Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Goodbye, Columbus got its bit of attention in 1969 but is mostly remembered as the debut
picture of Ali MacGraw. It's certainly better than her next film, the star-making first modern
blockbuster Love Story.
"Too Jewish," many of the reviews seemed to say between the lines. There's nothing particularly
negative about Jews here, but at the time it was unusual for a film to concentrate on a specific
ethnographic niche in what everyone supposed was a cultural melting pot. The words "Jewish American
Princess" aren't spoken here but the movie definitely examines that phenomenon as well. The film
was also considered by some to be a superficial take on Philip Roth's book. Goodbye, Columbus
can't replicate the book's inner life, but it does fine on its own terms.
Neil Klugman (Richard Benjamin) is a thirty-ish veteran who lives with his aged
aunt, works in a library and is "between ambitions," not knowing exactly what he wants to do. But
when he's invited to a swanky Jewish country club, he sees who he wants to be with, and it's
beautiful Brenda Patimkin (Ali MacGraw), the spoiled-but-nice daughter of the newly wealthy Patimkins
(Jack Klugman and Nan Martin). Mom is suspicious of Neil's social background and the lack of visible
money in his future, a feature that makes him irresistable to Brenda. They begin a summer affair,
with Neil slowly learning that Brenda's wilder side masks an irresponsibility he hadn't counted on.
Philip Roth had a tendency to verbalize the private sexual thoughts going on the heads of American
males, (Portnoy's Complaint) and I can imagine that in the book Neil Klugman's infatuation
for Brenda Patimkin is much more detailed. Goodbye, Columbus is of course shallow by
comparison, but there are scenes in the film that speak a thousand words of
In the beginning, all we need to know about Neil is that he's a guest at the country club, not
exactly a dog in the manger, but
someone likely to be judged by the fact that he rode in on a real member's coattails. The Patimkins
are specified as a new-money family with a loving father and a controlling wife, but they're not a
criticism of "Jewish" values even when much of the family rancor revolves around money. Although
some of the relatives at the wedding are obsessed with material wealth, the show is really about
the general post-war success, with people from modest backgrounds attaining a new affluence.
Desirable Princess Brenda Patimkin represents millions of girlfriends in the 1960s - well maintained
daughters prized higher than life itself by fathers who see them as tangible proof of their good
fortune. Mr. Patimkin must remember the Depression and probably fought in the war. That his
peacetime family is so fortunate is a blessing, and Brenda is the cherry on top of the cake. So in
a way Brenda's father is guarding over her with an axe - I certainly ran into a number
of parents like that around this time - Jewish, gentile or what have you.
Goodbye, Columbus is about the effects of affluence. Most of the previous generation lived
an entirely different situation, well expressed in the comedy Christmas in July, where
desperate sweethearts can't marry because of
constricted economic opportunities. A five-dollar-a-week raise could make a big difference. Neil and
Brenda have cars, jobs and plenty to eat. Neil has the luxury of being able to avoid decisions. In
his case, finding the right girl is taking precedence over finding the right career. But he's still
basically an adult who takes responsibility for himself.
Brenda hasn't had to grow up, really, and is able to live in a (very attractive) fantasy. Mostly,
her family's affluence and trust allow her a sexual freedom unheard of in Christmas in July -
she's independent and daring enough to entice Neil into all kinds of risky behavior - nothing
criminal or too shocking, but hijinks that abuse her father's trust and risk spoiling Neil's
relationship with them. For an entire two-week summer break, they sleep together right under the
family roof. The situation is presented was real enough to raise a sweat of recognition among the
1970 dorm audience I saw it with. That unease is what Goodbye, Columbus is really about, a
kind of privileged suburban guilt.
The intelligent and sensitive Richard Benjamin is lean and slightly awkward as Neil. He has
some good, relaxed scenes with young library patron Anthony McGowan. Ali MacGraw is perfect as
the beautiful, clever and shallow daughter, still deeply attached to her
father while showing him little respect in her daily life. Jack Klugman and Nan Martin play the
parents perfectly, and without a satirical edge. Even though they can be obnoxious, the film doesn't
make us feel that the Patimkins are meant to be critical representatives of American Jews. 1
The title refers to a record played by Brenda's brother, an easygoing, overly-confident fellow.
