Monday, July 28, 2014

SPHINX 1981

“Get more out of life. See a fucked-up movie.”  John Waters

I don’t know why, but certain kinds of bad movies do have a unique charm about them. The best are happy accidents comprised of good intentions, poor decisions, lofty ambitions, and overburdened talent - all culminating in a perfect schadenfreude cocktail.
To be fair, Sphinx doesn't legitimately qualify as a fucked-up movie, but it is an implausible, convoluted, unrelentingly silly movie which, provided it hasn't put you to sleep with its sluggish pacing, is a great deal of fun. The fact that I derive so much pleasure from a film considered by many (some being members of the film's cast) to be absolutely wretched, is a riddle worthy of the Sphinx itself.
Lesley-Anne Down as Dr. Erica Baron
Frank Langella as Ahmed Khazzan
Sir John Gielgud as Abdu-Hamdi
Maurice Ronet as Yvon DeMargeau
Sphinx was released toward the tail-end of “Tut-Mania” - a superficially New Age-y 70s craze inflamed by the mass-marketing and rampant publicity surrounding the record-breaking 1976-1979 U.S. tour of the Egyptian artifact exhibit: The Treasures of Tutankhamun. Virtually overnight, America became obsessed by all things Egyptian. 
Comedian Steve Martin had a Top-20 hit with his novelty song, King Tut; bookstores overflowed with tomes extolling the virtues of Pyramid Power (my college had a pyramid in its courtyard under which students could sit for energy renewal. Its acoustic-resistant design ideal for muting the sound of snickers); and everywhere you looked you saw King Tut posters, bumper stickers, T-shirts, and massive reproductions of ancient Egyptian jewelry. Rare was the home you’d visit which didn't have at least one Egyptian-themed artwork, shelf knickknack, or coffee table book on display.

In the grip of Egyptomania
Cher (who never met a fad she didn't like) plays "Hands off my Tuts" while
Steve Martin gets wild & crazy with an Egyptian mummy (w)rap song
In 1978, thanks largely to Michael Crichton’s slick direction and Geneviève Bujold’s intelligent performance, Coma - author Robin Cook’s 1977 bestselling medical-thriller - enjoyed a commercially successful book-to-screen translation. The following year, Cook topped the bestseller lists again with Sphinx, another profession-based mystery-thriller with a spunky young heroine at its center, this time set in the fast-paced, life and death struggle, never-a-dull-moment world of Egyptology. That the novel would be made into a motion picture was a foregone conclusion the moment it hit the stands.
Sphinx’s serpentine plot (aspish plot?) virtually defies description, but the base, TV-miniseries gist of it all is that Lesley-Anne Down is a young and beautiful Egyptologist (is there any other kind?) who stumbles upon a cutthroat gang of antiquities black marketeers, and in doing so, possibly unearths Egypt's last undiscovered, perfectly preserved tomb. In her efforts to claim the discovery for herself ("Do you know what the chances are of getting anywhere in Egyptology through the normal routes are for a woman?!?" she asserts at the beginning of a long-winded, ill-timed feminist jeremiad that doesn't have the cumulative effect the screenwriter hoped) while assisting an ambitious French Journalist (Ronet), and falling in love with/evading a mysterious Egyptian official (Langella); Down must first survive being thrown down a flight of stairs, imprisonment, being chased, terrorized, shot at, assaulted, entombed, bitten by an old woman(!), nearly beheaded, run off the road, and being attacked by old bats (they flying type, this time, not the aforementioned little old lady). It's action, it's adventure, it's romance...it's Sphinx.
In a 1922 flashback sequence, Victoria Tennant and James Cossins portray Lady and Lord Carnarvon, the real-life financial backers of the discovery and excavation of Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb. Ironically, in 1986 Tennant would wed Mr. King Tut himself, Steve Martin.
If Hollywood wasn't already intrigued by the lightning-strikes-twice success potential of Robin Cook's sound-alike suspenser (it’s essentially Coma in Cairo), most certainly the timely, exploitation-friendly setting of Egypt was enough to seal the deal. The aforementioned Treasures of Tutankhamun museum tour was still going strong (it toured globally from 1972 through 1981) so Sphinx must have looked like a boxoffice slam dunk. In an out-of-the-gate bid to compete in the big leagues, recently-formed independent production company Orion Pictures snapped up the film rights to Sphinx in pre-publication for an estimated $1 million dollars. The directing chores immediately assigned to Oscar-winning director Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Planet of the Apes, The Boys from Brazil), who also co-produced. 

After such a hefty initial cash outlay, and with a substantial portion of the film’s budget (reported to be in the vicinity of $12 million - $17 million) yet to be allocated to the securing of a cinematographer (Ernest Day - A Passage it India) and the understandably high-priority task of acquiring the rights to film in some of Egypt’s most historic locations (Valley of the Kings, the Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza, The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities); the makers of Sphinx can’t be blamed if they felt it necessary to tighten their shentis a bit when it came to the screenwriter and cast.
Sphinx boasts breathtakingly beautiful scenery
In a decision tantamount to trying to build a pyramid upside down, the job of adapting Robin Cook’s novel to the screen was handed over to Mahogany screenwriter John Byrum; an ignominious claim if ever there was one, and a screen credit one would think sufficient to prohibit Mr. Byrum from ever being allowed anywhere near a typewriter for the rest of his days. When the film opened, Byrum's talky, nonsensical screenplay was cited as a prime offender in the film's many unfavorable reviews, most famously the terse two-word put-down, "Sphinx Stinks," which is right up there with I Am a Camera's "Me No Leica."
  
