If you want to see a classic romantic comedy then look no further than Neil Simon’s THE GOODBYE GIRL.
I’d have to say THE GOODBYE GIRL has a special place in my heart. Readers of this blog may have spotted that I love a bit of romance and if that’s mixed with a more than a dash of humour, even better – you have a classic romantic comedy. Movies like French Kiss or Ghost Town or The Accidental Husband are just some I’ve enjoyed and celebrated here. So Herbert Ross’s 1977 movie of Neil Simon’s script is, I think, one pretty fine classic romantic comedy.
Paula McFadden, the glorious Marsha Mason, has found that in relationships, she’s always THE GOODBYE GIRL – sooner or later, the guy ups and leaves her. The latest one, a smoothie actor with the great name of Tony DeForest, has headed to Europe leaving her in the New York apartment they shared. But what he conveniently forgets to inform Paula is that he’s sub-let the place to a friend of his, a struggling actor called Elliot Garfield (a deservedly Oscar-winning Richard Dreyfuss) who’s come to town to do an off-Broadway play.
Elliot turns up late one night, soaked to the skin with a lease in his pocket and is somewhat taken aback that the apartment isn’t empty. Paula, still angry at Tony for leaving, tells Elliot she’s sorry but he’ll have to go, the place is hers. There’s also Lucy to consider, you see. Lucy is Paula’s wise-cracking daughter (an amazing Quinn Cummings) who at 10 years old, is actually more grown-up than both of them and as far as Paula is concerned, the deal-breaker when it comes to who gets to stay. Trouble is, Paula an unemployed dancer, has been left without a cent by Tony so when Elliot mentions the money he’ll have once he starts his new show the next day, she reluctantly sees the sense in letting him share the apartment.
A kind of modern-day (for the 1970s) Taming of the Shrew begins to play out (as Elliot describes their circumstances at one point), a dazzlingly witty exchange of wordplay between seemingly tough cookie Paula and force of nature Elliot, each one a great exponent of Neil Simon’s first-class writing. Events take a further hilarious turn when we see the rehearsals for the play Elliot’s come to New York to be in. Well, not just any play, it’s Richard III but not quite as we’ve seen it before because its director Mark (a very funny Paul Benedict) has a pretty unusual take on the piece. Elliot can’t quite believe that his big break, playing one of the greatest roles in theatre, may involve him acting like a complete idiot.
And so the stage is well and truly set for one of Simon’s very best comedies. Simon commented once that when writing ‘My view is, “how sad and funny life is.” I can’t think of a humorous situation that does not involve some pain. I used to ask, “What is a funny situation?” Now I ask, “What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?”‘
THE GOODBYE GIRL, one of the handful of his original screenplays, demonstrates this beautifully – Paula is heartbroken at the start of the film, filled with some of Simon’s trademark characteristics: insecurity, longing, disappointment and once Elliot starts rehearsals, he also feels frustrated, powerless and pretty much at rock bottom in terms of his what might happen to his acting career. So they have one or two obstacles to overcome and watching them do this, with Simon’s snappy repartee and just downright pizzazz, it makes the ride you take with them during the course of the movie, a hugely enjoyable one.
Of course, as with all romantic comedies, the initial hostility between the two principles eventually starts to thaw and as you thought from the first moment they laid eyes on each other, are one perfect match. After seeing Richard Dreyfuss in very different but nonetheless brilliant guises in the likes of American Graffiti, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind before this, he’s on another level here, giving an absolutely astounding performance as Elliot. He’s infuriatingly sharp-witted, slightly oddball and incredibly adorable. He delivers speech after speech of Simon’s dialogue with that kind of effortless flair that’s dazzling to watch.
Mason is a brilliant foil and although they both walked away with Golden Globes for their performances in 1978, it’s a shame she lost out on the Oscar (to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall) because as Paula she’s fabulously angry at being left by another boyfriend and for that tiny piece of herself which is pure marshmallow and that allows her to fall for someone all over again.
The very best romantic comedies are pure joy to watch from start to finish and when you put on THE GOODBYE GIRL for all of its 111 minutes, that’s what you feel. Go on, give it a try.