Monday, July 25, 2016

I spent a lovely afternoon yesterday munching on cheese and crackers and watching The Goodbye Girl. It's one of my favorite films.

Marsha Mason and Neil Simon married in 1973, and spent their honeymoon in Florence, Italy. Simon, who liked to write plays and scripts specifically designed for the actors performing them, began to muse openly about writing a script for Mason. They talked about it endlessly in Italy, identifying themes (romance, witty dialogue, newlyweds, etc.) that they would like to see in it.

After their honeymoon, the couple relocated to Los Angeles from New York City. The move caused major anxiety for Simon, and he conceived of the film script around this move. He also drew inspiration from a conversation he had with Dustin Hoffman, who struggled with immense fame after appearing in The Graduate. Titled Bogart Slept Here (a reference to the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood, where many aspiring actors lived in the Golden Age of film), the female lead was an ex-dancer newly married to a promising actor who gets a major film role. The move to California (so different from New York City), and the husband's sudden fame, causes problems with their marriage.

The final draft of the script was darker than Mason and Simon had envisioned, but it was nevertheless very good. Simon convinced his friend Mike Nichols to direct, and Nichols got Warner Bros. to finance the picture. Ray Stark (West Side Story, Lolita, Funny Girl, The Toy, Annie, Steel Magnolias, The Sunshine Boys) was the producer.

Stark and Nichols asked Hoffman to be Elliot, but Hoffman dithered and instead they cast Robert De Niro. De Niro had just skyrocketed to stardom in The Godfather Part II, and was working on Taxi Driver. De Niro was so eager to play the part of Elliot that he promised to finish work on Taxi Driver on a Saturday and start rehearsals for Bogart Slept Here on the following Monday.

Rehearsals began in mid-August 1975. Simon and Nichols now began arguing over the tone of the film. Worse, De Niro was having trouble moving from the two months he'd spent playing a psychopath into a role requiring light comedy. De Niro needed time to find his center, but there wasn't any. De Niro, Simon, and Nichols now began feuding with one another. Filming began in September, and Stark and Warner Bros. openly worried that De Niro didn't understand the script's humor. Simon realized that De Niro's humor is subtle, and comes from his facial expressions and body language. Mason, a much more verbal actor, could not find a rhythm with De Niro.

Nichols shut down the production after the first week and fired De Niro. De Niro was livid. His dismissal created big headlines in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, and caused problems for Warners.

Nichols tried to replace De Niro, but never found the right actor. Worse, Nichols' last film (The Fortune) had bombed. Frustrated with filmmaking, Nichols quit Bogart Slept Here. He returned to Broadway, where he directed David Rabe's Streamers in 1976 and then, later than year, Trevor Griffiths' Comedians. De Niro went to work for Bernardo Bertolucci in 1900 and then Elia Kazan in The Last Tycoon (both box office bombs). Martin Scorsese rescued his career with New York, New York in 1977.

Producer Ray Stark did not want to see the project die, however. He spent most of 1976 convincing Warner Bros. that Simon had a great script and a great leading lady. They just needed to find the right leading man. Warners pretty much lost faith in the film, and offered to sell it to MGM. But MGM refused to buy it. So Warners offered MGM a co-financing deal. MGM accepted, and the project went into development again. In the meantime, Mason filmed Audrey Rose. Simon saw his play Chapter Two produced on Broadway, and his script for Murder By Death filmed in October 1975.

By the fall of 1976, Stark was interviewing actors. In early December, he asked Richard Dreyfuss to read some scenes with Mason and Simon. Dreyfuss had become a major star with Jaws in 1975, but his first film afterward was the made-for-television Victory at Entebbe in 1976. He'd also spent much of 1975 and 1976 filming Close Encounters of the Third Kind for Steven Spielberg, but that film was nowhere close to being done.

It was pure and simple chemistry, right from the get-go. Dreyfuss had fantastic comedy rhythm and a quickness in response that De Niro completely lacked. Dreyfuss and Mason flew through the reading, and were practically giddy when it was over. The room crackled with energy.

Neil Simon then decided that the script had to be rewritten. The script had to be funnier, wittier, and more romantic. Simon jettisoned Bogart Slept Here and decided instead to write what is essentially a prequel, a story about an eccentric Off-Broadway actor who moves in with an ex-chorus girl who has been repeatedly jilted. He wanted them to get thrown together at the start of the film, hate one another, and then slowly fall in love.

The day after the reading, Simon wrote down a tentative title, The Goodbye Girl, and began writing. Six weeks later, he had a finished script.

Dreyfuss and Mason did some readings, and found the same spark again. Ray Stark immediately hired director Herbert Ross, who had helmed The Sunshine Boys for him in 1975, to take over.

Production on The Goodbye Girl began on February 2, 1977, and filming ended in early May 1977.

When filming concluded, Dreyfuss went back to work for Spielberg doing pickups for Close Encounters.

Mason and Simon divorced in 1983.

Mason and Dreyfuss remain close friends to this day.

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