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Retro Review: LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977)

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LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR
(US - 1977)

Written and directed by Richard Brooks. Cast: Diane Keaton, Tuesday Weld, William Atherton, Richard Kiley, Richard Gere, LeVar Burton, Alan Feinstein, Tom Berenger, Priscilla Pointer, Julius Harris, Richard Bright, Laurie Prange, Tony Fabiani, Robert Fields, Brian Dennehy, Richard Venture, Caren Kaye. (R, 136 mins)

A controversial, zeitgeist-capturing water-cooler discussion movie of its day, LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR has been rather difficult to see over the last couple of decades. It was last issued on VHS in 1997, has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, and occasional appearances on YouTube are usually incomplete and/or quickly pulled. There's been some rumors that star Diane Keaton has kept it out of circulation, but that seems suspect--the most likely explanation for the film's absence on DVD and Blu-ray is the clearance of the music rights. The soundtrack features a slew of ubiquitous radio hits from the era, including Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way," Donna Summer's cover of Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic?" Diana Ross'"Love Hangover," and Boz Scaggs'"Lowdown," among others. The film recently resurfaced on Turner Classic Movies and may be a sign that a Blu-ray debut is forthcoming.





Based on Judith Rossner's bestselling 1975 novel, LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR is inspired by the life of Roseann Quinn, a NYC schoolteacher who was murdered in 1973. Quinn led a double life as a dedicated teacher by day and sexually liberated woman by night, much like GOODBAR's protagonist Theresa Dunn (Keaton). Raised in a stern Irish Catholic family and extremely self-conscious over a large surgical scar on her back from a grueling childhood bout with scoliosis, Theresa is introduced as a shy college student prone to fantasizing about her married professor Martin (Alan Feinstein). The two have an affair over her last year at school, but Martin ends it, adamantly refusing to leave his wife (plus, he's already screwing another student). Theresa gets a job teaching at a school for the deaf, where she's an inspiration to her students, investing much time, care and love in their education and growth and making them feel accepted in the world. After hours, still heartbroken over Martin's rejection and partially inspired by the swinging, group sex-lifestyle of her married older sister Katherine (Tuesday Weld), she becomes active in the singles scene and the nightlife of the Studio 54 era, spending her time at increasingly seedy bars looking for men. She starts an on/off fling with sleazy and the plays-rough Tony (Richard Gere in one of his earliest roles) and rejects the courtship of nice-guy James (William Atherton), her family-approved suitor who briefly considered entering the priesthood. Before long, Theresa's pursuit of casual sex and her increased recreational drug use start interfering with her job. She's tardy on a few occasions and Tony begins showing up on the school playground to harass and threaten her until he gets his ass beaten by the older brother (LeVar Burton) of one of her students. Feeling like she's spiraling out of control, Theresa resolves to get her life back on track, venturing out on New Year's Eve for one last wild night before changing her ways.


Written and directed by Richard Brooks (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, ELMER GANTRY, IN COLD BLOOD), LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR was considered a bold, daring film in its day, and it remains surprising to see an occasionally nude Keaton in such sordid surroundings. 1977 was a banner year for the actress between this and her Oscar-winning performance in Woody Allen's ANNIE HALL. She gives this everything she's got, but the film doesn't seem dark and dirty enough, coming off more like a sanitized, Hollywood version of Rossner's much darker and more bleak novel. It plays now like an odd fusion of 1967's UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE, chronicling the experiences of a new and idealistic young schoolteacher (Sandy Dennis), and the later TIGHTROPE (1984), where Clint Eastwood's dedicated cop and single father lives a secret nightlife of kinky, S&M sex with New Orleans prostitutes. You can also see a strong GOODBAR influence on Jane Campion's 2003 thriller IN THE CUT, where Meg Ryan attempted to show another side of herself by taking on a very Theresa Dunn-like role. There's an artifice to some sequences in GOODBAR that's almost distracting--the film's Red Light District looks like a garishly lit studio backlot set that you'd see on a sitcom. Lots of major studio films suffered from unconvincing TV backlots in those days, but that still doesn't excuse why you almost expect to see Laverne & Shirley schlemeel-and-schlemazeling past Theresa's apartment building.





