Performance of the week: Diane Keaton in Looking For Mr Goodbar (1977)

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I know this may make no sense to some, especially after how I’ve been rambling on and on about how I love Meryl Streep, Glenn Close , Sissy Spacek etc but I love Diane Keaton. Yes to many she’s not on the same level as those I’ve mentioned, and yet she still has her entire league of fans, including the newer generation of stars like Emma Stone and Natalie Portman. Sure, she may not be the most beautiful or versatile, and she tends to use the same mannerisms over and over again in her roles but there’s something that draws me to her performances – she acts from her heart. It can be hard to see, especially if you are fixated on her acting style and mannerisms, but it’s really there. I’ll be lying if I said that I wasn’t moved by the train station scene in Reds, or when she is talking about how lucky she is to be able to love in Marvin’s Room (or when she’s talking about her ex boyfriend/date), or basically her entire performance in Annie Hall (refer to previous post). It’s really this truthful acting that sets her performances apart from one another for me, and not see her as “playing herself” over and over again. Sure, her neurotic mannerisms and voice can grate on the nerves of some, especially in her performances today since she’s pretty much committing what I call career suicide, but for the most part it works for me and the rest of her fans.

Actually, if there is a year to prove Keaton’s range as an actress, it will be 1977. Besides giving one of my favourite Oscar winning performances of all time as the free spirited and lovely Annie Hall, she did a 180 degree turn in the same year itself as Theresa Dunn in Looking For Mr Goodbar, a lonely school teacher who cruises nightclubs in order to fill her empty life. Many people think that she won for this role instead of Annie Hall, because this is a darker, more complex character in a dramatic film. Well if you read my previous post you know I obviously disagree, but that being said, this performance is pretty great and has its merits as well. Keaton was nominated for a golden globe (drama) for this role but she lost to Jane Fonda in Julia. She did win the comedy one for Annie Hall though, tying with Marsha Mason for The Goodbye Girl (if I’m not wrong). Anyway 1977 was her year, and I really don’t think she was going to lose the Oscar. Her performance as Annie Hall was iconic and deserving, and she was further helped by this performance.

Looking For Mr Goodbar is a pretty forgotten film, but I think it’s truly great. It’s easy to see why it isn’t that popular; it’s a very controversial subject matter, and people were likely to have been turned off by the lead character’s behavior. The ending was disturbing as hell, considering that it is based on a true story. Anyway, the film may be shocking but I think it is a very saddening and disturbing portrait of lonely people and the night life. Some of the camerawork and editing are pretty interesting as well, especially when Keaton’s character is hallucinating/imagining things. Tuesday Weld was nominated for best supporting actress and I think she was truly great, although Vanessa Redgrave really deserved the win that year imo.

Theresa Dunn is a very, very complicated character to play and the performance can easily be misunderstood by some. When I first read about the character, 2 words came into my mind: Jane Fonda. I don’t know why, I could seriously imagine Jane Fonda in the part, bringing her nervousness and nailing the emotional moments. However, as I watched the film and got to mull over it, Keaton’s casting really made sense to me. It might seem odd at first, since she isn’t the most beautiful and sexy, but I think that’s the point of it. They needed an actress who could appear friendly and warm at the surface to play a loving teacher of deaf children, but was at the dame time not afraid to simultaneously bare her flaws and dark side on screen (“It was an abortion, Michael!”). She wasn’t supposed to be beautiful, she was supposed to be this ordinary looking woman you never expect to sleep around with strangers. Seeing Keaton bare everything emotionally and physically was certainly strange and shocking, and that was the point of it.

Easily, the most praiseworthy aspect of this performance is how Keaton balances the double life of this character. There are a lot of layers to this woman, and she reveals them one by one. As usual, she brings her trademark insecurities and neurotic mannerisms into her performance here, but instead of making us fall in love with her like in Annie Hall, she makes us feel that this woman is so…pathetic, and frankly disgusting. I know this might sound strange, but Keaton’s acting here is pretty brutal. When actors play pathetic characters they usually try to win over the sympathy of the audience with tears but when you watch Keaton as Theresa you just want to shake your head and go “Woman. Stop this stupidity and craziness. It’s gross.” Watching her apartment slowly get infested with cockroaches, or when she over sleeps because she was doing drugs the night before is just plain unpleasant.