British actress Lesley-Anne Down copped the plumb female lead in Sphinx's nearly all-male cast. An alumnus of Upstairs Downstairs (the 70s Downton Abbey), Down’s film career at this point consisted mainly of high-profile supporting roles and second-leads in a string of increasingly dismal big-budget features. Sphinx gave Down her first opportunity to carry an entire major motion picture by herself.

I won’t say the lovely actress fumbles the opportunity, but following Sphinx, the actress who at one time starred opposite Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, and Burt Reynolds, was reduced to lending support to such kiss-your-career-goodbye movie co-stars as Andrew Stevens, Eric Roberts, and Hulk Hogan. Happily, television welcomed Ms. Down back with open arms, and for years the now-retired actress enjoyed a thriving career as the Joan Collins of daytime soaps.
Shady antiquities dealer Abdu-Hamdi shows Dr. Baron a rare statue of Pharaoh Seti I

No matter how slickly packaged, bad movies have a way of tipping their hand rather early. Before Sphinx even reaches the ten-minute mark, we're given an indication of what kind of ride we’re in for in a scene where Down engages in a forced, exposition-heavy conversation with a museum curator. In record time we learn where she’s from (Boston by way of England for Egyptology graduate studies); how long she’s lived there (five years); why she’s single (she’s sworn off men after her beau, a fellow Egyptologist, left her for a tenured position at a Chicago University); and why she’s in Egypt (she’s working on a paper on Meneptha, chief architect of the tomb of Tutankhamun).
The scene lasts but 60-seconds, but in that time we’re alerted to the fact that this is a film which regards character as something to be hastily dispensed with in order to get to the most pressing matters at hand: implausible plot twists, narrow escapes, close calls, travelogue views of Egyptian scenery, and placing the heroine in as much jeopardy as possible over the course of two hours.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
As “Women in Jeopardy” films go, by description Sphinx may sound a lot like Coma (a movie that gets it 100% right and which I absolutely adore), but in execution it most resembles Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline (1979), one of Audrey Hepburn’s last films and a movie so off-the-rails loopy that I urge to run, not walk, and secure yourself a copy if you've never seen it. 
Sphinx has beautiful scenery to recommend it, lots of lovingly rendered shots of Egyptian artifacts to drool over, and even a pretty decent mystery at its core, but these serve as mere backdrops for the film’s primary amusement: Sphinx’s consistent inability to make good on even its most modest ambitions.
For example, Sphinx can’t make up its mind if it wants to be a rollicking adventure along the lines of, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark (which opened five months later in 1981, effectively obliterating Sphinx from people’s memories), or a smart mystery thriller like Hitchcock’s Notorious. Thus, in settling unstably somewhere in between, Sphinx at times feels jarringly schizophrenic. From a narrative standpoint, this means physical comedy and broadly-played character schtick shatter interludes of funereal soberness without preparation or warning, making plot points that already stretch credibility seem farcical.
John Rhys-Davies as Stephanos Markoulis
He appeared as the less threatening Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark this same year
For poor Lesley-Anne Down, this means her character has to vacillate between being a resourceful, no-nonsense Egyptologist; a gushing tourist; and a screaming, hysterical ninny...sometimes all within the same scene. Saddled with a crayon-red hairdo that makes her look like the love child of Laurie Anderson and Annie Lennox, the movie asks us to take her character seriously while the filmmakers undermine her credibility by keeping every hair in place, clothes spiffy clean (that cream-colored jumpsuit must have been dipped in Scotch-Gard), and makeup flawless, no matter how many ruins she crawls around in.
Mullet and Shoulder Pads
A look as timeless as the Pyramids themselves

PERFORMANCES
I’ve liked Lesley-Anne down since I first laid eyes on her in A Little Night Music in 1977 and then a few months later in The Besty (another world-class stinker you should make it your business to see). She was so different in each film I scarcely knew it was the same woman. Although her subsequent output gave me pause (the deadly dull Hanover Street was almost the final nail), I was excited at the prospect of her being cast in Sphinx after reading the book and thinking it would at last provide the ill-used actress an opportunity to be something other than glamorous window-dressing.
The Stepford Egyptian
Talented actor Frank Langella (a lip-reader's nightmare, his mouth never moves when he speaks) must have used the saying, "Expressionless as a Sphinx" as his character motivation. Honestly, his performance is comprised of steely-eyed stares (his 1979 Dracula bit) while his voice emanates from...where, his ears?...certainly not that immobile mouth
Down is actually the best thing in the film, but on the whole that turns out not to be saying very much. At some point  the makers of Sphinx must have realized that they had constructed a thriller exclusively around a bunch of grim, glowering, middle-aged-to-elderly men (mostly silent) whose main interest is to keep a secret hidden. This may play well on the page but makes for a deadly dull movie. Subsequently, it falls to the Erica Baron character to shoulder the entirety of the film’s “thrill factor.” So, as if to compensate for a whole lot of nothing coming from the male side of the cast, Down is directed to scream, shriek, jump, weep, yelp, and basically be in hysterics at annoyingly frequent intervals just to remind people they are watching a thriller. So while I can't say Lesley-Anne Down ever convinces me even for a minute that she's an Egyptologist, I have to hand it to her for giving the role everything she's got. For those who only know Down from the robotic demands of soap operas, the physicality of her performance in Sphinx should come as quite a nice surprise.
Scenery-10, Chemistry - 0