What exactly the "Goodbye, Columbus" of The Association's title song means is unclear, as its
meaning in the movie doesn't have much to do with Brenda or Neil. Perhaps Columbus, Ohio represents
the lower middle-class life the Patimkins have left behind.
Director Larry Peerce was a big question mark to the auteurists of the early 70s. He started out
with a liberal independent movie about mixed marriage called One Potato, Two Potato and
before this very mainstream movie directed The Incident, a completely different
verité shocker on a NY subway car. The Sporting Club was an incoherent, violent
Western allegory seemingly sprung from The Professionals and The Big Gundown, A
Separate Peace a snooze of a literary adaptation, and Ash Wednesday. It was an odd
soap opera with glimpses of gruesome cosmetic surgery that evoked visions of Eyes Without a
Face. The unclassifiable director has been working mostly in TV since 1980.
Screenwriter Arnold Schulman is no slouch in the credits department. He came from live TV in the '50s
and has his name on the angst-ridden efforts Wild is the Wind, Cimarron, A Hole in
the Head and Love with the Proper Stranger. He also wrote Tucker: the Man and his
Dream for Francis Coppola. 2
Paramount's DVD of Goodbye, Columbus is another perfect feature presentation in a plain-wrap
package at an attractive price. The enhanced image is sharp and clear and it looks much better than
the 16mm print I saw back in college. There are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Goodbye, Columbus rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 11, 2004
1. One reviewer thought
the movie was extremely anti-Semitic when it showed the Patimkin wedding party guests grabbing at
the food table like "pigs at a trough." I didn't think that the point of the scene was anything
more than being realistic - go check out the buffet behavior at any wedding ...
2. From "B", 6.13.04: Dear Glenn: Not to forget -- the
principal editor of Goodbye, Columbus was the late
Ralph Rosenblum. In a chapter of his famous book When the Shooting
Stops... The Cutting Begins Rosenblum discussed the making of the film
at some length. While he described his overall experience (mixed)
working on the picture with his typical candor, the real focus of the
chapter -- "The Face on the Cutting Room Floor" -- was the performance
of actor Monroe Arnold, who played Brenda Patimkin's Uncle Leo.
Uncle Leo -- and Arnold -- can briefly be glimpsed during the film's
wedding sequence. The character still has, I think, a poignant line
directed to Neil (Richard Benjamin). But he's in the movie for less than
The dilemma faced by Rosenblum -- who wrote of this problem with insight
and sensitivity -- was that Uncle Leo had originally delivered a ten-
minute profane soliloquy about his rivalry with his successful brother,
his failing career as a light bulb salesman... a rude, colorful, rueful
laundry list of life disappointments... ending with a wistful admonition
to Neil not to make any of _his_ mistakes -- and marry Brenda. Arnold's
performance as Uncle Leo was, by all accounts, incandescent. The crew on
the set was said to be speechless. Rosenblum called it "electrifying."
He described watching Columbus rushes as fairly routine until the day
they ran Arnold's scene. "...for over ten minutes we forgot we were
working and became transfixed by the action on the screen." Producer
Stanley R. Jaffe reportedly asked the actor, "Monroe, how would you like
to be nominated for an Academy Award?" Whenever the sequence was
screened in rough cut, it would elicit tremendous emotional response.
This passage, a highlight of Roth's novella, was always seen as an
essential part of the story and script -- Rosenblum labeled it "the
emotional turning point." However, as Goodbye, Columbus was assembled
and readied for preview, it began to seem evident that the film didn't
require such a turning point. Rosenblum felt Columbus was "an airy and
insignificant film" and that its only "real substance" was Arnold's
scene. But, "instead of giving the picture validity," the soliloquy
"seemed to tip the whole thing over, as if it had sprouted a large
malignant bud." Reluctantly, regretfully, director Larry Peerce decided
to cut the scene shortly before the picture was locked.
Incredibly, no one advised Monroe Arnold. The actor attended the
picture's premiere unaware that his performance had been largely
deleted. Worse yet, he was excited by that day's Variety rave for his
performance -- the critic, unfortunately, had reviewed a early preview
of the film which had included Arnold's scene. Best, Always. -- B.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson