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Movie Reviews

Spotlight on: Herbert Ross's The Goodbye Girl

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Herbert Ross's The Goodbye Girl

Ever since I learned that Richard Dreyfuss had won the Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Elliot Garfield in The Goodbye Girl, it had been added to my "must-see" list. I just saw it last night and, like many Neil Simon films, it has its ups and downs.

When her live-in actor boyfriend Tony leaves for Italy, out-of-work dancer Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason, who was married to Simon and would eventually act in six of his films) is left alone, again, with her 10-year-old daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings). What she didn't know is that, before leaving and since the lease was in his name, Tony had sublet their apartment to someone else: struggling Chicago actor Elliot Garfield, just in town for his New York premiere as Richard III. After a lengthy set of arguments, they come to an arrangement: they will share the apartment.

The Goodbye Girl is a romantic comedy so, of course, Paula and Elliot spend the first half of the movie at each other's throat (before coming together at the end) while Lucy delivers the film's best lines and is, in general, adorably charming. Cummings probably gives the film's most engaging performance. Mason is good, but her sharp features left me wondering what the attraction was, although the bearded and bespectacled Dreyfuss is no catch, either. (It is apparent that the cast was chosen for their acting ability and not their matinee idol looks.)

And now Dreyfuss: did he deserve the Oscar over Woody Allen (Annie Hall), Richard Burton (Equus), Marcello Mastroianni (A Special Day), and John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever)? I'm torn but tend to lean toward the positive, not based on his entire performance, but on specific moments when I went "wow" like when Paula and Lucy go to see him after the opening of Richard III. Every bit of that scene comes through his eyes and facial expression. He doesn't say a word and, probably because of that, my eyes were riveted to him. For the rest, just imagine Hooper from Jaws in love; Dreyfuss usually plays himself. Although I can certainly imagine that Jason Alexander's performance as George on Seinfeld owes more than a little to Dreyfuss' 1970s film persona, especially here.

Neil Simon stories are generally uneven and The Goodbye Girl is no exception. When he is writing comedy, there is no one better. Unfortunately, he likes to insert moments of drama in his plays, as well, and, after laughing so much, the absence of it is very noticeable. I found myself slowly losing interest toward the end as the romance developed. I'm not intrigued by watching two very ordinary-looking people kissing, and there is at least one intense scene of that alone. Also, Lucy became less prominent as the romance was played out, and that is a loss. And the last quarter of simply didn't have room to be funny. Surprisingly enough, even though The Goodbye Girl is one of the few Simon movies not based on a Broadway play, it feels like one: it takes place almost entirely in one location, and the actors (particularly Dreyfuss) often descend to extreme gestures. I can't imagine watching it again, but I think people should see it, especially actors, if just to watch Dreyfuss play Richard III as a mincing gay man. It's offensive in the best way.

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