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
As a non-fan of the video game feel and look of CGI, Sphinx gets points simply by presenting such amazing, unenhanced vistas of Egypt. Accompanied by sometimes overly-majestic swells of music, there is much to swoon over in the scenery, artifacts and travelogue footage. Even if you hate the film and want to watch it on fast forward with the sound down, I'd recommend Sphinx for its outstanding visuals. And on a side note, I know this is a film and many of the people are paid extras; there still is an alarming difference in the size of the average American tourist back in 1980 when compared to today.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I don't really know if they make movies like Sphinx anymore (most likely they're on Lifetime if they do), but just watching it again recently made me all nostalgic for the days when one could count on at least one glossy, overproduced Hollywood trifle like this a year. It mattered not whether it came from the pen of Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins, or Sidney Sheldon, there was just the assurance that the result would be entertainingly escapist trash or a disaster of transplendent awfulness. It was a win-win situation.
Sphinx is too serous in approach and lacking in outrageously off-kilter casting to be a great camp classic (they would have had to cast Pia Zadora for that), but while it still hits all the necessary points for me to qualify it as an enjoyably "bad" movie, Sphinx has an appealingly old-fashioned feel to it that gets me where I live, nostalgically speaking. And by that I mean I occasionally appreciate movies that stumble and fall flat on their faces simply because they take me back to a time when movies actually looked like they were trying.

BONUS MATERIAL
Sphinx is available in its entirety on YouTube HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Sunday, July 20, 2014

PICNIC 1955

Good, old-fashioned, classic movie storytelling doesn’t get much better than the first 80-minutes of Picnic. Comprehensive yet concise; economical but at the same time expansive; Picnic seamlessly blends sensitive drama, delicate humor, and dreamy romanticism – all the while sustaining an entertainingly effortless narrative flow. 
Picnic’s depiction of life in a small Kansas town in the midst of prepping for Labor Day festivities– its people, their routines and rituals, both mundane and apart– is evocatively rendered in that uniquely idealized true/false reality Hollywood does so well. Full of finely-observed details of character and setting redolent of William Inge’s childhood spent in Independence, Indiana (where, like the character of Flo Owens, his mother ran a boarding house populated with spinster schoolteachers), Picnic is set in the then-contemporary 1950s, but has thenceforth become cloaked in a rosy nostalgia that looks back on a time when drifters hopped boxcars, marriage was the end all and be all for any single woman, and people wore ties, sportscoats, and full-skirted dresses to picnics.
William Holden as Hal Carter
Kim Novak as Madge Owens
Rosalind Russell as Rosemary Sydney
Betty Field as Flo Owens
Susan Strasberg as Millie Owens
Cliff Robertson as Alan Benson
The last day of summer serves as both the time-frame and primary metaphor of Picnic; William Inge’s wistfully contemplative look at the sometimes painful inevitability of growing up. Following the death of his alcoholic father, handsome but feckless Hal Carter (Holden) drifts into town in search of a job from college pal, Alan Benson (Robertson), whose father is a grain industrialist. The unnamed Kansas town (actually four Kansas towns in real life, Salina appearing on a sign early in the film) has a male-to-female-ratio appreciably lacking in testosterone, and thus is a virtual hotbed of sexual frustration and withered hopes.
Town beauty Madge Owens (Novak) is the vessel of everyone’s projected dreams in spite of the fact that, while not very bright, she’s smart enough to know (in 1955 yet) that being the object of the appreciative gaze is not the same as being appreciated.

Into this ripe-for-disruption environment comes Hal, whose rambunctious, superannuated frat-boy act – invariably played out sans shirt–understandably draws the attention of the local women folk. There’s favorable: the grandmotherly Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton); puppy-love: tomboy-in-transition, Millie Owens (Strasberg); distrustful: Flo Owens (Field), a mother alone raising two girls; conflicted: repressed schoolmarm Miss Sydney (Russell); and of course, love at first sight: Madge. Hal’s appearance in town has a different effect on each character, and as they all converge at the picnic, Labor Day becomes something of a day of reckoning, bringing out the best or worst in each individual. Truths are confronted, illusions shattered, facades dropped, and everyone is forced to grow up just a little bit. 
Verna Felton as Helen Potts
TV fans will recognize Felton from her guest stint as the maid from hell on I Love Lucy, or as the voice of Wilma's mother on The Flintstones
Picnic is one of those movies I first discovered on TV as a child (loaded with commercials and only in an awful pan-and-scan version) I fell in love with it from the start, and Picnic remains to this day one of my favorite comfort movies. I can watch it (the first third, anyway) anytime, anywhere. These days, without exception, if ever I happen to be channel-surfing cable TV and Picnic pops up, I always tell myself I’m only going to watch it for a couple of minutes, but before I know it…boom! an hour has passed. That I own a DVD copy of it matters not a whit…I just take such pleasure in the film's setting, characters, conflict, and dialog, I never tire of it.

