Looking For Mr. Goodbar
Screenplay : Richard Brooks (based on the novel by Judith Rossner)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1977
Stars : Diane Keaton (Theresa Dunn), Tuesday Weld (Katherine Dunn), William Atherton (James), Richard Kiley (Mr. Dunn), Richard Gere (Tony), Alan Feinstein (Martin), Tom Berenger (Gary), Priscilla Pointer (Mrs. Dunn)
"Looking For Mr. Goodbar" is a none-too-subtle cautionary tale about the dangers of living a hedonistic nightlife masked by a legitimate daylife. The film stars Diane Keaton as an attractive young woman named Theresa Dunn, who is a successful and caring teacher of deaf students by day, and a nightclub-carousing libertine by night. The message of director Richard Brooks, who adapted Judith Rossner's popular novel of the same title, is twofold: first, a person can't wear two faces at the same time without them interfering with each other, and second, hedonism can only lead to eventual self-destruction.
Brooks gives us numerous reasons to explain Theresa's dangerous and often stupid behavior when it comes to sex with strange men. Some of it is due to the Freudian relationship with her overbearing father (Richard Kiley), as well as her strict Catholic upbringing (why is Catholicism always blamed for sexual dysfunction?). There was also a childhood episode involving extensive back surgery, which left a long scar to remind her of the year she spent miserable in a body cast.
Brooks also spends the first half-hour of the film detailing an unfulfilling sexual relationship with her college professor, a blunt married man named Martin (Alan Feinstein). Theresa has a crush on Martin, and although she gives up her virginity to him, he basically treats her like dirt and dumps her, thus introducing her to the notion that sex and love don't necessarily have to be related. For the rest of the film, Theresa reverses the scenario with other men, making sure that she is in the position of being the uncaring recipient of pleasure, who doesn't have to take any responsibility for her actions.
And then there's the influence of Theresa's sister, Katherine (Tuesday Weld), a light-headed airline stewardess who has numerous affairs and at least one abortion, jumps into a quickie marriage with a Jewish man, and then experiments with drugs, pornography, and group sex. Watching the two sisters develop as characters is like watching side-by-side elevators going in opposite directions -- Katherine ends up getting clean and taking control of her life again, while Theresa sinks into drugs, nameless sex, and general hedonism.
At one point in the film, Katherine tells Theresa that everybody is somehow hurting, so everybody is looking for a painkiller; for Theresa, her heedless lifestyle is her painkiller. She thinks that if she can have fun by sleeping with strangers who never stay the night, she can absolve herself of the burden of responsibility. The fact that it didn't work for Katherine should have been a lesson for Theresa, but some people are simply intent on learning life's harshest lessons firsthand, even if it means paying the ultimate price.
During the course of the film, Theresa meets a string of men, all of whom are dangerous in one way or another. First, she meets a swinging, somewhat psychotic playboy named Tony, played by a young Richard Gere with a bad Italian accent. She later meets a liberal social worker named James (William Atherton), and although he seems squeaky-clean on the outside, he harbors darkness inside. There are others that are briefly mentioned in fleeting scenes, including a perverted furniture salesman and a hypocritical police detective. Theresa sleeps with all of them, because to her it's the sex that matters, not the person.
Parts of "Looking For Mr. Goodbar" are successful, especially its detailed depiction of the Manhattan nightlife in the seventies. Some of it looks painfully dated, especially the disco-themed soundtrack, but the basic timeless elements are all there -- heavy drinking, drug use, impulsive behavior, and an atmosphere or reckless abandon.
The film was made several years before the AIDS epidemic struck, but that should not blur the film's message. People sometimes forget that venereal disease is not the only negative consequence of casual sex -- there is a personal and spiritual destruction, as well threats of physical violence. Anytime a person allows someone else into that kind of physical closeness without knowing a thing about him, there is an inherent element of risk that is made abundantly clear in the film's graphically violent, but somehow inevitable conclusion.
Brooks, who has made many gritty, realistic films like "The Blackboard Jungle" (1955) and the stark adaptation of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" (1967), would seem like a perfect choice for this material. Social reality seems to be his forte, but he goes against his better instincts by including several needless fantasy sequences that are intended to illuminate Theresa's thoughts and dreams, but end up being silly and distracting. Brooks also could have trimmed the film by about twenty minutes, because it takes much more time than is needed to make its point.
Much of the film's success can be attributed to Diane Keaton's stunning performance. Almost the entire film is told from her point of view, which means she is on-screen in almost every scene. Keaton makes Theresa into a complex woman who knowingly wears two faces despite the obvious damage it is causing. This is an incredibly difficult role to pull off, because Theresa must be both infuriating and sympathetic at the same time. Keaton manages to do just that, which lends weight and credibility to the cautionary tale the movie is so desperate to put forward.
©1998 James Kendrick