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It was recently announced that actress, Diane Keaton, will receive this year’s American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award. Just as an aside, I submit that Keaton, as much as Meryl Streep, could hold the title of America’s premiere film actress. Keaton has worked nonstop since her debut in 1970, proving herself adept at both comedy and drama, with her films which include ‘The Godfather’ trilogy raked in over $1 billion. She’s never been tabloid fodder or preachy, always known for her work (OK, and her quirky demeanor and baggy clothes). Reviewing her career, however, an odd, depressing film from 1977 haunts viewers even today and raises important questions that still demand answers.

1977, of course, was her banner year, bringing an Oscar for Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall.’ This is a comic masterpiece, with jabs at Hollywood, pompous intellectuals, and observations on life and love. The talented Keaton could just as easily have won for ‘Looking for Mr. Goodbar’ (the title taken from a nightspot, not a candy bar), a dusty, dated, R-rated drama set in the dark underworld of the sexually liberated 70s. 

Keaton played a dedicated teacher of deaf students by day and a bar-hopping sexual adventuress (and serious drug user) by night. [*Spoilers and adult themes follow*] Taken from a novel and based on a real-life case, ‘Goodbar’ vividly recreated the sexually promiscuous cesspool of urban America, with only the soundtrack, a collection of mid-70s dance hits, offering any sense of pleasure or release. By film’s end, Keaton’s character, having already slept with a string of lowlifes, is brutally murdered in her final encounter.

Forty years later, pop culture celebrates the notion that women can be as sexually adventurous as men. The ‘Sex and the City’ series was predicated upon that belief. But the film’s lingering questions still divide society: when should we mind our own business, and when should we tell those headed for the danger zone to stop? What is judgmentalism and what is just good advice?

‘Goodbar’ is oddly ambiguous, as there are no real heroes or villains. The men are mostly self-centered slime-balls who treat her like dirt. The one good man, a social worker, ends up mocked and blown off by Keaton’s character, so this is not a typical woman-as-victim Lifetime movie. She is obviously seeking her father’s love, which always remains just out of her reach. Her Catholic upbringing gives her no solace, only conflict and guilt (now that’s a new premise!).

What gives ‘Goodbar’ its edge is the raw, predatory manner in which Keaton’s character handles her freedom after she moves out of her parent’s house. Unlike the ‘Sex and the City’ women, who harbor some hope of romance and commitment, the ‘Goodbar’ heroine is as callous and selfish as any man, even insisting that they leave her apartment before sunup. Are we to consider this empowering? Destructive? The filmmakers never really take a stand.

Well before its tragic end, an aura of dreariness and futility pervades this film. The sexual encounters offer no real joy. The stars, though mostly attractive, provide no eroticism or glamor. There is not even as much sex as one would expect, with the men unwilling or unable to complete the task, perhaps proving the contention that married religious people actually enjoy sex the most. Contrary to our cultural fantasies, hedonism is not one long orgy at the Playboy Mansion; it could just as easily end in a violent death in a roach-infested apartment on a loveless New Year’s Eve.

‘Looking for Mr. Goodbar’ (not available on DVD, but worth finding online) poses questions of great impact for society. Sexual habits, while deeply private, bear consequences of great public concern. While we value freedom and privacy, we realize that any society that green-lights filthy, hedonistic behavior will breed a generation of filthy, hedonistic individuals. 

Do we really want to turn our children loose in such a world?

By contrast, Annie Hall, as portrayed by Keaton, exercised a modicum of restraint. Though certainly not a nun, she did not see sex as an empowering act unto itself. She found fulfillment in conversation and laughter. She was less of a hedonist and more of a sentimentalist, finding joy in the unlikeliest of moments. If ‘Goodbar’ offers even a subtle message, perhaps it is simply (for women and men) that promiscuity can lead to sadness, destruction, and untimely death. Friends don’t let friends sleep with strangers, a message that resonates with or without a disco soundtrack.

 

Hudson Reed Showers