That I expressly favor the first 80-minutes of this nearly two-hour film (those comprising the introduction of the main characters, establishment of the central plot, and the picnic scene in its entirety) speaks to director Joshua Logan’s breezy and sure-footed handling of these character-driven, slice-of-life early sequences. Winner of the 1953Tony Award for his direction of the original Broadway production, Logan shines brightest when Picnic is capturing vivid tableaux of small-town culture or compassionately conveying the defeated spirit born of withered dreams and repressed hope.
As fellow schoolteachers, character actresses Reta Shaw (Irma Kronkie) and Elizabeth Wilson (Christine Shoenwalder) recreate roles they originated on Broadway
Somewhat less persuasive is his handling of the film’s final third, which becomes a little too melodramatic and plot-driven for its own good. Here, as if under outside pressure to provide some “action” in an otherwise gentle romantic drama; Inge’s sensitive play feels as if it were temporarily hijacked by Douglas Sirk. And to little effect, I'm afraid, as the swift introduction of a gratuitous car chase and unconvincingly-staged two-against-one fistfight with armed lawmen merely succeed in being distracting.  Not helping matters further is the fact that, in lieu of a then-unthinkable sex scene between Holden and Novak, we have in its place, three (count ‘em, three) repetitious and very talky “tortured longing” scenes that never fail to leave me looking at my watch.
Discounting this sluggish detour, Picnic gets back on track with the final scene, where story threads are tied up and Rosalind Russell’s performance single-handedly alters my opinion of which is the film’s most satisfying love story. 
Recreating the role he originated on Broadway, Arthur O'Connell as Howard Bevans received the only acting category nomination of Picnic's  total of six (it won two: Art Direction and Editing). Many thought Rosalind Russell was a shoo-in for a nomination, if not a win, had she allowed herself to be submitted in the Supporting Actress category, which she refused. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Even as a kid I was hard-pressed to imagine a time when a film as tame as Picnic could ever be considered racy.  But of course, at that age I had no idea that Madge and Hal’s impassioned embraces alongside that barreling freight train was Censorship Code shorthand for sex, and, to be honest, only after it was brought to my attention in a college film class did it ever cross my mind that it was Inge’s intention to intimate (a little too subtly, if you ask me) that Rosemary and Howard had also had sexual relations that night. Who knew?  Anyway, from its male bodice ripper ad campaign to its convention-flouting themes of sexual frustration and libidinous urges, Picnic was pretty hot stuff in its day.
But Picnic’s reputation as a classic romantic movie doesn’t resonate with me very strongly (the sex feels born of despondency more than passion). Not as strongly as its sharp-eyed, often witty, depiction of small-town life and the incisive details William Inge (Splendor in the Grass, Come Back, Little Sheba) brings to his characters.
Failure to Live up to Expectations
Alan's resentment of Hal is rooted in feeling he is a disappointment to his father
Inability to Accept Reality
Flo copes with past failures by projecting all of her hopes for happiness on daughter, Madge 
Lack of Identity
Madge longs to find something to value about herself beyond her beauty 
PERFORMANCES
Picnic is a uniformly well-acted motion picture that, like a great many 50s films adapted from stage plays of the day (the works of Tennessee Williams come to mind), retains a certain staginess in dialog and acting style that locks it forever in particular time. That the overall appealing performances in Picnic seem also to be a tad old-fashioned plays favorably into the whole glimpse into the past, days-gone-by feel of the movie as a whole. 
Perhaps because the central romance feels as if it's based solely on physical attraction (for all his talking, Hal never asks Madge anything about herself), my strongest memories of Picnic have to do with Rosalind Russell’s superb performance as Rosemary, the old-maid schoolteacher. In a career of many high points, I think this is one of her best performances and she practically walks off with the entire film. Here, the actress's trademark sardonic wit and vitality is channeled into a character whose thin veneer of nonchalance and dimming vestiges of pride show the wear of too many lonely Labor Days bleeding into solitary school semesters. Russell gives the role everything she's got, and she is, in every scene, a force of nature daring you to look at anyone else. She’s funny, moving, sad, and even pitiful; but you wind up rooting for her and she’s a marvelously sympathetic, dimensional character. 
If Picnic falls short of being the great film it might have been, I'd attribute it to the sense I have that everybody is pushed a little too strongly against type. I agree with the common complaint that William Holden is too old for his role (not jarringly so, but his college days seem far, far behind him) and that his attempts at expressing Hal's coarse nature aren't all that convincing. And while he's every inch the likable charmer the role requires, Holden just looks forced when when trying to play dumb. The same can be said for the sad-eyed Novak, who has Madge's vulnerability down, but lacks (oddly enough) the kind of switchblade, protective vanity insecure pretty girls carry around with them like security blankets. She too, seems a bit too astute.
Susan Strasberg, while the right age for Millie, is far to angularly beautiful to be believable as either a tomboy or anybody's definition of "goonface." She seems out of her element in the earlier scenes, but seems to relax into both herself and the role as the film progresses. Cliff Robertson, on the other hand, is a perfect fit. I'm not much of a fan, but I like him a great deal in this movie.
"I had a job as a model once...like this. They had me posing in front of a class almost raw."
Hal shares one of the high points of his checkered past with the adoring Millie. For those too young to know just what 50s male physique modeling looked like, I offer this real-life sample to illustrate that Mr. Holden was right on the money. The nude model is Tabby Anderson (!) which is the ideal name for my cat...if I ever get one.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
When I was a child, every single household had an LP of the Picnic soundtrack, or, if not the score itself, most certainly one of the myriad easy-listening versions of “Moonglow/ Theme from Picnic” available on instrumental collections from the likes of Living Strings or Ferrante & Teicher. I cannot honestly recall when I first heard this popular medley (which I considered “old people’s music” at the time), but it’s as much a part of my childhood as the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club, and to this day I can’t hear Moonglow (a 1933 song, I was later surprised to discover) without seeing William Holden and Kim Novak dancing so photogenically under those paper lanterns.
In this great shot representative of the consistency in performances throughout Picnic, each character reacts differently to the sight of Madge as she's crowned "Queen of Neewollah" 
Perhaps calling their movements “dancing” is casting a rather wide net (neither star held any illusions about their dancing skills, Holden being so reluctant as to request extra pay and getting himself fairly drunk before filming), but after all these years I still get quite a kick out of that iconic sequence. Both actors radiate old-fashioned movie star luster, Novak’s steady, unbroken gaze is sexy as hell, and that elusive thing called chemistry is present in almost corporeal abundance.
Composer George Duning’s Oscar-nominated score – which, upon occasion, veers perilously close to Carol Burnett-spoof territory when significant dramatic events are histrionically emphasized by blasts of horns serving as the musical equivalent of exclamation points –is absolute perfection here. The smooth jazz arrangement of the pop standard, Moonglow, lushly underscored by the orchestral Picnic theme, creating a sense that our lovers-to-be are dancing to two songs: the tune played at the picnic, and the melody which they alone can hear.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
William Inge’s Picnic won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1953, but if your only familiarity with it is the film version – rather brilliantly adapted and opened-up for the screen by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) – seeing it on stage can be quite the sobering experience. Everything occurs on the back porches and adjoining backyards of Mrs. Potts and Mrs. Owens, and the picnic of the title occurs offstage. 
Happily for literal-minded me, the film version has a masterfully constructed, protracted picnic sequence that not only shines as a fine example of studio-era location shooting and serves as the film's narrative and thematic nucleus. The five-minute montage that kicks off the sequence is so good it could stand alone as a short film highlighting 50s Americana. James Wong Howe's CinemaScope cinematography basks everything in a honey-colored glow that contributes to making this amusing and appealing sequence one of the major reasons Picnic continues to stay one of my favorites.
Save for the obvious set for the Moonglow dancing dock used for weather reasons, the entirety of the picnic sequence was filmed in Halstead, Kansas, the swimming lake scenes in Sterling, Kansas. That's Nick Adams (Bomber) and What's My Line? stalwart,  Phyllis Newman (Jaunita Badger) in the bathing suits above.


