Goodbye, Columbus: Say hello to Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw as the Jewish American princess in sausage curls.
Which film was the first to receive an R rating from the MPAA? Not The graduatethat was classified for adults only, however The split, a crime drama starring Jim Brown and Diahann Carroll. Do you remember your first R? It was a sultry July night when Dad stopped pleading and took me away Goodbye, Columbus, the film that introduced Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw to moviegoers.
Goodbye, Columbus (1969)
Every Jew worth his kosher salt was kveling to see Hollywood film Philip Roth’s touching National Book Award-winning novella. Roth called it a story of “tribal secrets”; Members of the Jewish community, appalled by the author’s dirty laundry, called him a self-hating anti-Semite. In the decade between its release and its adaptation by screenwriter Arnold Schulman, America entered a sexual revolution and war that was becoming less popular by the hour. The book describes Neil Klugman (Benjamin) as a veteran of the Korean War. Schulman doesn’t mention Vietnam in his update and downplays the timeliness to play the romance between the Jewish American princess and the nebulous frog who will never transform into a prince even after receiving her kiss.
The exclusive Old Oaks Country Club, a complained playground in aptly named Purchase, New York, was a world Neil was only allowed into once a year, and then only at the invitation of his cousin Doris (Kay Cummings). Imagine Doris’ shock when Neil shows up the next day as a guest of spoiled Radcliffe student Brenda Patimkin (Ali McGraw). Yours is a land marinated in Nouveau riche Absurdity where rhinoplasty is compulsory to make what’s already pretty look even prettier. The two main actors are perfectly cast and thanks to cameraman Gerald Hirschfeld (Failsafe, young Frankenstein) luminous site work. All it took was a director, a job Larry Peerce clearly wasn’t equipped for. The first shot we see is a close close-up of a wavy navel sizzling by the pool – a greased griddle waiting for a beach ball to fall on it. When faced with a crowd, Peerce does his best to zoom out of things or bump scenes into annoyingly literal ways. Magnify an engine overheating: Cut to Neil’s Aunt Gladys, who is lifting the lid of a steaming pea pot. He later interrupts the lovemaking in the attic by confronting it with a piece of red meat.
Neil has worked as a librarian for the year since his release. Assigned to reception, he is approached by a young African American (Anthony McGowan) who asks Neil to direct him to the art department. A hypocritical colleague – who had the child thrown out the day before – claims he caught the boy in the stacks and enjoyed Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti. Neil intervenes before his colleague realizes his threat to alert the authorities. It turns out that the child is suspicious of library cards, thinking that they are a way to track him or even some form of punishment. He wonders why Neil is encouraging him to take the book home. “Don’t you want me here?” he asks.
The exchange is real, the performances convincing and the dialogue except for one word is 100% Roth. The F-word was still about a year away from its cinema debut in M * AS.H, and the thought of a 9 year old boy summarizing Gauguin’s work with “Man, ain’t that the goddamn life” would never fly. And on Peerce’s watch we hear the second “Isn’t that the life” of the boy spoken under Neil as he pulls into the four-car Klugman’s circular driveway. For your information, the “Bren” in Brenda is Yiddish for “fire”, an insight that Art Director Emanuel Gerard understood. There is almost as much red in Patimkin’s house as Harry’s Bar in Vertigo. At first glance, the driveway and exterior of the Westchester Mansion glow in crimson red: the sports car, clapboard and front door are bleeding technicolor red. The curtains in the dining room are so red that they could catch fire and no one would notice. On another note of spectacular (and pinpoint) production design, let me draw your attention to the ultimate in ’60s chic, a wood-paneled basement room with a wet bar, ping pong table, and refrigerator with an orchard worth fresh fruit.
My high school English teacher was an extremely progressive educator and next to such staples as The catcher in the rye and Romeo and Juliet, Frau Rosow peppered her curriculum with the apparently taboo likes from Erich Fromms The art of love and Germaine Greers The female eunuch. After reading the book not long after seeing the film, I was delighted to see it Goodbye, Columbus on their required reading. I knew I could ask Ms. Rosow anything, so I did. There was a moment in the film that wasn’t in the otherwise faithful adaptation that I needed help with. Driving away from a frustrating session of hot front seat romance, Neil stops the car and runs to the trunk. There he continues to jerk off and clean the bumper like it was a dumbbell. Ms. Rosow explained that physical exertion is the fastest way for a man to lose his erection.
The wedding scene alone caused outrage: guests drooled over a buffet table like pigs in a trough. This was my first sighting of Jack Klugman, and I couldn’t have been happier to make the acquaintance Hunter. As Brenda’s father, Ben, he uses his palm as a stopper to shake the salad dressing bottle when the cap is out of reach. And that’s nothing compared to the barbaric Ben who decapitates a chopped chicken with a knife and a crack cracker. Unfortunately, Peerce has no idea how to time a gag, and so wastes a possibly closely observed climax in favor of a free-for-all.
One of the more problematic aspects of the film’s release was the poster catchphrase: “Every father’s daughter is a virgin”. Newspapers refused to include it in their advertisements. Theater owners would cut the poster with tape to cover up the offensive word. But the theater my father and I went to left the poster hanging uncut. Larry paused by the poster, but by then we had parked the car and there was no turning back. Even old Jagoff at the ticket office couldn’t get in my way. “This is adult material,” he warned before punching our tickets. “Are you sure your child sees it?” “He’s read the book,” Dad replied as he handed him a fiver. All of this, and he willingly fell asleep while bathing nude. Thanks father!