Thursday, November 2, 2017

Richard Dreyfuss: The Hello Guy

The other evening I took a timeout from the work piling up on my desk to watch a charming 1977 romantic comedy, The Goodbye Girl. This film, a box office hit that was nominated for five Oscars, was in a sense playwright Neil Simon’s gift to his then-wife, Marsha Mason. She plays Paula, a Broadway dancer who has terrible luck with men. Her ex-husband, the father of her ten-year-old daughter, was incapable of being faithful  And her various romances since that time have all ended badly. As the movie opens, she’s just been dumped by her current squeeze, who’s off to Italy to make a movie. Not only was he too cowardly to break it off in person but he’s secretly sublet their New York apartment to another actor, who appears at her door in the middle of a rainy night expecting to move in. Needless to say, he and Paula end up in an uneasy truce, sharing the cramped (though not by New York standards) space and trying to deal with each other’s worst habits. 

That bedraggled and very arrogant actor, Elliot Garfield, is played by Richard Dreyfuss in a performance that’s a tour de force. When he’s not sparring with Paula, he’s trying to rehearse for his big New York stage debut, playing the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Unfortunately for him, his director has an outlandish approach to the material. He believes Shakespeare’s supreme villain acts the way he does not because he’s a hunchbacked cripple but rather because he’s a closet homosexual, “the queen who wanted to be king.”  So Elliot, having failed to convince his director to change course, is forced to mince about the stage in stereotypically gay fashion. Audiences, of course, are appalled, and the reviews he garners are a supreme humiliation.  

While all this is happening, Elliot and Paula gradually make peace, and eventually end up making whoopee. Is Elliot just another love-‘em-and-leave-‘em guy? Or is he something better? Far be it from me to give away the film’s ending. But Dreyfuss’s performance as Elliot is so vivid and multi-dimensional that he ended up winning an Oscar for Best Actor of 1977. Lest you think it was an easy win, he was up against Richard Burton for his highly charged performance in Equus. Actors in comedies don’t usually snag the big prizes. But Dreyfuss did; at age 30 he was the youngest man to win in this category until Adrien Brody’s Oscar victory for a very  dramatic turn in The Pianist in 2003. 

Of course The Goodbye Girl wasn’t Dreyfuss’s first stab at movies. He made waves in American Graffiti (1973), The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). But in The Goodbye Girl he entered territory that had been staked out a decade earlier by Dustin Hoffman: that of a romantic leading man who is not classically handsome. When Hoffman was auditioning for The Graduate, he reasoned that the role of Benjamin Braddock was not for him. In the screenplay, Benjamin is a collegiate superstar, who has scored both in the classroom and on the athletic field. Hoffman reasoned that the part should go to someone tall, blonde, and handsome, like Robert Redford. It took a gutsy decision by director Mike Nichols to go with Hoffman: short, dark, a bit clunky, and unmistakably ethnic. After America unexpectedly fell in love with Hoffman, other ethnic (Jewish, Italian) actors for the first time had a chance at being a romantic lead. So here’s to you, Mike Nichols, for making Richard  Dreyfuss’s Elliot Garfield possible.

Read much more about the long-term influence of The Graduate in my new Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation, out November 7 from Algonquin Books. 


  1. I think I would enjoy that movie!

    Can't wait to read your next blog entry about sexual harassment accusations leveled at Dustin Hoffman.

  2. Oh dear, I have no special insight into that period of Dustin Hoffman's life (1985). But the article in the Hollywood Reporter is pretty eye-opening. Yes, you and yours would enjoy The Goodbye Girl, which I found at my local library.