The film everyone (everyone) remembers from 1977 is Star Wars, the film that launched a thousand nerds. Nerdity has come into vogue in the 2010s, an epoch when it’s cool to be smart and high schoolers are emulating Elon Musk, not Justin Bieber (my god, I’m guessing – hoping). Star Wars was everything science fiction both was and wasn’t. Still camp – echoing for eternity Bill Shatner’s Star Trek saga, but Star Wars added the concept of high-stakes adventure and characters with which the everyman could identify in unlikely hero, Luke Skywalker, chip-on-the-shoulder Han Solo, strong, reasonable Princess Leia and for some, hairy and loyal Chewbacca. The story has lived on nearly four decades and five-plus(!) sequels, not to mention thousands of syndications and millions in product opportunity. The film most perfectly reflected the tail end of the Second Golden Age Of Filmmaking (1969-1977) and most succinctly represented the ethos of the late 70s.
But Star Wars did not win Best Picture in 1977. Instead the honor belongs to Annie Hall, a Woody Allen comedy that may have accomplished what Star Wars did – but brought the concepts down to Earth, rather than to Tattooine. Annie Hall reminds us of the humorous side of the late ’70s. Julia provided the drama and the boundary push and The Turning Point is mostly irrelevant. The Goodbye Girl had the unfortunate circumstance of landing smack in the middle; humorous and relatable, but relatively tame and un-challenging. This predicament – the average among the best – is not unique, but it has left many films in relative obscurity…some great, some not. Besides Dreyfuss’ wacky, inspired performance, this movie should stick its way as the one of best average films to have been nominated for Best Picture.
What makes a film great? What makes it awful? Luckily for you, dear reader I won’t get into specifics here – the variables that constitute greatness and awfulness are far too great (and awful) for a 700 word essay on The Goodbye Girl, but the point is that our gut is usually right – that the margin between objective and subjective greatness is small. For the same reasons we recognize The Godfather or Citizen Kane as wonderful achievements in filmmaking, so to do we recognize The Human Centipede 2 and Gigli as nightmares and a waste of probably useful resources. The Goodbye Girl does half of the things that we consider innately great and the other half, that we consider terribly poor.
For one, Richard Dreyfuss is Woody Allen-esque in his rendering of Elliot Garfield. The mannerisms are inherently funny and human (late-night guitar playing, morning meditation and musing on said meditation, the health food, the glasses and his way with words) and he comes across as a genuine person through his successive actions; audiences love seeing characters that represent a perfected version of their dogma. In the case of The Goodbye Girl, Dreyfuss’ Garfield is perfectly genuine and dogged in pursuit of his goals and he’s a joy to watch as he tries to soften up Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason), a woman spurned over and over and over and over…..ad infinitum it seems. Her character makes The Goodbye Girl almost unwatchable.
The archetype of the woman out for revenge has created a platform to lift up the plight of millennia of second-class citizenship. The “Yes We Can!” movement, women’s suffrage, fair pay have narrowed the gender gap further than our sixteenth-century selves could have imagined, but Mason’s interpretation of McFadden, the woman scorned, may have completely nullified the forward progress of the last 200 years. McFadden is completely unsympathetic. Does she date jerks (how does she find these men)? Yes. Does she consistently complain about how “everyone is out to get her,” while taking zero precaution to create an environment that sets her up for success? Yes. A more interesting approach could have been to slowly peel away her insecurities so that her’s an Elliot’s personalities match a little more and the romance becomes a little more believable. “Hey McFadden, you’re standing outside, alone in a well-known dangerous neighborhood,” thinks the version of McFadden that wouldn’t do that. This woman has a 10 year-old-daughter? The fact that McFadden is both insecure and unwilling to change makes her totally unsympathetic and a much less dynamic character than, let’s say Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia or Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall.
Unfortunately, the middling of all the character highs and lows, combined with an actual Woody Allen picture doomed The Goodbye Girl to the hell of mediocrity. There’s nothing overtly special about this film that would jolt a recommendation to watch it. Save for said 10-year-old, who’s even approaching the age when precocious no longer equals cute, and for Elliot’s rendition of Shakespeare’s Richard III, not as Laurence Olivier (or an attempt), but as a flaming homosexual, as the “queen who would be king,” the movie just isn’t funny enough or romantic enough to qualify as a comedy, romance or romantic-comedy. It’s outdone on every front by Annie Hall and Star Wars.