Cinema: Wising Up

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THE GOODBYE GIRL Directed by Herbert Ross Screenplay by Neil Simon

Richard Dreyfuss commands top roles, top billing and top dollar in Hollywood, but it has always been hard to accept him as a top movie actor. Though his brash energy holds the screen, Dreyfuss has built most of his characters from a single emotion—an intense comic anguish. At his best—in American Graffiti, Duddy Kravitz and Close Encounters—he can be ruefully witty and vulnerable. His jittery neuroticism keeps an audience guessing whether he might really fall apart. But there is also a persistent feeling that he is hiding behind a pat routine. When Dreyfuss portrays the same boyish insecurities in role after role, one begins to wonder if he has anything else to give. Unlike Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, two other specialists in masculine hysteria, he has never come across as a fully rounded adult.

Or such has been the case up until The Goodbye Girl, a film that reveals a Richard Dreyfuss we have not seen before. This romantic comedy is a rather modest entertainment, but it forces its star to open up by placing him in a role that demands a generosity of spirit. The character Dreyfuss plays, Elliott Garfield, is a struggling New York actor who is mad for an emotionally battered Broadway dancer (Marsha Mason) who will have nothing to do with him. To win the woman's affection, Elliott must rise above his neuroses—he must be strong enough for two—and indeed Dreyfuss grows up before our eyes. For once he is the least insecure character in a film; he is mature and sensitive at the same time—not to mention sexy and compassionate. Of course he gets the girl in the end, but he gets the audience first.

Dreyfuss aside, The Goodbye Girl is not without its unpretentious merits, the most notable of which is Neil Simon's script. Though the film relies heavily on the mechanical plot devices of '40s boy-meets-girl movies, Simon keeps gratuitous punch lines to a minimum and shows an open-hearted concern for his fetching characters. Unfortunately, The Goodbye Girl's direction has been entrusted to Herbert Ross (The Turning Point), a film maker who has a bizarre knack for making almost any screenplay look as if it were written for radio. This time around he photographs his leading lady from unflattering angles and highlights the clumsier narrative contrivances of the story.

The movie is at its sharpest when the action moves from the Upper West Side apartment house where the hero and heroine live to the theatrical demimonde where they work; the theater is a milieu that Ross, an ex-Broadway choreographer, and Simon know uncannily well. In the film's funniest sequence, Elliott opens off-off-Broadway in an outlandishly homosexual production of Shakespeare's Richard III; Ross captures the texture of a disastrous opening night in all its horror, and Dreyfuss's flaming king proves the nuttiest send-up of bad acting since Dick Shawn created a musical-comedy Hitler for Mel Brooks' The Producers.

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