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Looking for Mr. Goodbar

Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)

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teaser Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)

Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)
For decades, Diane Keaton has been so firmly established in the public imagination as a Woody Allen muse and brilliant comic actress that it's easy to forget that she has turned in some equally impressive dramatic performances. Keaton began her career on the New York stage and had some television roles, but it was not until she began working with Allen in the early 1970s that her career really took off. Around the same time, she played Kay, the wife of Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972), reprising the role in subsequent sequels. With the exception of the first two Godfather films, she had appeared mostly in comedies until she took on the role of Teresa Dunn in Looking for Mister Goodbar. That film was released in 1977, the same year Keaton earned a best-actress Oscar for her comic tour de force in Allen's Annie Hall. Forty years later, Looking for Mister Goodbar offers one of Keaton's best and most powerful performances, and remains her most controversial film.

Based on Judith Rossner's novel of the same name, Looking for Mister Goodbar was inspired by the true story of Roseann Quinn, a young New Yorker who was in the habit of picking up men in bars for one-night stands, and was brutally murdered by one of them in 1973. In an era of rapidly evolving sexual mores, the film, as well as the true story and the novel, gained nationwide attention and provoked much debate by critics and moviegoers, perhaps reflecting the deeply divided American attitudes about women's sexuality in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Set to a thumping soundtrack of disco hits, Looking for Mister Goodbar follows schoolteacher Teresa as she cruises dimly-lit singles bars trying to escape from her complicated past and unfulfilling present. In spite of work that she loves and is good at, her romantic life has been a shambles. An affair with a married man was a dead end; she is being courted by a decent and eligible man, but feels no attraction to him. She's not looking for Mr. Right, but for Mr. Right Now. Inevitably, the men she attracts are all kinds of wrong. In one of his earliest substantial film roles, Richard Gere plays one of those Mr. Wrongs, an intense, jumped-up, self-absorbed jerk with a violent streak. Tom Berenger, also in his first important film role, is a sexually-confused psycho who has a fateful encounter with Teresa.

Director Richard Brooks, a Hollywood studio veteran, might have seemed an unlikely choice to write and direct a story as of-the-moment as Looking for Mister Goodbar, but he had a history of tackling provocative subject matter. Brooks began at MGM in 1950 and since 1960 had been an independent producer and writer-director. Among his acclaimed hits were Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), his final MGM film; Elmer Gantry (1959), which won him a screenwriting Oscar; and another famous true-crime story, In Cold Blood (1967).

Reviews for Looking for Mr. Goodbar ranged from ecstatic to awful. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael was among the critics who praised Keaton and disliked Brooks's direction, writing that Keaton "emanates warmth, miraculously, naturally," but that she "hasn't a powerful enough personality to bull her way through the huffing and puffing of Richard Brooks." According to Kael, in both Rossner's novel and Brooks's screenplay, "The weakness of this thriller is its moralizing psychology; the author believes Terry's drive to be abnormal and explains that she is unable to have a 'relationship'--unable to accept sex and love together." Kael seemed to dismiss Brooks's work as simplistic and reductive. "In Cold Blood wound up as a tract against capital punishment. Goodbar is an illustrated lecture on how nice girls go wrong." Stephen Farber in New West magazine implied that that the director's approach was old-fashioned: "Brooks's blatant, literal-minded view of human motivation is sadly inappropriate to [such] a contemporary story."

Feminist critics were divided. Some found the sex and violence exploitive, others felt it needed a stronger feminist viewpoint. Many reviewers had praise for the film and Keaton's performance, but also found its intensity difficult to watch. In New York magazine, Molly Haskell called it a "shattering experience.... [Keaton] has an inner light that is the brightest thing on the screen....This is by far Richard Brooks's best film. It is harrowing, powerful, appalling."

The controversy was good for the box office. Looking for Mr. Goodbar attracted huge audiences and was a financial success, earning 22 million dollars overall. But it received few award nominations (the only Oscar nods were for Tuesday Weld's supporting performance, and William Fraker's cinematography) and is rarely revived. It is well-worth seeking out, both as one of Diane Keaton's rare (and excellent) dramatic performances, and as a time capsule view of a vanished era of evolving sexual attitudes.

Director: Richard Brooks
Producer: Freddie Fields
Screenplay: Richard Brooks
Cinematography: William Fraker
Editor: George Grenville
Costume Design: Jodie Tillen
Art Direction: Edward C. Carfagno
Music: Artie Kane
Principal Cast: Diane Keaton (Teresa Dunn), Tuesday Weld (Katherine Dunn), William Atherton (James Morrissey), Richard Kiley (Mr. Dunn), Richard Gere (Tony), Alan Feinstein (Martin Engle), Tom Berenger (Gary), Priscilla Pointer (Mrs. Dunn), LeVar Burton (Cap Jackson)
136 minutes

by Margarita Landazuri

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