Through the years with ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ & Ali MacGraw


goodbye2Unless a filmmaker or studio decides to tinker, a movie travels through time without changing.

It’s one of the mysteries of movie watching — and the aging process — that some movies we loved as kids become unwatchable as adults (I was a huge Jerry Lewis fan up until I was 12 or 13).

Other movies seem to “date” as the years go by — I still admire “Easy Rider” but the last time I watched it (a few years ago) might be the last time I watch it. What was ground-breaking, and exciting, in 1969 now seems rather glib (and you would get bombed if you played a drinking game involving Dennis Hooper’s use of the word “man” as in “Hey, man!”)

Other films go through rough patches where the style of the production starts to look old-fashioned or the performances don’t see as fresh as when the movies debuted (from my point of view, most of the Barbra Streisand vehicles fall into this category).

“Goodbye, Columbus” was a film I liked a lot, at the age of 17, when it came out in 1969, but when I saw it again a few decades later Larry Peerce’s direction seemed to be trying too hard to be 1960s-groovy and the performances by the two leads — Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw — weren’t as interesting goodbye3as I remembered.

So, you can imagine my surprise when a blog post about Ali MacGraw’s striking good looks — and stylish costuming — in the film led me to rewatch it for the first time in ages and I came back to thinking it was a pretty terrific movie.

Maybe it’s the decline of romantic comedy in recent years, or the realization — 44 years after the fact — that Peerce and company had captured a slice of 1960s life that was ignored in the more frantically trendy movies that came out in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Goodbye, Columbus” is a striking reminder that there were young people in 1968-69 who were not swept up in politics or adopting down-and-out hippie garb. Richard Benjamin appears in khakis and polo shirts in most scenes and MacGraw looks agelessly stylish in late 1960s prep wear (her costumes are credited to a company rather than a designer — Villager).

The look of the two stars reminded me that this was the way a good proportion of the non-radical populace dressed at the height of the counterculture.

The timelessness of Benjamin and MacGraw’s style made me focus on the content of the movie which is a pretty faithful adaptation of the 1959 Philip Roth novella about a doomed romance between a lower middle class Jewish guy and a younger suburban Jewish princess. He sees her as a sexy summer escape from the apathy of his stalled life working in a library and she sees him as a more mature (and sexually experienced) boyfriend who will bug the hell out of her parents.

MacGraw is awfully good in the movie, which was her first screen role, and she is strikingly beautiful.

The actress would score another blockbuster hit the following year with “Love Story” (as well as a best actress Oscar nomination) but her career quickly faded due to bad choices (“The Getaway,” “Convoy”) and a relationship with Steve McQueen that kept her off-screen for most of the 1970s.

Benjamin is very good, too, and a reminder of how many unconventionally attractive men became stars during that long ago era (he was part of a pack that included Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman).

The way that time has transformed this movie — and my view of it — was startling.

Joe Meyers

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