Diane used her usual insecurities to show how this woman’s scoliosis has impacted her self-esteem ever since she was a young child. In a brilliant monologue to a professor she was having an affair with, she shows how the pain of the operation on her spine has left her disfigured emotionally and physically, leaving her to not understand what she has done to make God mad at her. Instead of crying and wailing, she made the choice of being strangely catatonic and “numb” in this scene, and it just works because it shows that this woman is so damaged to the point that she is almost “indifferent” towards her pain. As she said herself afterwards, “I’d rather be seduced than comforted”. To her, the pain and damage is already done, and the sleeping around and sex is basically her way of “recovery”. I have read some online comments about how they felt that Diane was very uncomfortable in her performance, and somehow this affected the effectiveness of her performance because they felt that her “sexiness” was very forced. While I won’t deny that this is certainly not a typical role of hers to play, and Keaton herself has remarked that this role was very difficult for her, I genuinely think that that is the point of it. Like I said, this woman merely needed the sex to “repair” her damaged self-esteem. She wasn’t like Catherine Tramell, who could flash her vagina at a whole lot of men like it was no big issue. The best scene that exemplified this would be when she was confronted by James (William Atherton) in her apartment. What James saw and said to her pretty much represented our point of view: “This is not you.” I think Keaton’s reaction here caused some misunderstanding, because some people felt that she was a bit unnatural. She responded in this almost childishly defensive tone, saying that this WAS her and started asking James whether he ever had a woman or not while attempting to seduce him on the bed (“I want you HERE!”). Many people felt that her sexiness and weird, “seductive” poses are off, but isn’t that EXACTLY the point? This woman is NOT a temptress, she’s just this sad and broken down thing living among dirty dishes and cockroaches. She thinks that her encounters with men are a way of reaffirming herself as an attractive woman when in reality they are just using her for free, easy sex. Like I said, when you see her you just want to shake your head and say, “No. Just no.”

As mentioned earlier, Keaton balances the double life of the character very well. The “daytime” Theresa is the Diane Keaton we are more used to watching. She works as a teacher for deaf children, and although her charm is not on the Annie Hall level, she brings her usual luminous and warm self to the screen. Just watching her being especially tender and kind to her students makes everything about the character clear. This is the life that she really wants, and the life that she gets the most meaning out of. To give love to the disabled and those in need, instead of her senseless lovemaking at night. You can say that sex is like a drug to her; she needs it badly, even if it’s something that she doesn’t want.

Someone said that Keaton’s character was suffering from borderline personality disorder, and it kind of makes sense considering how it could have stemmed from the woman’s past. Besides the great contrast in her day and night life, she injects her usual Keaton mannerisms and neurotic tics to this character, like in the scene she was imagining herself being arrested for drug possessions, or when she was pretending to punch the hanging ornaments in her apartment. It just makes the character seem a bit “off” and, once again, pathetic.

I guess a valid criticism would be that her some of her line readings can be a bit stiff, but the way I read it was really because the character was just trying waaaay to hard to be something she was not. It’s easy to see why Diane won the Oscar for Annie Hall in 1977 instead of this role. Of course, she was TOTALLY deserving for her performance in that part, but I think it’s also because of the fact that this character is a bit hard to interpret and weird, which is why some people could have misunderstood it. Well, that’s what I’m assuming anyway, and of course, I won’t deny that the Academy don’t usually go for controversial roles like this.

All in all, this is a great performance by a great actress I’m very fond of. It really shows the talent that Diane Keaton had, and it’s highly recommended for people who want to find out more of her other works other than Annie Hall. It just makes me sad about why she is appearing in crap like Smother and The Big Wedding, although I must admit that I kinda wanna watch And So It Goes LOL,

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