Overlooked Gems: Goodbye Columbus (1969)

Posted by Lesley Coffin September 29, 2013 0 Comment 6385 views

Earlier this week, Jack Klugman’s name appeared in the news a great deal in relation to how the Emmy memorial was handled.  I won’t engage in that debate, however, the debate reminded me of a film I had been wanting to mention as an Overlooked Gem for some time because of the incredible performance given by Jack Klugman.

The film is 1969’s Goodbye Columbus, based on popular novella by Phillip Roth focusing on his typical Jewish, older Holden Caulfield type – a sad-sack cynic who also happens to be very funny and observant.  If you know the story of Neil Klugman (ironic name), you’ll recall that the book is entirely first person and the best writing in the novella is when Neil gives his thoughts of what takes place around him.  Usually an adaptation would include voice over to keep some of that dialogue and sensibility in tact.  But director Larry Pierce (in his first box-office hit after a string of critically acclaimed independent films) is a little less interested in playing up Neil as our cynical young protagonist and has characters who are morally and ethically abstract.  Most of the characters are generally unlikable, with the acceptation of Klugman’s character of Ben and his oddball son Ron, played by Mike Myers (more on his performance later).

Neil is played by Richard Benjamin (also his first starring role) a lower-class army veteran who works in a library.  Jewish and living with extended family in the Bronx (locations were changed from New Jersey to New York in the film), his one day at his cousin’s country club led to a chance encounter with a pretty upper class college girl from Westchester named Brenda, played by Ali McGraw (who received introducing credit).  Neil is infatuated and throws himself at her and they are quickly going on flirtatious dates, until the day she takes him home to meet her family.  Neil’s relationship with the family, and Brenda’s relationship with her parents, are really what Goodbye Columbus is most interested in exploring and does so with an intelligence and subtitle exploration of the social shift occurring rarely seen at the time.

Brenda, maturing from girl to woman at college, has developed an animosity towards her mother.  The two women always seem to end up snapping and arguing with one another over petty issues, each using Ben as their buffer.  And as it becomes clear, part of what draws Brenda to Neil is her mother’s noticeable disapproval of the young man.  He’s her way of rebelling against the problems she has with her mother, especially when she realizes they can get away with sex right under her parent’s roof. But while she relishes every opportunity to rebel against her mother, Brenda does cherish her father and wants his approval.  And as much as Neil makes it clear to Brenda that he dislikes the upper-class, even he admits to liking Brenda’s father.  Unfortunately, the feelings are not mutual.

Klugman, as Brenda’s father, probably gives one of his best film performances in his long career.  His innate working class charms as an actor add to his appeal, even to Neil, as does the fact that he worked for his current status as a strong member of the upper class.  He’s no self-entitled snob, but went from Bronx to Westchester because of hard work, a good mind for business, and ambition.  And the lack of ambition in Neil is part of why he has such a distaste for Neil…and why the audience can take his side against our supposed protagonist.  He has good reason to think less of Neil, a kid much like himself who does very little with himself and plans to do even less.

More importantly, Klugman doesn’t play his Goodbye Columbus character as a pretentious absent father.  He’s the same as he ever was, a little sloppy, loud, jovial, and generous to a fault with is family.  There are moments with his children when it’s undeniable why Brenda’s own sense of self is so closely  tied to his opinion of her.  It is only when her mother claims she’s ungrateful towards him that Brenda breaks down in tears.  And it’s only when father and daughter share a moment at her brother’s wedding that the internal-conflict Brenda comes to the surface – to rebel against her mother means disappointing her father.  McGraw and Klugman’s scene at the wedding is one of the great father-daughter moments ever caught on screen, and says more about that fragile relationship than many films have.  It also contains one of the great monologues about the importance he places on trust in a family, and even a few brilliant one-liners about his son Ron who isn’t the smartest bulb in the box.

Mike Myers is an actor who only made one movie before giving up acting, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of talent.  He has moments of comic brilliance as one of the most socially awkward siblings in movie history.  Every interaction he has with Richard Benjamin is odd, and yet, as Klugman says about his son, he’s a genuinely nice character…probably the nicest character in Goodbye Columbus.  So should really matter to judgmental us (or Neil) if he isn’t a genius so long as he’s a nice guy – right?

It’s an odd aspect which exists throughout Goodbye Columbus…the questions of success vs ambition, smarts vs goodness.  The film also raises questions, largely because of it’s era, regarding how family handled the sexual revolution.  McGraw’s Brenda is freer in her sexuality than Neil, despite Neil claiming to be a part of the youth generation while Brenda remains tied to her old-fashioned parents.  It’s the same question brought up often with the social issues and popularity – do people believe in them, or are they in-vogue the same way clothes and shoes are in style as a mark of the generation?  And what place does the unshakable existence of family exist in a society so shaken by change?

Goodbye Columbus is available on Amazon Instant and Itunes.

A Gallery of Images from Goodbye Columbus

Watch the Goodbye Columbus Trailer

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