The 1970s were good to Richard Dreyfuss. He landed his first starring role in future George Lucas classic American Graffiti (1973). He quickly became a top box office earner in Spielberg blockbusters Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). And along the way he won a Best Actor Oscar for the Neil Simon romantic comedy THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977). Dreyfuss was only thirty years old when he won the Oscar for THE GOODBYE GIRL—the youngest man to win Best Actor at that point.
Not a bad run. Especially considering that Dreyfuss wasn’t even scheduled to play THE GOODBYE GIRL’s struggling actor Elliott at first. Neil Simon wrote original script for THE GOODBYE GIRL as a vehicle for his then wife Marsha Mason. It was based, in part, on the experiences of Dustin Hoffman as an up and coming young actor. Originally envisioned as a more serious piece, the intended male lead was Robert De Niro, with Mike Nichols slated to direct. When both dropped out early in the project, Simon went back to the drawing board. Several actors were considered, including Jack Nicholson and James Caan. But it wasn’t clicking. Until Richard Dreyfuss tested opposite Mason, and Simon knew he had a winner. “It doesn’t work, but they do,” he admitted. Simon re-wrote the script in six weeks, lightening it up and making it a meet cute where actor Elliott and single mom Paula (Mason) fall in love.
TCM screened a 35mm print of THE GOODBYE GIRL this afternoon at the Egyptian Theatre. Festival Honoree Dreyfuss was on hand for the occasion and spoke briefly with Ben Mankiewicz about his career and experiences on the film. Dreyfuss admitted that he turned down Spielberg and Jaws…twice. As he tells it, Dreyfuss says he was “naïve and thought great opportunities would happen all the time.” But then he saw his performance in the less-than-favorably received The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) (which drew applause from the audience), and he thought his career was over. So he called up Spielberg and pretty much begged for the part. It seems that Dreyfuss’ reservations about Jaws (he thought it would be a hard shoot) ended up being right on the money. The production took months longer than expected.
Dreyfuss discussed the first script for THE GOODBYE GIRL and the reason it didn’t work—“it asked you to sympathize with the problems of a movie star.” And when asked if he thought he would win the Oscar, Dreyfuss replied, “Absolutely.” It seems he took a look at the other nominees—Woody Allen, Richard Burton, Marcello Mastroianni, John Travolta—and made an educated guess that he was mostly likely to take home the statue.
But despite Dreyfuss’ previous box office successes, no one had any real expectations of THE GOODBYE GIRL. Nevertheless, it became the first romantic comedy to break the $100 million mark. Along with Dreyfuss’ Oscar, THE GOODBYE GIRL received four other nominations, including Best Picture. It lost to Annie Hall (1977). Clearly it was a good year for romantic comedy. Neil Simon and Marsha Mason also received nominations in their respective categories. Simon went on to write four more films that featured Mason over the course of their ten year marriage: The Cheap Detective (1978), Chapter Two (1979), Only When I Laugh (1981) and Max Dugan Returns (1983). Simon and Dreyfuss would also reteam in 1993 for Lost in Yonkers.
And as for the success of THE GOODBYE GIRL, Dreyfuss summed it up this way, “it all came as a sweet surprise—we made people happy, we made money and we were honored. What’s wrong with that?”