This is the story of a summer romance across social castes. Richard Benjamin
plays Neil, a lower middle class Jewish man in his mid twenties who lives in
the Bronx with his aunt and uncle. He hits on and somehow manages to land, at
least for the summer, a beautiful, nouveau riche Jewish-American princess
(Brenda, played by Ali MacGraw in her break-out role) from Westchester. He
manages to pull off this coup by being just aggressive enough to try, and just
funny enough to amuse her.
Throughout the relationship he remains hopeful that he can somehow fit into
her life, but he's a skeptic by nature, and he never really trusts that the
relationship can work. Her mother doesn't want her hanging around with a
unambitious librarian who has a sarcastic tongue and a permanent case of anomie,
and Neil himself never really feels comfortable in the meretricious affluence of her
Their summer romance becomes physical, and she acquires a diaphragm because
she has a bad reaction to the pill. Mother finds the diaphragm ...
Huh? This is 1969. The era of free love. Everyone was having sex then,
weren't they? Why would the diaphragm be such a big deal?
This was a dated film even when it was new. It came out the same year as
Easy Rider, but the story seems to take place ten years earlier. It was in
every way an old-fashioned Hollywood film, not a product of the cultural
revolution. That makes perfect sense if you realize that the screenplay was
adapted from a novel by Philip Roth, and his story originally took place in
the late fifties. That is exactly when the film's story seems to unfold, even
though two characters identify themselves as Dartmouth '64 and Dartmouth '66.
If you just pretend Goodbye, Columbus was made in and takes place in 1959
instead of 1969, it will all seem more sensible.
Despite its retro nature, this movie was quite well respected in its time.
The directors' guild nominated it for its annual prize, as did the writers'
guild. The writers went a step further and awarded the film its trophy for the
best adapted screenplay, a plaudit resounding enough to earn the film the
corresponding Oscar nomination. It was also nominated for three BAFTAs and
three Golden Globes, including a nod from both societies to Ali MacGraw as the
most promising newcomer.
MacGraw was not originally supposed to get the role. She was a 30-year-old
model who had never acted, and the Brenda character was a college student, so
the part had already been awarded to Lesley Ann Warren, who was more than
eight years younger. Ms. Warren's unexpected pregnancy forced a late casting
change, and Ali MacGraw was the alternate, despite her age. Ali always played
characters significantly younger than she actually was, so you may be
surprised to learn that she will turn 70 in April!
This success of this film pushed MacGraw into Love Story, which in turn
drove her to fame. She actually became more famous as one of the "beautiful
people" than as an actress. She actually only made ten films in her life,
spanning a period of 34 years, but she was always in the thick of the tabloid
scene in Hollywood since she was married to both a studio head (Robert Evans)
and a cultural icon (Steve McQueen). Evans was the head of production at
Paramount and was developing two prestige productions for Ali when she split
to take up with McQueen. She was to have been Daisy in The Great Gatsby and
Evelyn in Chinatown.
Back to Goodbye, Columbus ...
They made a different kind of movie then. It's kind of small and personal
and quirky and it sort of ends in the middle. Kind of like life itself. That
was the point. It was Roth writing about what life was really like for him and
the people he knew in those days. He drew the characters as realistically as
he could, and let his own alter ego deliver enough witty remarks and stinging
commentary to keep the unembellished reality from getting boring.