Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Looking for Mr. Goodbar

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

I was going to put Looking for Mr. Goodbar on my end-of-the-year list as “Best Film of 1967.” But although Richard Brooks’ self-consciously flashy techniques are at least that dated, I think even a decade ago his shallow, cheating approach to both subject and audience would have been seen for what it is. Several times in the course of the film, Brooks segues his narrative line into a surprising but dead-end sequence that—after a shock-cut back to reality—proves to have been a fantasy of the main character, Terry Dunn. The first couple of times this happens, the audience has no basis for regarding the sequence as fantasy, since Terry is never portrayed as a woman who can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Even later, the audience picks up on the cutaways to fantasy only because by now it is on to Brooks’s tricks. Never does the device have any integral bearing on the film’s theme or style.

I haven’t read Judith Rossner’s novel, so I can’t say how much of the writing is hers and how much Brooks’s. I only assume that to have created a widely praised bestselling novel, Rossner must have explored Terry Dunn and her world in substantially greater depth than does Brooks. Confronted with the real-life mystery of “Saint Teresa by day, Swinging Terry by night,” Brooks does little more than provide a catalogue of easy answers—which is to say, no answers at all: her domination by her ethnocentric Irish-Catholic father, her crippling spinal disorder (a legacy of the father’s blood that had led an aunt to suicide), her envy of her attractive sister and lust for her sister’s boyfriends, her defloration and subsequent abandonment by a high school teacher on whom she had a crush … and on and on. These are ways of seeming to say something while saying nothing at all. In the same way, repeated reliance on token signifiers like street signs, marquees, hookers hooking, gays kissing, or a forbidding nun in the doorway of a subway train seem significant, while at the same time providing superficial excuses for not getting deeply into Terry or her world.

Throughout the film, Brooks seems to have been too quickly and too easily satisfied. From the film he’s created, it’s not entirely clear to me what actually appealed to him in this parable of the failure of Love, of sexual liberation as the darker side of the American feminist movement. Yet what Brooks has made of the film falls easily into line with any number of his earlier films—The Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry, The Professionals, In Cold Blood—that seem to support an underlying vision of a world in which everyone is, in varying degrees, demented. Presuming to justify this vision, in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, with an implied complacent moralism (“See what happens to little girls who mess around too much?”) only marks Brooks as a slick pornographer, a pseudo-intellectual slummer. The fact that the sex scenes are ultimately more interesting and memorable than the scenes of violence or of emotional intensity only seems to confirm my suspicion about where Brooks’ real interests and motives lie.

But when we quickly despair of the director’s cutesy-poo way of not looking at what really matters about Terry and her world, happily we have Diane Keaton’s performance to rely on. Keaton’s portrayal of Terry Dunn is an analysis that speaks to us with direct, penetrating depth, not trifling with the scattergun pseudo-psychology of Brooks’s approach to the woman. Yet even this is not easy, since Brooks’s structureless flashiness keeps distracting us from the intensity of Keaton’s performance—which gives the lie to any claims of responsibility Brooks might make for Keaton’s achievement. There is an iconographic joke early in the film, when Terry has just begun bar-hopping. She sits at a bar reading The Godfather. A boy she will later become involved with stops to take a quick look at the book. “Oh yeah,” he says. “I saw the pitcher. That Al Pacino was somethin’, huh?” It’s a critical mistake at this point in the film, since it only serves to remind us of the distance between Diane Keaton, actress, and Terry Dunn, character. Yet I think kindly about the joke because it made me laugh, and thereby provided a refreshing spot in the midst of a film filled with mistakes that were far less entertaining.

Direction: Richard Brooks. Screenplay: Brooks, after the novel by Judith Rossner. Cinematography: William A. Fraker. Art direction: Edward Carfagno. Editing: George Grenville. Music supervision: Artie Kane. Production: Freddie Fields.
The players: Diane Keaton, Tuesday Weld, Richard Kiley, Richard Gere, William Atherton, Alan Feinstein, Tom Berenger, Richard Bright, Priscilla Pointer, Julius Harris, LeVar Burton.

© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.