Friday, October 19, 2012

GOODBYE, COLUMBUS 1969

One of the things I liked most about Pauline Kael was how much her passion for film mirrored my own. Poking fun at her own pseudo-sexual obsession with movies in the titles of her books: I Lost it at the Movies, Going Steady, Reeling; Kael, the late film critic for The New Yorker, was in a class by herself when it came to legitimizing the sensual side of that inter-sensory experience we call moviegoing. 
Speaking for myself, it’s easy to enjoy a wide spectrum of films from perspectives academic and intellectual, but in order for me to truly fall in love with a movie it has to hit me on some deeply visceral, highly subjective emotional level. It has to contain what I call “the goosebump moment.” A spontaneous physical/emotional response (it needn't last more than a moment), independent of aesthetic qualifiers, that engages my heart, spirit, or imagination in a way that overrides the cerebral, taking me to a place where I’m “experiencing” a film more than just watching it.

In Goodbye, Columbus, my goosebump moment occurs less than two minutes into the film, when this rapturous vision called an Ali MacGraw dives into a sun-dappled pool of water and becomes, in slow-motion and before my eyes, the ethereally exact visual representation of what “love at first sight” feels like. This almost Freudian commingling of woman, water, and weightlessness (infinitely enhanced by the very 60s sound of The Association on the soundtrack) is right up there with Barbarella’s zero-gravity striptease as one of the most erotically-charged title sequences I've ever seen.
Nymph Errant
Of course, I wasn't the only one who fell in love with Ms. MacGraw that spring of ‘69. My infatuation fell somewhere behind Richard Benjamin’s onscreen character; Paramount production head Robert Evans (who would wed MacGraw later that same year); and what seemed at the time to be the entire population, male and female, of North America. Goodbye, Columbus was the film debut of both of its leads and several supporting characters, but it was former fashion model Ali MacGraw who emerged the instant superstar of the 70s. Revisiting this film 43 years later, it's still easy to understand why.
Richard Benjamin as Neil Klugman
Ali MacGraw as Brenda Patimkin
Jack Klugman as Ben Patimkin
Nan Martin as Mrs. Patimkin
Michael Meyers as Ron Patimkin
Lori Schelle as Julie Patimkin
 One of the better entries in the glut of coming-of-age films that flooded the screens throughout the 60s and early 70s, Goodbye, Columbus (adapted from Phillip Roth’s 1959 bestselling debut novella), is a seriocomic look at Jewish identity, class-conflict, and changing sexual mores through the prism of a heated summer romance between Bronx poor-boy Neil Klugman (Benjamin), and nouveau riche Westchester goddess, Brenda Patimkin  (MacGraw).
Controversial on release due to sexual explicitness and what was perceived by some to be an offensive depiction of Jewish culture; today (in light of four decades of Woody Allen’s patented brand of ethnic self-loathing and the current trend for masking racial insensitivity behind attitudes of anti-PC nonconformity) Goodbye, Columbus feels really rather restrained and surprisingly gentle-natured. So much so that the once R-rated film was re-rated PG for DVD (and contrary to some internet rumors, the PG-rated DVD version is not a censored version of the 1969 theatrical release. I saw the film in its original release and the DVD is identical).
Perhaps because it trod a trail similar to that blazed by The Graduate two years earlier, or because its satirical take on Jewish identity and class assimilation is too personal or insubstantial for it to have gained cult status,  but somehow over the years, Goodbye, Columbus, a huge hit at the time, has kind of faded from public memory. Puzzling, because the film is smart, insightful, funny as hell, and contains the best screen performances of several members of its cast.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Arnold Shulman’s deservedly Oscar-nominated screenplay for Goodbye, Columbus is a slavishly faithful adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel (a library paperback copy of which I would take with me to Junior High School with the intention of poring over the “dirty parts” with my friends during lunch period. I eventually got around to actually reading the novel and loved it). I've seen many films about romances between rich girls and boys from the wrong side of the tracks, but in being set against the backdrop of middle-class Jewish-American assimilation, the sometimes over-broad ethnic comedy of Roth’s social satire is mitigated by a great deal of poignancy.
In one of my favorite scenes from the film, Jack Klugman (who's really terrific) gives voice to the film's tagline: "Every father's daughter is a virgin," and expresses the elder perspective of the 60s Generation Gap issue.
Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin are no Romeo & Juliet, but they’re certainly a young couple who start out on a romance with several strikes against them. I’ve always thought the sexual aspect of their relationship figured so prominently in the film because Neil and Brenda’s courtship is fueled by a great deal of sexual chemistry, but at the same time a considerable amount of suppressed hostility. Neil, refined, college-educated, almost passive-aggressive in his aimlessness, contrasts dramatically with the go-getter Country Club types Brenda usually dates. Neil’s humble Bronx background may mirror that of Brenda’s crass but sweet father (Jack Klugman), but his lack of ambition and passivity represents everything her upwardly-mobile family (they've only recently struck it rich through Mr. Patimkin’s plumbing-fixture business) is trying to leave behind them.
One look at the acrimonious relationship Brenda shares with her mother (Nan Martin) is enough to confirm suspicions that perhaps Brenda’s attraction to Neil, a man so obviously unsuitable (ostensibly to her parents, but also, one senses, even to her in the final analysis) feels less like true love than a subconscious act of rebellion against her mother.
Neil’s attitude towards Brenda is not much better. Like one of those guys who courts the prettiest, sexiest girl in school only to spend a lifetime berating her for cashing in on her looks; Neil purports to be in love with the rich, spoiled, daddy’s girl, but rarely lets a moment pass where he isn't teasing her about who she is. Whether it be her nose job, contact lenses, the shallowness of her friends, or the empty values of her parents, there’s a thinly veiled aggression to his jibes that makes you wonder if perhaps he’s not drawn to her out of some barely acknowledged desire to punish American Jews who seek to deny their Jewishness.
Of course I love that Goodbye, Columbus has a scene where our couple sneaks into a moviehouse playing my all-time favorite film, Rosemary's Baby. At another time in the film they repeat the ritual at a theater featuring of The Odd Couple. No surprise, both Rosemary's Baby and The Odd Couple are shameless plugs for Paramount films- the producers of Goodbye, Columbus.
This is why I've always had a thing for Goodbye, Columbus and why I’m surprised its reputation never remained in step with other seminal films of the 60s. It’s a romantic comedy, yes; a coming of age film, certainly; but it’s also a provocative look at class-conflict and a thoughtful exploration of a very real issue facing ethnic groups during the social upheavals of the 60s: If, after years of struggle, the “American Dream” is at last working for your historically disenfranchised parents, what duty do you have to support them, or is it your obligation to be true to your youthful nature and rebel?
The historical exclusion of  minority groups from country clubs, colleges, and athletics is satirically contrasted with Goodbye, Columbus' wealthy, assimilated Jewish-Americans portrayed as athletics-obsessed members of their own exclusive country clubs and the preppiest of prep school undergrads.
This was certainly an issue for me as an African-American youth. My parents (staunch assimilationists) were realizing the American Dream just at the cusp of the Black Power movement. By the mid-70s we had moved into a tony, predominantly-white, upper middle-class suburb and realized all the benefits my grandparents had fought so hard for. Was it my place to confront my parents with arguments chastising their materialism and speeches about "The Simple Life", when they had struggled and fought so hard to overcome these very things? And in the pursuit of assimilation into the larger culture, what unique values of character and authenticity are lost or compromised? Goodbye, Columbus has been labeled superficial by many critics, but I have always seen at its core a terrifically thorny social issue entertainingly addressed.