In the book, Theresa gives in to much baser instincts, seeking out danger and engaging in increasingly rough and reckless masochistic sexual activities. In the film, Keaton's Theresa just seems like a young woman going through a hard-partying phase. Brooks creates a problem by shortening the timeline of the story--the book took place over a period from the 1960s to the early 1970s. Brooks cuts that down to just 1975 and 1976. This doesn't really provide enough time for Theresa's after-dark exploits to become her norm. Instead, it's more akin to an experimental period of self-discovery by a young woman with newfound freedom. In the book, it covered enough time that her clubbing and drugging and random, anonymous sexual encounters became an increasingly dangerous and self-destructive way of life (the time change also leads to nonsensical comment by Katherine about going to Puerto Rico for an abortion, which was completely unnecessary in 1975, two years after Roe v. Wade). It's clear that Katherine and Theresa (and their younger sister Brigid, played by Laurie Prange, who has two out-of-wedlock children by the end of the movie) are acting out against their repressive upbringing by their domineering father. Mr. Dunn is played in an overwrought performance by the usually reliable Richard Kiley, who approaches the character as the loudest, proudest, most belligerent Notre Dame-loving Irish Catholic patriarch in movie history. This was a breakout role for Gere, and judging from his mannered and embarrassing work here, it's hard to imagine he'd be going anywhere. Like the film's ludicrous Red Light District, Gere's Tony is a sitcom version of a dangerous thug, spazzing around the room, doing push-ups wearing nothing but a jockstrap, prone to spontaneous shadow-boxing, and generally coming off about as threatening as Fonzie. Weld has almost nothing to do in one of the most inexplicable Oscar-nominated performances you'll ever see (she was up for Best Supporting Actress, losing to Vanessa Redgrave in JULIA), and Brooks really doesn't know what to do with Atherton (who would later cement his place in film history as one of the great movie assholes of the 1980s, from his work as Walter Peck in GHOSTBUSTERS, Jerry Hathaway in REAL GENIUS, and shitbag reporter Dick Thornburg in DIE HARD), whose James turns into a borderline psychotic stalker after Theresa dumps him.


But then there's that ending. Brooks starts building momentum with some foreshadowing--James stalking Theresa; an extremely creepy sketch Theresa draws; Katherine jokingly attacking her with a rubber knife--that escalates to a profoundly disturbing climax that gets under your skin more than any other 1970s movie not called THE EXORCIST. When people talk about LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, they talk about the ending, in which Theresa hooks up with Gary (Tom Berenger), an insecure and angry homosexual (he claims to have a pregnant wife in Florida) who's just out of prison ("in prison, if you didn't fight, you spread ass!") and just cruelly dumped his older boyfriend (Richard Bright), shouting to him "I'm a pitcher, never a catcher!" Theresa and Gary end up in bed, where he has difficulty getting an erection, and it just gets worse from there. Considering Quinn was murdered by a man she picked up at a bar, who became known as the Goodbar Killer (Goodbar was a bar Quinn frequented), Theresa's fate should not be a surprise, but Brooks' handling of the murder and the performances of Keaton and Berenger (in his third film, and his first significant role), are unforgettable. The film's depiction of a psychotic, self-loathing gay man driven to murder when he feels his manhood is being questioned is a little antiquated even by 1977 standards, as is the victim-blaming discussion at the time by the more puritanical-minded over whether the promiscuous Theresa had it coming (in the book, Theresa deliberately sought out increasingly dangerous men, something the movie doesn't have the balls to depict). Even knowing what happens, this is the kind of ending that's not easily shaken off, and one that will flat-out fuck you up and stay with you for days. If only the rest of LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR was as bold and as shocking as the finale.


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