Friday, November 30, 2012

A Slice-of-Life Movie

When I was growing up, Neil Simon was probably the biggest name in the playwrights' world universe.

I admired many writers as a young man. Most were writers of nonfiction, but among the fiction writers, Simon was in a league by himself. Even those who did not read much — and there were (and are) many of those — Simon was known for his many works that were brought to the big and small screens.

Like anyone, Simon has missed the target on occasion — but he's had more hits than misses. He may have been hitting his stride 35 years ago today when "The Goodbye Girl," made its theatrical debut.

The title was an example, I think, of what made Simon so popular. His characters always seemed to have occupations that were exotic — when compared to most humdrum, routine jobs — and sometimes it seemed that the common man could have very little in common with them.

But those characters weren't seen as distant because they were always facing very human predicaments, things to which anyone could relate. They were multi–dimensional.

In "The Goodbye Girl," Marsha Mason played a former Broadway dancer who became known as the Goodbye Girl because of all her failed relationships. The story found her living in the apartment of her latest ex (who had skipped out) with her precocious 10–year–old daughter, Lucy (Quinn Cummings).

Younger viewers may only know Mason as Martin Crane's love interest on Frasier in the late '90s. Similarly, they may only know Dreyfuss as Mr. Holland. And they probably don't know Cummings at all.

But, in "The Goodbye Girl," they played people with whom audiences could sympathize. Dreyfuss played his role so well he was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actor.

Mason, Cummings and Simon were all nominated for Oscars, and the movie was nominated for Best Picture, but only Dreyfuss won.

And it really wasn't hard to understand why. Dreyfuss had been showing up on TV and in movies for about a decade, but he had rarely been the featured star (exceptions had been 1975's "Jaws," 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and a few others).

Cummings, of course, was a bit of a newcomer. If she had won for Best Supporting Actress, she would have been in exclusive company — a few years older than Tatum O–Neal was when she won the Oscar for "Paper Moon," and she was a couple of years older than Anna Paquin was when she won Best Supporting Actress for "The Piano."

But all that is irrelevant because, of course, Cummings did not win. I suppose there is an argument to be made that, if Cummings had won the Oscar, she might have become more of a presence in movies than she became. Most Oscar winners do.

But, as I say, Cummings did not win, and she hasn't appeared in a movie in more than 20 years.

Dreyfuss, who did win, has appeared in many movies since then, and he has become a familiar face to moviegoers in the process.

It wasn't just the acting that drew me to this movie, however. As is true with most of the movies that I really like, a lot of its appeal is in its witty dialogue. We can thank Simon for that. He put some great lines in the characters' mouths.

For example, early in the movie, when Mason and Dreyfuss are still testy with each other, Dreyfuss's character says, "I love listening to you talk. I hate living with you, but your conversation is first rate."

Dreyfuss had the most immediately memorable lines — or perhaps he made them memorable with the quality of his acting — but I discovered, upon reflection, that many of Mason's lines had a staying power of their own.

For instance ...

When Mason's character tells her daughter to be tactful in her interaction with Dreyfuss.

"What's that?" Lucy asked.

Without batting an eye, Mason replied, "Lie!"

Or when Dreyfuss — in what could only be charitably referred to as his first negotiation with Mason — suggested that she was a "sharp New York girl."

"No a dull Cincinnati kid," Mason replied, "but you get dumped on enough and you start to develop an edge."

"The Goodbye Girl" was a real slice of life.