Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)
Written & Directed by Richard Brooks
The 1970s saw the Sexual Revolution occur in the United States. Like everything in America, this was more complex than it first appeared, and Americans overindulged to the extent that it did cause some harm to themselves. Sex is good, people should have more of it, but Americans have never been able to engage healthily. It’s either the most insane chaste abstinence or hyper-indulgence in near comical fetish. It should come as no surprise that film & television about sex have just never managed to get anything right because they become so caught up in the specter of Puritanical thinking in which the country is rooted. Looking for Mr. Goodbar was a mainstream attempt to make a movie about women’s liberation and the sexual revolution, and I cannot say whether or not it worked. The biggest problem is that it was written & directed by a man who seemed utterly uncomfortable with what was happening.
Theresa (Diane Keaton) is a teaching student in New York City preparing for a career working with hearing-impaired students. She is a good student and buckles down most of the time but naturally yearns to relax and not have to be so responsible all the time. It doesn’t help that she lives with her repressive Catholic parents, who monitor her comings and goings. In her youth, Theresa had scoliosis, which left her with body image issues that made her afraid of sex for a long time. On the other hand, her sister Katherine (Tuesday Weld) is divorced, sleeping with multiple men, and even flies down to Puerto Rico for an abortion, all without their parents’ knowledge. During college, Theresa has an affair with one of her professors, but it’s when she gets her own apartment that she lets loose. One night she meets Tony (Richard Gere), an extraordinarily vain but physically attractive man. Her relationship with Tony leads to her habitual use of cocaine, quaaludes, and very self-destructive behavior. However, there’s “good guy” social worker James (William Atherton), whom her parents love, so Theresa is stuck in a spot of trying to decide the direction of her life.
This may sound like a reasonably tame plot synopsis, but there’s no way to really prepare you for how batshit crazy this movie gets. I was left reeling after the final scene, which was a level of violence & disturbing imagery I did not expect from this movie. It also left me confused about what filmmaker Richard Brooks was trying to say about female sexuality, and I suspect this is ultimately a Dirty Harry-like response to sexual liberation. Brooks is clearly terrified of women’s sexuality and needs to shape this into a morality tale complete with a punitive moral at the end to dissuade other women from following Theresa’s example.
It does not help that it is one of the most tonally imbalanced movies I’ve ever seen. The first third of the picture is playful with Fellini-esque flights of fancy as we see events from Theresa’s daydreams. There are also short scenes that feel like maybe there was more, but they got cut in the editing bay; just wondering why these pieces were included because they don’t add anything. It honestly feels like the movie is trying to figure out what it is while you are watching it; not the best film viewing experience, to say the least. The strange finger-wagging morality also clashes with the graphically filmed sex scenes; for 1977 (and probably even today), these are some fairly explicit sex scenes in American cinema. The use of shadows to obscure just enough while the camera films the actors from head to toe surprised me. You don’t often see sex presented like this and those moments never play as something to be scared of.
The film is based on a novel which in turn was based on the true story of Roseann Quinn. Quinn’s life was extremely similar to Theresa’s; she was a schoolteacher raised in the Catholic Church who had scoliosis as a teenager. Quinn became very sexually active when she moved out and got her own apartment, entirely normal for a young person finally on their own. Eventually, she hooked up with a guy with many untreated mental health issues, and he couldn’t achieve an erection. Quinn asked him to leave, and they began fighting. Finally, the man stabbed her to death and fled the scene. He was eventually caught, but Quinn’s story was picked up by tabloids in New York City, and, in their craven manner, they exploited this poor woman’s murder to sell papers.
Author Judith Rossner was fascinated with the story and developed a novel based on it, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. The book, as literature often does, can get into Theresa’s mind, and readers can understand that this wasn’t just a “horny” woman but someone full of complexity, a yearning for human contact who was reacting to years of intense religious oppression. As most people are, she was highly complicated and not a person easily condensed for mass consumption as an object of ridicule & judgment. Rossner reportedly hated the film adaptation but did appreciate Keaton’s performance.
While the ending feels like the nastiest scold you could lay on a person, there are moments in the film that seem to speak to a woman’s perspective on modern sexuality. No one is shocked when Tony becomes an asshole, but he also seems to genuinely have mental health issues, pinballing between emotions and fueled by his drug consumption. I was especially surprised by James’s turn towards the movie’s end. He goes from being the good Irish-Catholic boy her parents wanted to a nasty, venom-spitting shit when he realizes Theresa is choosing her life of sexual openness rather than settling down with him. I never felt that she was being shown in a negative light in these specific instances; instead, I found it to be a compelling argument for the chaos women are asked to put up with from unhinged, privileged, sexually violent men.
But then that ending just lands with the biggest thud. The film concludes with Theresa meeting the same fate as Roseann Quinn, but how they do it reeks of so much bigotry. In Quinn’s case, everything I have read about her killer plays as a man whose sexual insecurity fueled his violence. In the film, Theresa’s killer is introduced to us as a gay man who is suddenly shamed about his relationship with an older man. This takes place completely separate from her story, and the two meet at a bar. He fails to get an erection, and the audience is meant to read this as a result of his homosexuality. This fuels his violent attack on Theresa, and for me, it suffused the film with a deep layer of disgusting reactionary thought. We’ve seen how nasty heterosexual men have been to Theresa, but of course, it’s a “crazy homicidal gay” that does her in.
Another way of reading the film more favorably is that it’s about how shitty all men are and how hopeless it is for a heterosexual/bisexual woman to try and have casual sex. I don’t think there is a single guy in this picture that comes off looking good, and if that was Brooks’ intent, I have to applaud him for presenting a pretty progressive story in the 1970s. Chauvinism was alive and well despite other cultural advances, so if the film is trying to say All Men Are Bastards, I will not argue with it. The Free Love movement always centered male pleasure over female as the saint/whore binary continued to be applied to women even as men hopped from bed to bed. Is Theresa giving in to the inevitable destruction at men’s hands that she’s been threatened with almost the entire movie? I’m not sure, but this is undoubtedly one of the trickiest movies from this series I’ve watched. It’s worthy of more attention and analysis.