Looking for Mr Goodbar

Year: 1977
Studio: Paramount
Director: Richard Brooks
Writer: Richard Brooks/Judith Rossner
Cast: Diane Keaton, Richard Gere, Tom Bereger, Tuesday Weld, William Atherton, LeVar Burton, Brian Dennehy

Hanging around seedy bars looking for lovers feels like it's s old an activity as cinema itself, but this movie looked at the trope in a very particular period of history. While the rest of the world (anyone who had kids) was off seeing Star Wars, this was a story that could only exist in the wake of Second Wave Feminism and the Germaine Greer era, a family drama for the Sex and the Single Girl generation.

Like Cosmo magazine extolled at the time, young Jewish student Theresa (Diane Keaton, looking barely old enough to vote or drink) and her contemporaries sleep with whomever they want, bristle against the conservative strictures of their wartime parents, go to bars to meet lovers and get married on sudden whims. It was a time when the only consequences were the clap and unwanted pregnancy, and the latter could be taken care of by doctors in South America in an era when abortion wasn't so politically weighted.

Except the moral of the story is very different, and in a way you won't see coming unless you know the true story it's based on. I won't spoil it here, but suffice to say it ends up more in common with a slasher movie where promiscuous sex is asking not just for trouble but death, almost like it was a prediction about both AIDS and the video nasty movement a few years later. I expected it to be all about the freedoms of living under the influence of Gloria Steinem and Roe vs Wade but boy, did it abruptly change direction in the final sixty seconds.

Apparently searching for a father figure in the shape of her older married lover and professor, Theresa is a bit mousy and a bit timid about expressing what she wants no matter how badly he treats her, and when he dumps her it takes the wind out of her sails.

But something (it's not very clear from the plot) gives her the strength to exert her independence and reach for what she wants from life. In between her roller coaster family dynamic and a respectable job as a teacher of hearing impaired children, Theresa cruises the bars of New York by night, taking any number of on again, off again lovers (including an almost prepubescent Richard Gere, looking like he just wandered in from the set of The Outsiders), getting her own place where she drinks, smokes and shags as much as she wants.

Theresa seems to be enjoying life except that all along, the final scene seems to say that Theresa has been looking for something the whole time – and looking for it in the wrong places. It's not progressive and feminist after all, it's a conservative kneee jerk of a movie panicking about all the fragile young women we're going to lose to psychos and rapists if they don't keep it in their pants.

One short synopsis I read online said it was about a woman overtly looking for abusive relationships. I didn't get that sense, but while the performances are good and naturalistic for the time, Keaton as Theresa can be such a blank slate none of her motivations ever really rise to the surface as various men push and pull her in every direction.

It makes it all a bit episodic, but the aesthetic and tone evoke a period with a very particular socio-political mood. It's just that if it hadn't been based on a true case I would have thought some jittery studio executive had demanded the 11th hour denouement in case it upset conservative audiences.

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