movies

Caught Looking

Unbeknownst to me, the 1977 Diane Keaton film for which she received high praise, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, is difficult to obtain on DVD or Blu-Ray. After watching it, I no longer wonder why.

This is, to put it mildly, a downer of a film. Based on the novel by Judith Rossner, which is itself based on the 1973 murder of NYC teacher Roseann Quinn, Goodbar follows the life of 20-something Theresa Dunn, a teacher for the deaf by day and a hedonistic wild child by night. Teresa’s nocturnal life is motivated by her sexual appetite, but also by her latent daddy issues and backlash against a restrictive Catholic upbringing.

We are introduced to Theresa at the apex of her affair with a professor; it is to him that Theresa loses her virginity, and her fantasies about their relationship foreshadow her cavalier attitude to sex. When the affair ends, Theresa responds by engaging in a series of one-night stands with strangers she meets in bars. Ultimately, she hooks up with a hustler named Tony, played by Richard Gere. After a cocaine-fueled night together, Theresa’s daytime life begins to be affected by her nighttime escapades.

Along the way, Theresa meets a “nice” guy named James, of whom her family approves. Meanwhile, Tony has disappeared, and Theresa seems to be trying with James. Ultimately, however, James’ values and goals are vastly different than Theresa’s and they break up when he tries to control her, whereupon Theresa continues to engage in her nighttime activities.

It isn’t until Tony returns and becomes controlling and abusive that Theresa recognizes the implications that the hidden part of her life could have on her career and daytime existence. She disposes of all the drugs in her apartment and resolves to turn over a new leaf. However, that hidden part of her can’t resist one last hookup and she spends New Year’s Eve at a local bar before picking up an ex-convict named Gary, who is spiraling out of control over his sexuality. They return to Theresa’s apartment and attempt to engage in sex, but Gary is impotent and when Theresa shrugs it off and asks him to leave, he responds in a fit of rage, raping and stabbing her repeatedly, ultimately killing her.

In some ways, Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a product of its time. Released in the midst of second-wave feminism, its main character is a woman who is determined to take charge of her sexuality. However, there is still an underlying victim-blaming message for the audience. It says that if Theresa were a “good girl”, she mightn’t have ended up dead. Modern society rejects that notion, instead laying the blame for Theresa’s death where it belongs: at the feet of her killer.

Moral lessons aside, this is a dark and disturbing film. It’s relentless in its desperate search for acceptance and peace. Theresa claims that she doesn’t want love (“Don’t love me; make love to me”), but she is clearly searching for something that she can’t find in her “real” life. Maybe it’s acceptance from her father, maybe it’s freedom, maybe it’s self-acceptance, and maybe it’s just simple, unconditional love. That she never finds it, that her life is snuffed out before she figures out how to balance her two selves, is the saddest thing of all.

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