In the film The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss plays Elliot Garfield — an actor who has come to New York to play the title part in an off-off-Broadway production of Richard III. But he is displeased to find out that the director doesn’t want to do a traditional production. Why would he? This is a New York production, not something by the Tuscaloosa Summer Rep. Actually, even a summer rep group would be unlikely to do Richard III in the same old way. And the director’s idea is not terrible: he wants to make Richard homosexual. He wants to take Richard’s deformities as a metaphor.
Today, it would doubtless be seen as offensive to claim that somehow Richard’s psychopathy was actually related to his homosexuality. But better that than the weakling-homosexuality link of Edward II. And regardless, The Goodbye Girl was made in 1977. That’s only seven years after The Boys in the Band showed up on film. So even the one scene of Richard III that we see in the movie the way that the director supposedly wanted it is not that bad. Yes, it is a “flaming queen” stereotype. But who knows where it would have gone if the production had stayed with that. (Regardless, the ultimate fault is Neil Simon’s imagination.)
But instead of working with the director to create a more believable Richard, Elliot rebels. And the director gives in. So the production ends up as the worst thing it could possibly be. Now it has a “flaming queen” Richard who also has the club foot and hump. What is the point of such a production? Well, we know what the point is. It was to pacify a prima donna actor who is in no position to be one. He’s been working in Chicago. At the beginning of the movie, he is rightly grateful to have the part.
When I saw the film in the theater, I took Elliot’s side in it. I was only 13 years old. And the film expects the viewer to take Elliot’s side. But I no longer do. His lack of professionalism is staggering. It also seems unlikely that Elliot would have been hired for the part without some discussion of what the director planned for the play. But ultimately, the problem in the play is Elliot’s. He’s been hired to play the part and he’s unwilling to do it. It isn’t that he can’t do it. His greatest concern seems to be how he is going to look on stage.
Actors continue to amaze me, precisely because they are not like Elliot. I marvel at the fact that professional actors completely throw themselves into work that I would be embarrassed to be seen in. And this includes a lot of stuff that is fairly good. But standing up on stage is a very strange thing. So the one thing — the first thing — you would expect from an actor is their ability to throw themselves into a role. And Elliot is not willing to do that. He strikes me more like a Hollywood “star” than an actor.
What is his problem, anyway? Richard is not a nice guy. The first thing out of his mouth is his plan to have his brother murdered. He’s a psychopath. That’s somehow fine to be associated with. But a stereotypical gay man in the 1970s? That’s the bridge too far for Elliot? I could maybe understand this if his problem was that the character wasn’t real enough — but the standard Richard is hardly real — he’s a stock character, no more real than Snidely Whiplash. But Elliot’s problem seems to be what he can allow himself to be associated with.
All of this just makes Elliot a shallow person. But that’s probably good, because Paula McFadden — the Marsha Mason character — is this weird 1950s woman who shows up in the 1970s film. “I am going to be spending your money on our apartment”?! But whatever. The main point is that Richard III is a catastrophe in the film not because of the director, but because of Elliot himself. It mightn’t have worked anyway. But he assured it.