The Dark Days of Disco: LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR

There are a lot of misconceptions that younger generations have about the 1970's.  Many seem to believe that it was an almost Utopian era of free love, expanded minds and a twenty four hour, non stop night at Studio 54.  Well, believe it or not, it was a lot less of a joy ride than many would suspect.  I ought to know, I lived it.

Sure, we took drugs, we danced. Sex (gay and straight) was easily available (AIDS had not yet come on to the scene, so any little medical issue that might have come about due to a one night stand was easily rectified with a visit to a medical clinic)...but we were also dealing with the fallout of Watergate, oil embargos, a recession, the decay of both  the  Women's moment and the hippie ethic.  You see, there was a reason for all of that indiscriminate sex and wild partying; real life was a bitch in heat and one did whatever one could to buffer themselves from the ugly reality of the times.  1977's Looking for Mr. Goodbar captured all of this and served it up to the masses as a possible warning that the party could not go on forever with out some kind of dire consequences for all involved.

Based on a novel by Judith Rossener (which was based on the horrific real life story of New York City murder victim, Roseann Quinn), Looking for Mr. Goodbar tells the tale of Theresa Dunn (Diane Keaton), an Irish / Catholic woman living with her overbearing father (Richard Kiley), her long suffering but devout mother (Priscilla Pointer) and her sisters, Brigid (the good girl, played by Laurie Prange) and Katherine (the apple of her father's eye, who hides her wild lifestyle from her family - played by Tuesday Weld).  Frustrated by the hypocrisy she sees at home, Theresa starts to quietly explore her sexuality by carrying on an ill advised secret affair with one of her professors.  Before long, she falls in love with him, and is unceremoniously dumped by the lout (who told her earlier, "I can't stand the company of the woman I just fucked").  Depressed, she fantasizes suicide but ultimately decides against it.  One night, she pays a visit to her sister and discovers that her sibling and  husband are hosting a mini orgy.  Theresa, accepts a joint from one of the party guests, and while she does not participate in any sexual shenanigans, she watches everything until she dozes off in an easy chair.  The next morning, when she arrives home, her father accuses her of "whoring around", you can see the look on her face, how she'd love to tell him the truth about his other daughter, but instead she packs her bags and leaves home, taking a small basement apartment in the same building her sister lives at.

Unbound from the constraints of her father, Theresa is able to explore her sexuality on her own terms, she can now enjoy the "new freedoms" promised to women like her from women like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan...but there is also another side to this complex character; during the day, Theresa teaches deaf children - and she seems almost selfless in her devotion to them - it is during the daylight moments of this film, the moments when she is working with her young charges, that Theresa seems her most poised, relaxed and confident.

While her days are filled with teaching, her nights suddenly become a whirl of seedy bars, disco music, drugs and a compulsion to have sex with as many men as she possibly can.  Early on, when she goes to a doctor for birth control she tells him that she does not want any children - at first we might think that this is only so she will not have to worry about a pregancy, but then we find out that when she was a little girl she had scoliosis of the spine, a condition that left her in a cast for over a year as a child, as well as with a slight limp and a large scar on her back.  Later we discover that she had an aunt who was so disfigured by scoliosis, she took her own life - a dark family secret that is not spoke of.  Theresa does not want to chance bringing a child into the world with this condition.

Out one night at a bar, Theresa meets Tony (Richard Gere) a charismatic hustler who she finds equally attractive as well as repellent.  He notices that she is reading a book and strikes up a conversation with her (ironically she is reading The Godfather, several years earlier Keaton played Al Pacino's wife in the film of that book).  Eventually, she brings Tony home with her, and she discovers that the sex with him is incredible - so what if he carries around a glow in the dark switchblade and seems a few cents short of a dime?  However, she discovers that once they have had sex, Tony, like the college professor before him, wants nothing to do with her.  But that's OK now, as Theresa has her own rules: Leave before morning.  That's right, she can beat the men at their own game by using them as much as they might want to use her.  Unfortunately, Tony comes with a lot of luggage and after a few "dates" with him, Theresa understands that she's got to shake him as he's turned from a dangerous suitor to a psychopathic stalker who threatens her life.