BONUS MATERIALS 
For the curious, here's a YouTube link to a 1986 made-for-cable-TV production of Picnic for Broadway on Showtime starring Gregory Harrison (he produced, which should answer any "WTF?!?" questions), Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Rue McClanahan. Although set in the 50s, it has 80s written all over it.

I didn’t grow up in a small town, and this typically Hollywood, all-white vision of Midwestern life is nothing I clutch to my bosom with misty-eyed nostalgia (although with HD and sharp eyes you might catch a fleeting glimpse of one or two black people in the picnic scenes). But on a human level, I tend to find irresistible any story which celebrates, with compassion and dignity, the small struggles and victories of people leading simple lives. Few writers conveyed this with as much heart and humor as William Inge.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, July 10, 2014

LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR 1977

*Spoilers Ahead
In hindsight, it seems both ominous and prophetic that Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Saturday Night Fever were released within months of one another at the tail end of 1977 (October and December, respectively), a somber conclusion to a year which began with the release of Star Wars.
Diane Keaton as Theresa Dunn
Although one couldn’t know it at the time, both films sounded the dissonant, disco-beat death-knell tolling the end of the 70s and the sexual revolution; the looming specter of AIDS serving to make Looking for Mr. Goodbar's dispiriting linkage of sex and death feel positively prescient. Each film embodied attitudes which stood as barbed provocations to the Utopian 70s promise of the liberating potential of drugs, free love, sexual exploration, feminism, group therapy, hedonism, the new morality, and porno-chic. Meanwhile, on a somewhat minor, but no less catastrophic cultural scale, the blockbuster success of Star Wars signaled the end of  this very sort of film: the major motion picture intended for grown-ups.
When, in 1976, I saw Martin Scorsese’s trenchant urban nightmare, Taxi Driver, I thought then that I had seen the most depressing film the 70s had to offer. Clearly, I hadn’t reasoned on what 65-year-old writer/director Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, In Cold Blood) had up his sleeve in bringing Judith Rossner’s controversial 1975 bestseller, Looking for Mr. Goodbar to the screen. Without a doubt, the feel-bad movie of 1977.
Inspired by the gruesome real-life murder of New York schoolteacher/singles bar habitué, Roseann Quinn in 1973, Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar is part opaque character study, part sociosexual thriller, chronicling (with compellingly provocative ambiguity), the confused emancipation / dissociation of Theresa Dunn (Diane Keaton): gifted teacher of deaf children by day, by night...pill-popping, singles bar-hopper seeking to salve her scars – literal and psychological – through submersion in the twilight world of detached, casual-sex encounters with anonymous, increasingly unsavory partners.
Theresa’s through-the-looking-glass (darkly) journey is largely reactive: her romantic skepticism, a result of an over-idealized fling with an emotionally-abusive college professor (Alan Feinstein); her lack of desire for children, a dual response to her sister’s multiple abortions and her own fear of passing on congenital scoliosis; her determined want of independence, most assuredly a fervent backlash against the stifling life options proffered by her bellicose father, who would have Theresa settle down with a nice Catholic boy, cranking out one baby after another like her kid sister, Brigid (Laurie Prange).
That Theresa’s emancipation ultimately takes the form of a paradoxical dual existence ("Saint Theresa by day and swinging Terry by night.”) signals not only her unresolved inner conflicts, but underscore a point I think is germane to the appreciation of  Looking for Mr. Goodbar as something more complex and infinitely smarter than a simplistic moral cautionary tale about the dangers awaiting single women in the big, bad city.
It calls attention to the fact that the “New Morality” of the 70s did absolutely nothing to minimize or reconfigure the sexual double-standard. In spite of the newfound freedoms of the era, women were still viewed in terms of Madonna/whore (I can't recall a single critic at the time blaming Theresa's rapist/murderer, only her own reckless behavior); their bodies and reproductive rights, open-forum landscapes for religious, politico-social debate; their very independence rendering them more vulnerable than ever as targets of male sexual aggression.

Teaser ad from Variety - 1977
I saw Looking for Mr. Goodbar at the Regency Theater in San Francisco the first weekend of its opening. Then, I was but a sidelines observer in the sexual revolution. A 20-year-old virgin attending college in one of the most progressive cities in the world; I neither drank nor smoked, didn’t partake of drugs, and had yet to set foot in a disco. But the era was so alive and abuzz with change, excitement, and energy, even a Catholic-reared, late-bloomer like me walked around in a near-constant haze of sensual distraction. Honestly, San Francisco in the 70s was so stimulating an environment; you would have sworn amyl nitrate had been piped into every establishment.
Richard Gere as Tony Lo Porto
That being said, what started out as a cultural movement of joy and self-discovery had, by 1977, transmogrified into a commoditized, cynically co-opted wave of sexual merchandising and lifestyle marketing exposing the dark, unspoken lie behind the revolution’s rhetoric of freedom and liberation. The lie (or perhaps the naïve hope) being that sex was not intimacy, human physical contact bears no psychological or spiritual consequence, and that we are not profoundly affected by its lack. What led me to this conclusion was that the high-profile hedonists of my generation: John Holmes, Marilyn Chambers, Hugh Hefner, Linda Lovelace, etc., looked like hell. 
Surely, something beyond drug use accounted for the glazed, dead eyes staring out from the all those glossy sex magazines like Playboy, Viva, and Hustler. Was there a reason suburban swingers always looked so vacant and debauched? Why was it, whenever I passed by the doors of singles bars, nobody in them looked particularly happy? If the new morality was as joyous and life-affirming as pop culture and youth media kept assuring me, why did its practitioners look so hollowed out? I had the feeling the enraptured lyrics (and moans) of all those disco songs weren't telling the whole story.
The 70s: the era of sexual revolution or sexual dehumanization?
Sex was more out in the open, but attitudes were still mired in sin, shame, and debasement 
Although I hadn’t yet read the book, I knew enough about Looking for Mr. Goodbar and the incident that inspired it to be excited by the prospect of a contemporary film attempting to capture a cultural climate teeming with contrasts and contradictions. 

Tuesday Weld snagged a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Katherine Dunn, a walking microcosm of 70s self-absorption and the unfocused quest for the ideal existence

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
One of my favorite things about the 70s is that it was such a self-reflective era in motion pictures. In fact, a frequent criticism leveled at American films at the time was that they, representative of the “Me Decade” in general, were in a rut of compulsive navel-gazing; nearly always of the bleak, post-Watergate disillusionment sort. Looking for Mr. Goodbar was NOT the exception.

When the relatively hang-loose permissiveness of the late 60s evolved into the strenuous hedonism of the mid-70s, it wasn’t difficult to detect a hint of desperation behind disco music’s over-emphatic exuberance, or the coke-fueled euphoria of the swinging singles lifestyle. Had sexual liberation, once thought to be the gateway to honest and open human interaction, become just another means of escaping reality? To numb the pain of existence? To shelter our darker demons? To create a greater distance between people? 
Looking for Mr. Goodbar could have been subtitled: The Pleasure Paradox
The philosophy that happiness, when pursued (that elusive Mr. Goodbar), remains ever beyond one's grasp 

Behind the provocative sexual politics and incendiary commingling of sex, guilt, and religion which so distracted critics at the time, Looking for Mr. Goodbar addresses the above-stated questions more artfully and honestly than any film I've ever seen. It explores the fissures that began to show in the “If it feels good, do it” façade of the new morality, tackling while it’s at it: feminism, religious hypocrisy, the sexual double-standard, and America’s intractable linking of sex and violence.

When I first saw Looking for Mr. Goodbar, I knew right away it was something special. From the first saxophone strains initiating that gloriously unsettling title sequence, I was hooked (a short film in and of itself, it’s a flowing montage of gritty black and white still shots capturing the light and dark, vaguely dangerous-looking allure of singles bars). The entire cast, but Diane Keaton especially, make something poignant and frighteningly real out of a story begging for sensationalism. Director Richard Brooks keeps to his motif of light and dark parallels, pitching scenes at the Dunn household to operatic levels, contrasting their emotional violence with Theresa's quiet, character-defining vulnerability.
Richard Kiley as Theresa's no-patience-for-imperfections father
The jarring use of sound and William Fraker's dark, dark, dark cinematography (I initially thought it was shot by Gordon Willis) contribute to making Looking for Mr. Goodbar one of the most powerful movies of the 70s. And make no mistake about it, this movie scared the bejesus out of me. The book was so popular, even if you hadn't read it you knew how it was going to end; but knowing is not the same as being as prepared. The harrowing, near-unwatchable concluding moments of Looking for Mr. Goodbar left me feeling shell-shocked. I still believe I stayed to watch it a second time simply because I was too stunned to move out of my seat.

Not everyone’s cup of tea for any number of reasons, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (dubbed Mr. Goodbarf by many left queasy by the film's violence) is for me an example of American self-reflective cinema at its best. Not the least because it’s an adult film that takes the risk of allowing itself to be misunderstood. I like that it doesn’t spell everything out and tell you how you should feel or react. It has a point of view and even an agenda, but it doesn't invite you to agree with it so much as it induces you to just think about it. Some people find it simplistic, others find it to be moralizing, many found it misogynistic, some just felt it too depressing and sordid...few found it forgettable. 
William Atherton as James (here washing the very knife that will play a role in the film's hellish denouement), the slightly creepy "nice guy" whose resentful response to being moved into the friendzone is to behave in an aggressive,  possessively entitled manner every bit as unstable as the woman-hating "bad boys."  Sound familiar?

PERFORMANCES
Because there were so many interesting actresses around in the 70s, it’s easy for me to forget that the decade was largely a boys’ club devoted to buddy movies and misunderstood anti-heroes. (Tellingly, when the time came to adapt Rossner’s woman-centric bestseller to the screen, only male directors were considered: Bernardo Bertolucci, Bob Fosse [I shudder at the thought], Mike Nichols, Sydney Pollack, and Roman Polanski.)
LeVar Burton as Cap Jackson
Looking for Mr. Goodbar marked the feature film debut of Burton, who became an overnight household name when the landmark miniseries, Roots aired earlier in the year

Closer to the truth is that on those rare occasions an actress was called upon to be something other than a girlfriend or male support-system (to get Goodbar, Keaton turned down the largely thankless Julie Christie role in Heaven Can Wait), the characters were so well-written (Katherine Ross – The Stepford Wives) and performances so superb (Jane Fonda – Klute), their prominence in my memory contradicts their paucity in actual practice. 

Looking for Mr. Goodbar is hands-down my all-time favorite Diane Keaton movie. I actually think it’s the best work of her career. But apropos of the dark/light contrasts of the Theresa Dunn character herself, I don’t think I would have fully appreciated her work here were it not for my having seen her in Annie Hall (released earlier the same year) before. Onscreen almost constantly, Keaton's performance here is astonishing, the range and depth of her characterization (a true original, I've never seen a character in a film like her before or since) appearing both natural and risk-taking. She's simply staggering and was a very inspired choice for the part. It really makes you wish Keaton had pursued more dramatic roles.
Alan Feinstein as Professor Martin Engle
As for the character itself, I've always considered Theresa Dunn to be 70s cinema’s first anti-heroine: a female sexual outlaw and cultural nonconformist. And, like all rebels, she’s not always likable, smart, or rational – just a complex, vulnerable human being struggling to make sense of the contradictions of her nature, deciding for herself what she wants to be, and accepting the risks (which, as it turns out, are considerable in our culture of normalized female-directed aggression) of choosing to live life on her own terms.
Like her male counterparts, Theresa delves into sex and drugs in her quest for self-discovery, and for once a woman’s exploration of her sexuality is presented in a manner perceptive and honest enough to allow for the enjoyment of no-strings sex for its purely sensual appeal and enslavingly addictive anodyne effect.
"Get this into one of your two heads, the one that can think...I am my own girl! I belong to me!"

Looking for Mr. Goodbar is such a downer of a film it never received the credit I think it deserved for the rather groundbreaking sincerity and seriousness with which it approached female sexuality. Anyone coming to Goodbar hoping for gauzy, soft-core porn cloaked in faux-feminist empowerment rhetoric (a la the popular Emmanuelle franchise) was in for a shock.
If screenwriter Brooks is guilty of anything, it's in being too honest. Taking a tack different from the book, the Theresa of the film is not the self-loathing masochist with a death-wish Judith Rossner wrote about (Rossner was said to have been displeased with the film, finding Keaton's character too "happy") and so many critics longed for to help explain away their discomfort; she is a flawed woman who makes one too many bad choices.
Because things end badly for the character of Theresa, Looking for Mr. Goodbar was seen by many as an anti-feminist cautionary tale for single women. Things ended very badly for Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, but I don’t recall anyone calling that film a cautionary tale for hippie drug dealers.

Robert Fields as Rafe and Carole Mallory as Marvella
Fans of The Stepford Wives will recognize these  two swingers. She played a robotized housewife, he played chemist, Raymond Chandler, Katherine Ross' first love

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I only got around to reading Looking for Mr. Goodbar two years ago, an experience which left me appreciating even more what Richard Brooks' skill as a screenwriter (his first career) brought to the film version. To me, his work is a vast improvement over the source material, and when faced with the challenge of extracting drama and suspense from a story most everyone knows the ending of, Brooks builds tension through the stylized application of an almost Biblical motif emphasizing the contradictions of free-will and fate.

Brooks cannily uses innocuous events in the "light" parts of Theresa's life (as a teacher) to foreshadow the progressively violent trend of her "dark" nocturnal pursuits.
In assisting a deaf child to feel the forming of a word, Theresa has the girl hold her throat. A choking image that will be reenacted (horrifically) later. 
Asked to come up with words that will produce enough air to move a feather, a child repeats the word "punch." When asked to come up with a less violent word, he responds with repeated shouts of "help!"
Having overslept due to a night of partying, Theresa is greeted by an angry class. On the board is written, "You don't care!" The phrase, an inadvertent commentary on her desire for emotional disengagement in her private life, the ominous, death-mask skull, a foreshadowing of the film's final image.

 THE STUFF OF DREAMS
"How do women still go out with guys when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. You know what our number one threat is? Heart disease.”     Louis CK

“Every guy has a ‘crazy girlfriend’ story. Why don’t women have ‘crazy men’ stories? I never hear that. Because if you have a crazy boyfriend, you’re gonna die.”     Donald Glover


Looking for Mr. Goodbar was released decades before Sex and the City, so no cultural paradigms were in place through which one could process the notion of a sexually-active single woman living alone in a metropolitan city without resorting to blame-the-victim terminology. Terms like: self-loathing, nymphomaniacal, self-destructive, desperate, mentally ill, masochistic, unstable, depressive. The whole thing was quite ironic; while calling out Richard Brooks for making a morally reactionary sexual thriller, so-called liberal critics couldn't stop themselves from reaching the conclusion that promiscuity, drugs, and drinking were a certain fast-track to death for a single woman. A point which failed to acknowledge that promiscuity, drugs, and drinking were cornerstones for a great many male coming-of-age films of the era, but nobody saw anything fatalistic in such "boys will be boys" behavior.
Tom Berenger as Gary
On a similar note, Goodbar came out long before the concept of rape culture, so at no time could one find a journalist willing to devote even a paragraph to the castigation of the brutish, violent behavior of the men in the film, or could you find articles addressing our normalized attitudes on the matter of rape and other forms of female-directed aggression in the age of sexual permissiveness. All I recall reading were a lot of human-interest articles about parents taking their daughters to see the film as a means (I suppose) of terrorizing them into celibacy. Of course, there were no stories about sons being taken to the film to teach them not to rape and abuse women.

A lot has changed over the years, but not so much that a daringly mature film like Looking for Mr. Goodbar doesn't  have something relevant to say to contemporary audiences. As stated earlier, it's a film that begs to be rediscovered and reevaluated in terms broader than the lazy label of  "cautionary tale" has afforded it. It's an unpleasant film, to be sure, but an honest one. Perhaps even a bit too honest. But it's an inarguably important entry from a decade when the objective of major motion pictures wasn't always to placate and pacify, but to get us to think. Unfortunately, I'm still looking for Looking for Mr. Goodbar...at least until the day Paramount decides to finally release it on DVD.

(DVD copies burned from tapes are often available through iOffer where I've had amazing luck tracking down rarities.)

Copyright © Ken Anderson