The Good-bye Girl

Paramount Pictures
Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, 1977

The white girl has thin arms, expressive hands, and long hair. The first time we see her is in a series of black-and-white stills taken in a twilight world of bars and clubs and discos. They’re part of the opening credits for the 1977 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar, the story of Theresa Dunn—Diane Keaton—who, in the photographs at least, looks a little lost to us, even before we’ve lost her.

When the movie proper starts we notice that the white girl has a distinctive gait. Strolling down the street or climbing a flight of stairs, her feet are slightly turned out, like a dancer’s, or a clown’s. You wouldn’t call her fashionable, but she has some nice clothes: a denim jumpsuit, sensible skirt, knee-high boots—like that. You wouldn’t say the girl was “plain”; nor would you reduce her to anything as banal as “pretty.” She’s beautiful like Diane Keaton—a “real” beauty the ladies can relate to—but cut off from any chance of it being celebrated, especially by the men whose attention she craves.

But she will not be known. To be seen is to be exposed and to be exposed is to be hurt and to be hurt is to be what she once was, all the way back in childhood: a vulnerable child suffering the aftereffects of polio, which included curvature of the spine, and the indignity of living, for a time, in a body cast. Left more or less to herself in that cast on a table in the family sitting room—in their guilt her Irish-American parents would not look at her—she listened as her family talked about Jesus. But he would not come.

Eventually she walked away from polio with a scar on her lower back and a heavy aspirin habit. She rarely lets any of this show on her face, though; her kids—after completing her college studies she began teaching at a school for the deaf—wouldn’t be able to process any of that. They’re in the first grade, deaf or partially hearing, and they watch her face for everything—she’s their world—as she teaches them to sign, and maybe say a few words from their actual mouths, which are as vulnerable as their teacher’s own.

Watching her face as she looks at her students can be painful because of its naked care, and her desire to conceal her inner life. There’s one little girl in her class, though—her name’s Amy; she’s black—who loves Theresa, more than she could say if she could say it.

In the black night the white girl becomes someone else. Restless, anxious, sad, she trolls singles bars. This is in the 1970s, when places like Maxwell’s Plum and Plato’s Retreat were the spots, and girls like this white girl have earned what a number of birth control advocates and feminists had fought…

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