PERFORMANCES:
In her 1991 memoir Moving Pictures, Ali MacGraw makes no bones about her limitations as an actress, and this is of course true (although she’s extremely good in 1980’s Just Tell me What You Want). But being limited isn't the same as being bad. MacGraw may not have range, but she has presence, star-quality, and under the guidance of a particularly strong director — as she seems to have here with Larry Peerce — she can be a very effective actress. She's beautiful to be sure, but the character of Brenda is supposed to convey a sharp intelligence and sense of self-possession that suggests to Neil that she  herself seeks an alternative to the stultified life her parents want for her. MacGraw captures this quality extremely well. Perhaps it’s because she’s playing a typed role, but I like Ali MacGraw’s performance in Goodbye, Columbus more than any other in her career.
As Brenda's gentle-natured, jock brother, Ron (here, with jockstrap in hand, lost in bittersweet reverie listening to a recording of his glory days as star basketball player at Ohio State - the source of the film's title) newcomer Michael Meyers makes a scene-stealing impression. Richard Benjamin, who would build a career playing variations on this character in several films throughout the 70s, is a solid lead and near-flawless master of the deadpan take.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I don’t want to give the impression that Goodbye, Columbus a deeply serious drama. It’s really an at times hilarious comedy of manners that offers more than the usual food-for-thought for the typical 60s coming-of-age film. Some characters may seem a tad broadly drawn, but (more's the pity) I can’t say that there’s a single individual or type in this film that I haven’t actually encountered at some time in my life. Many within my own family!
More befitting appetite suppression than stimulation, this line of reasoning has nevertheless remained popular with American parents for generations.
This wedding scene drew a lot of criticism for being over-the-top and more burlesque than authentic. Well, those people clearly haven't attended enough weddings. In fact, the behavior displayed here at the wedding buffet table is tragically similar to what happened in real life at the reception following my father's funeral.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
I’m aware that many of the things I’m fondest of in Goodbye, Columbus (the music score by Charles Fox, the montages, the class-distinction humor, the appeal of Ali MacGraw) are the very things that don’t resonate very strongly with audiences today. Still, there is much in the uniformly fine performances and witty screenplay that makes me categorize Goodbye, Columbus as something of a neglected classic. If the film has any flaws, perhaps its biggest (and ultimately costliest) is in laying on the ethnic humor so heavily that some of the more thoughtful, perceptive points of Roth's novel are lost or at the very least, blunted.
Neil Klugman, a kind of reverse Gatsby, is ambivalent about his feelings towards wealth and the kind of life Brenda leads. He responds to and identifies with an African-American youth who comes daily to the library to stare at the pictures in a book of  prints by Paul Gauguin depicting the colorful dreamscapes of Tahiti. Benjamin and the young actor (Anthony McGowan) share a kind of heartbreaking chemistry in these scenes, and they make me cry every time.
I've already written in this blog about You’re A Big Boy Now and The Graduate as being two of my favorite 60s coming-of-age films, but as much as I enjoy and admire those films, Goodbye, Columbus is not only the funniest, but most emotionally satisfying overall. If one cares to look beyond the occasionally overstressed humor, it's a movie that really has a lot on its mind and a lot to say. Also, I can't ignore the fact that it's the only film of the three to have given me my “goosebump moment.”
Filmed almost exclusively in two-shot during their romance, Brenda and Neil's eventual estrangement is dramatized in a scene where they're denied the sharing of the same frame. They at last realize that they are from two different worlds.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

10 comments:

  1. I share your affection for this neglected 1960s hit. It captures the look of 1968-69 perfectly, a time when I was just getting ready for college. Along with 'The Sterile Cuckoo' the following year, it's a reminder that lots of young people were more caught up in their own personal issues in the late 1960s than what was going on in the country politically.
    MacGraw is wonderful in the movie and quite fantastic in "Just Tell Me What You Want" a decade later - people who don't think she could act should check out her long final scene (done in one take) in that 1980 Sidney Lumet-Jay Presson Allen gem. It's a shame she never found the right roles during most of her screen career.
    Thanks for the wonderful feeling of nostalgia you provided me today, Ken!

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  2. Hi Joe
    Glad you enjoyed the post! Trafficking in nostalgia seems to be a preoccupation of mine. I'm glad to hear you have fond memories of this film too, and you make a good point that films like this and "The Sterile Cuckoo" (a major fave of mine) reflect that not every youth film was political.
    Also, it's great to hear from an Ali MacGraw booster! And you're the only one I've ever encountered to take note of that scene in "Just Tell Me What You Want"! Much appreciate your stopping by here now and then. I visit your blog and marvel at the number of films and plays you see and books you read. How you find the time to write about each so thoughtfully is really inspiring. Thanks, Joe!

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  3. It's a testament to your cinematic analytical skills that I enjoy reading your thoughts on a film I've never seen just as much as one that I have. This one has always escaped me. It looks like my type of movie, based on the colors, sets, hair, etc... :-) As someone who has only ever been able to merely tolerate MacGraw, it might be nice to see if this can sway me. (I saw Just Tell Me What You Want many, many moons ago before I was fully cooked, so I can't really recall that. I'll have to see that one again sometime, too.) She certainly does look luscious in these caps!

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    1. Looking at that wedding pic of MacGraw with that huge 60's hairdo, you're right, I'm surprised this one escaped you, because I think there is much you would enjoy about it. Even if the film fails to be persuasive as a drama for some people, I think the comic notes hit the mark pretty solidly, making for a fun film to watch if only to enjoy the late 60s vibe. MacGraw is certainly a matter of taste (I really couldn't stand her in "Love Story") but she has a bit of a Candice Bergen vibe about her here, a little smart and sassier than she's given credit for, and she's really good. If nothing else I would love to hear your take on the characterization of Ron. His scenes with Benjamin are comically uncomfortable scenarios highlighting the subconsciously homoerotic "familiarity" of jocks and athletes.

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  4. This film possesses one of the most infectious theme songs ever written.

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    1. Isn't it, though? You can imagine how it sounded amplified in a movie theater back in the days when that kind of groovy go-go "beat" was still popular. No wonder I fell in love!

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  5. And the similarities continue, Ken! Some time ago, I made a trailer for Goodbye Columbus. I couldn't find one anywhere and it's one of my favorite films. Here's my trailer I made:) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0M2xLSsy1XM

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    1. Hello Klara
      I've been looking over your excellent site and I see we do indeed share similar tastes in some entertainments!
      Until you brought up the subject, I never realized I'd never seen a trailer for "Goodbye, Columbus" before.How cool is it that you made one of your own! A very nice job, too...so many great scenes and lines of dialog captured. A terrific tribute to a wonderful film.

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    2. Thank you Ken, I'm glad you enjoyed the trailer. I'm definitely loving your site! You're very thoughtful in your film writing. And you have great screen capture selections! :) Klara

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    3. Thanks very much for your compliments, Klara. Not intending to start a Mutual Admiration Society here, but I get a kick out of your site as well. To read a young person's appreciation perspective of the stars and films from my youth is very enlightening. I've enjoyed what I've read a great deal!

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