Goodbye, Columbus

Take one smart but not conventionally handsome Jewish leading man, add one beautiful brunette, mix with a handful of wistful pop tunes, and stir to produce a glossy 1960s comedy about star-crossed love and post-graduation ennui. It sounds a bit like The Graduate (1967), but the film I’m talking about is the much-less-famous Goodbye, Columbus, which was released a couple of years later.

Philip Roth’s 1959 novella, Goodbye, Columbus, is narrated by 23-year-old philosophy graduate Neil Klugman, whose brief affair with Jewish country club princess Brenda Patimkin is destined to wither and die as autumn sweeps across New Jersey. “How can I describe loving Brenda? It was so sweet, as though I’d finally scored that twenty-first point,” says Neil, alluding to those interminable games of ping-pong he endures with his girlfriend’s annoying little sister.

Neil works in the Newark library and is lodging with his Aunt Gladys, an archetypal, clucking, Jewish home-maker who is neatly satirised in both the novel and the movie. Like The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock, he feels alienated from the money-obsessed older generation, represented here by Brenda’s overbearing parents. Even if Neil’s intentions towards their precious Brenda were honourable, he wouldn’t pass muster as a prospective son-in-law.

Richard Benjamin in Goodbye, Columbus
Richard Benjamin in Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

I first read the story in November 1988. (My sister helpfully inscribed the Penguin paperback copy she gave me on my 25th birthday.) By that time I’d already seen the movie, which was directed by Larry Peerce and starred Richard Benjamin as the smitten Neil, with the raven-haired Ali MacGraw as auburn-haired temptress Brenda. Re-reading the book last month, I was struck how effortlessly Roth’s witty dialogue had been translated onto the big screen.

Apart from the addition of the mandatory 60s party scene, Arnold Schulman’s screenplay sticks closely to its source material in terms of structure and the gently mocking tone of Neil and Brenda’s conversations. Their whirlwind courtship sounds as fresh, funny, and authentic now as it must have done in 1959 or 1969. Yet beneath the relentless probing about Brenda’s nose job and Neil’s lack of ambition lies the harsh truth: this relationship has no future.

It’s a reminder that when it comes to romance, satire often dates much better than sentimentality. There’s no better proof of this than MacGraw’s next film, Love Story, a tear-jerker that now seems more emetic than tragic. In truth, she’s quite annoying in both movies, treading a fine line between sassy and downright slappable.

Ali MacGraw in Goodbye, Columbus (1969)
Ali MacGraw in Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

The songs for Goodbye, Columbus were provided by West Coast pop band The Association, who were big in the mid-60s but never achieved the status of Simon and Garfunkel or their memorable contributions to The Graduate.

Like The Graduate two years earlier, Goodbye, Columbus did earn an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay, but it lost out to Midnight Cowboy. Mike Nichols’s film had six other nominations and a win for best director; it also launched the career of its leading man, Dustin Hoffman.

Despite the quality of its literary source material, Goodbye, Columbus isn’t a movie classic. But it is droll, well-acted and a perfect encapsulation of a bittersweet summer love affair. I wish someone would release a decent Region 2 DVD edition.

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