a jarringly cheesy start, with a soap opera montage of still shots of clubs and dancers, set to a Donna Summer song. The setting is New York, but many of the exteriors were shot here in the windy city, so Chicagoans will recognize a few shots of El trains and bungalows. The sequence has all the class of Skin-e-max midnight fare, and it telegraphs a big chunk of the film, but apparently the plot of the book was already enough in the collective conscious that the filmmakers seem scarcely concerned with spoiling anything. (I’m not going to be either, by the way, so consider this your SPOILER ALERT.)

Diane Keaton plays Theresa Dunn, a 28-year old New York Irish Catholic, studying at City College to be a teacher. She lives at home with her working class family: Tuesday Weld is her sister Katherine, a flight attendant caught between two different men. Richard Kiley is her father, who chomps cigars and yells and screams. Priscilla Pointer (later Jeffery Beaumont’s mother in Blue Velvet) is her mother, the timid peacekeeper. The dysfunction practically oozes out of the frame.

These details are lifted from the real crime which inspired the book; Roseann Quinn, a 28-year old teacher from the Bronx, was murdered on New Year’s Day, 1973 by John Wayne Wilson, who later confessed to the crime. She picked him up at the bar across from her apartment building. But how did she get to that point?

Theresa finds her first lover in her professor Martin, a married man who hires her as an intern and quickly exploits her desire for sex. This goes as badly as we’d guess, and by the time he finally shrugs her off, Theresa’s primed for some good old-fashioned acting out.

Now out of the classroom, she gets right back in, as a teacher of deaf children. It’s 1975. Home alone on New Year’s Eve, Theresa watches a brief snippet on TV about “The Decade of the Dames.” So, if we had any doubt that the subtext of women’s liberation is present, the film spells it right out. After a final falling out with dad, she moves out and gets an apartment, and Theresa’s encounters with men grow exponentially more numerous and dangerous.

Goodbar was released in 1977, just a few months after Keaton’s most iconic turn in the title role of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. So if you thought you couldn’t shake the specter of that performance even from Keaton’s later roles, this is worse, as every vocal cadence, laugh and grin is biologically identical. It doesn’t any help that her professor Martin, played by Alan Feinstein, bears a striking resemblance to Tony Roberts, which creates another weird dissonance (though one that the filmmakers could not have foreseen.)

Theresa just wants what all people want: love. When she doesn’t get it from her family or her lovers, she finds substitutes that feel good instead: sex and alcohol. The film is obsessed with showing us Theresa’s fantasies, but Brooks often feels no need to differentiate them from other scenes, which has a totally maddening bait-and-switch effect. When Theresa fantasizes about stepping in front of Martin’s car, dreaming of finally attaining the admiration of her family and her lover as she’s wheeled in a gurney down a hospital corridor, we have to wait for a cue before we know if it’s a fantasy or not.

Reportedly, Keaton makes little mention of Goodbar in her recent autobiography, which is telling. It screams of the type of role actresses, in the seventies and today, often have to subject themselves to in order to “break out” -- Keaton, who was 30 at the time, is frequently naked and has plenty of sex scenes. But Brooks, unlike his '70s contemporaries Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) or Nicholas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), films these scenes with all the erotic abandon of a cloistered nun. Many critics had been skeptical of Keaton until this point, however -- so, calculated as it looks now, the risk paid off, and Keaton was able to secure plenty of dramatic roles for herself in the '80s and onward. A clear turning point, so why does Keaton go out of her way not to acknowledge it?

Brooks was no stranger to adapting others’ work; in fact, it was something of his specialty. Most of his best films (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Blackboard Jungle, In Cold Blood, The Brothers Karamazov, Elmer Gantry), were adaptations of literary works, and most of them carried a twinge of social commentary as well. In this film, which he directed near the end of his career, Brooks tries to work up some dramatic tension by exploiting the audience’s knowledge of the story’s tragic end. Strangely, however, the book gives this away right at the beginning, but the film does not.

The other major performance is by Richard Gere, in one of his first leading roles. Gere plays Tony, a non-descript hood Theresa picks up in, yes, a bar. Goodbar debuted one year before Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, and it’s fun to imagine what Malick might have seen in Gere if he saw this film. The film undermines Gere’s performance, however; when Tony flips out after sex and has some kind of violent fit, jumping around the room with a knife and screaming, it’s supposed to be scary, but it just seems goofy and ridiculous. (Gere is also in charge of delivering several very clunky and unfortunate references to The Godfather, which fall totally flat.)

All this lends itself to making judgments about Theresa. Is she a “nice person?” Is there anything wrong with the way she behaves? Did she “get what she deserved?” These questions are maddening, and they are the best reason to see the film, as whether or not you find it as heavy-handed as I do, it does manage to provoke thoughts like these. There are also plenty of moments when Keaton draws you in with her performance; moments of gamesmanship where the horrible sadness and mean-spiritedness of her sexual encounters flares up like gasoline on a fire.

Her final suitor is played by Tom Berenger, who is seen kissing a man in the club (in another scene that recalls Shame), which plays as an ill-measured tip-off that “this one is different.” He’s a coked-up, ex-con, violent, closeted homosexual. The final scene plays out, as we knew it would, and it’s bone-chilling.

If you find this film being discussed online, in forums or comments sections, there is one sentence you’ll find repeated: “I saw this when I was young and it scared me to death.” The overall importance of this work, the book and the film, in terms of its effect on women’s lib at the end of the seventies, should probably not be understated. It seems to have burned its way into the psyches of a generation based solely on its provocative content.

There are times when the “be careful what you wish for” vibe seems hopelessly reductive, but at the time, this was enough to provoke a lot of people. So, is Looking for Mr. Goodbar a reasonable exercise in exploring women’s liberation to its furthest, most tragic end, or just an alarmist finger-wag aimed at striking fear in the hearts of a generation?  Rossner’s book at least takes time to elaborate on the aftermath of the murder, but the film fades to black as Theresa’s life ends.

Give credit to Rossner for taking a tragic story and giving it a canny spin which provoked readers and created a new conversation about what a woman (or anyone, for that matter) should or should not do with the freedoms they have. But Brooks’ film, unfortunately, is not nearly as skilled at conveying the subtleties inherent in its source material. Keaton puts on a show where she can, but in the end, she’s dead, and that’s all the film has to say about that. --Gregory Hess

It’s fascinating to read the film’s User Reviews on Netflix (the film was evidently available streaming there at one point, but isn’t any longer) to see the range of impassioned responses this film can provoke.

Also, have a look at the New York Timesrave book review of Rossner’s novel.

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Facets Multi-Media said...

Interesting to read an interpretation of the film from someone who didn't live in the era. Nice job overall, especially in pointing out the questions that the movie raises.