Now with Tony stalking her in earnest, Theresa realizes that her worlds are colliding - Tony even threatens to report her drug taking and sexual escapades to the school.  Reality intrudes when after taking a Quaalude to come down from a night of snorting coke, she oversleeps and finds her classroom in disarray - the children are running rampant, and something odd is scrawled on the chalk board (note how high up the death's head is, how could a small child have done this?)...
...adding to her stress, she discovers that her father has been hospitalized and could possibly be dying.  Oddly, she fantasizes about him dead.  However, when she goes to kiss his corpse, he opens his eyes and begins laughing...
...amidst all of this mayhem another man finds his way into Theresa's life, James, (William Atherton), a seemingly decent guy who is a social worker - she met him while trying secure a hearing aide for one of her students.  James is quiet, educated, compassionate and kind, so of course, she want's nothing to do with him, in fact she does everything to drive him away; mocking him, inferring that he's gay, and even laughing when he tries to put on a condom when she finally gets him into bed with her.  Finally, it seems that she has worn him down, and we find that now James has replaced Tony as her new stalker.

As the story progress and turns even darker, Theresa has become so sexually charged that some of the men she takes home mistake her for  a hooker, leaving money on the bedside table.  She laughs at this as earlier in the film, she fantasized about being a prostitute.  It soon becomes obvious that the age or looks of the bed partners make no matter, and one night she brings home a chubby middle-aged man who earlier took her to a gay bar.  It's during this scene where she takes him back to her place that we first notice the strange picture on her wall of a woman seemingly screaming.  The middle aged man asks her who it is a picture of, and she replies, "Me, when I need a fix."  One can't help  but wonder if she's talking about narcotics or sex at this point.
By now, the viewer might be wondering what the point is to this story - will our heroine finally see the errors of her ways, or at least show some common sense?  The answer sadly is no.

It is in the last half hour of the movie when we think that Theresa is going to finally quit her wild ways.  On New Year's Eve she proclaims to the bartender that this is her last night of cruising the bars (earlier she flushed all of her stash down the toilet).  And yet, as she's saying this, she is sipping on a glass of wine and watching men come and go. And then she bumps into James again, and this time, he grabs her and threatens her...she manages to pull away from him, and sides up to a young man playing pinball (Tom Berenger).  She asks the man to pretend that they are talking so that James will leave her alone.  They talk and she mentions what a beautiful smile he has - he does - in fact the young stranger is almost angelic in his beauty...
...feeling confident that this sweet faced young man is harmless, they talk as James leaves the bar, and then they kiss...
...and now it seems that Theresa Dunn has finally found Mr. Goodbar in this unassuming, uncomplicated, golden haired Adonis; this beautiful boy that she will take back to her place, the one she will ring in the new year with, as uncomplicated as his easy going nature.

If you have never seen this film, you owe it to your self to do so NOW!  If you have seen it, then you know what comes next, and you understand why I am posting this review on a blog that purports to be about horror films.  I've often said that the final few minutes of Looking for Mr. Goodbar is probably some of the most difficult movie watching anyone can experience.

Misogyny, homophobia, sexism, racism, drug addiction are all part of this potent dark cocktail. I strongly suggest that you watch this film alone and undisturbed, and then, when it's over, I challenge you to come back here and tell me that you have not seen the most terrifying film ever made.   

And as for those of us who have seen the film: can you help but consider that Theresa Dunn's story was a cautionary tale of days to come?


Jack Veasey said...

I found this movie very disturbing and affecting at the time, for obvious reasons. I think a lot of gay men identified with the main character -- I know I did. I remember thinking when I saw "Boys Don't Cry" that I felt, for a lot of that film, like I did for only the last few minutes of this one. Very perceptive review.

Tempest Nightingale LeTrope said...

This is a truly terrifying film. Our deepest longings for love sometimes cause us to do things that are terribly risky to our well-being and even our very lives. To me, who was a youth in the 1970's, the decade at the time seemed very exuberant and exciting and full of promise, but looking back from my current middle-aged vantage point was a time of desperation. Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a wonderful cautionary tale from that period which showcases the seedier side of sex, drugs, and disco.

Will Errickson said...

I saw this once about 20 years ago and it blew me away. I particularly remember being horrified by her father, and that line of the professor's you quoted still rings in my head. Ugh. Netflix has this on streaming video so I really need to go back and check it out, I've been obsessed with '70s "how we live today" movies for awhile now. Thanks for reminding me of this one!

TPC said...

Thank you so much for your post. I am a huge fan of this film, and I agree with EVERYTHING you say about this classic from the '70s. Your comments about the ending are so succinct, I feel like you read my mind.

I have seen so many horror films, but none of them have been burned into my mind - into my psyche - like Goodbar has. The final moments are so terrifying and unsettling I will never forget them. I must also note the cinematography, editing and sound effects are top-notch.

It's a truly disturbing film.

Star said...

i just finished watching this for the first time last night. we will be discussing this in detail on friday when i come over for our viewing of Survival of the Dead. can't wait!!