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Goodbye, Columbus: this critic's first R rated film

Do you recall your first R?

Goodbye, Columbus: say hello to Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw as the Jewish American Princess in sausage curls.
Goodbye, Columbus: say hello to Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw as the Jewish American Princess in sausage curls.

What was the first film to receive an R rating from the MPAA? Not The Graduate, which was classified Adults Only, but The Split, a crime drama starring Jim Brown and Diahann Carroll. Do you recall your first R? It was a sweltering July night when Dad put a halt to the imploring and took me to Goodbye, Columbus, the film that introduced moviegoers to Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw.

Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

Any Jew worth their kosher salt was kvelling to see how Hollywood was going to film Philip Roth’s pot-stirring National Book Award-winning novella. Roth called it a story of “tribal secrets;” members of the Jewish community, aghast at the author’s airing of dirty laundry, called him a self-loathing anti-semite. In the decade between publication and screenwriter Arnold Schulman’s adaptation, America entered into a sexual revolution and a war that was growing more unpopular by the hour. The book describes Neil Klugman (Benjamin) as a Korean War veteran. Schulman doesn’t mention Vietnam in his update, opting to downplay topicality in favor of playing up the romance between the Jewish American Princess and the nebbish frog who, even after receiving her kiss, will never turn into a Prince.

The exclusionary Old Oaks Country Club, a monied playground located in aptly named Purchase, New York, was a world to which Neil was allowed entry into but once a year, and then only at the invitation of his cousin Doris (Kay Cummings). Imagine Doris’ shock when Neil shows up the next day as a guest of pampered Radcliffe student, Brenda Patimkin (Ali McGraw). Hers is a land marinated in nouveau riche absurdity, where nose jobs are mandatory parts of the effort to make what’s already pretty look even prettier. The two leads are perfectly cast, and the film is great to look at, thanks to cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld’s (Fail Safe, Young Frankenstein) luminous location work. All it needed was a director, a task for which Larry Peerce was clearly not up. The first shot we see is a tight closeup of an undulating navel, sizzling poolside — a greased griddle waiting for a beach ball to drop on it. When confronted with a crowd, Peerce does his best to zoom his way out of things or butt scenes together in an annoyingly literal manner. Zoom in on an engine overheating: cut to Neil’s Aunt Gladys lifting the lid off a steaming pot of peas. He later interrupts lovemaking in the attic by juxtaposing it with a slab of red meat.

The poster's tagline "Every Father's Daughter is a Virgin" was unfit for print. "Chicago Tribune," July 13, 1969.

In the year since his discharge, Neil has been working as a librarian. Assigned to the front desk, he is approached by a young African-American boy (Anthony McGowan), who asks Neil to point him in the direction of the art section. A sanctimonious co-worker — who just the day before had the kid ejected — alleges that he caught the boy in the stacks, pleasuring himself to Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti. Neil intervenes before his colleague makes good on his threat to alert the authorities. It turns out the kid is suspicious of library cards, thinking they’re a way of keeping track of him, or even a form of punishment. He wonders why Neil encourages him to take the book home. “Don’t you want me around here?” he asks.

The exchanges are genuine, the performances persuasive, and the dialogue 100% Roth, with the exception of one word. The F-word was still a year or so away from making its big screen debut in M*ASH, and the thought of a 9-year-old boy summing up Gauguin’s work with, “Man, ain’t that the fucking life” was never going to fly. And on Peerce’s watch, we hear the boy’s second, “Ain’t that the life” spoken under Neil pulling into the Klugman’s four-car circular driveway. FYI: the “Bren” in Brenda is Yiddish for “fire,” an insight of which art director Emanuel Gerard was clearly aware. There’s almost as much red in the Patimkin house as there is Harry’s Bar in Vertigo. At first glance, the driveway and exterior of the Westchester Mansion are ablaze with crimson: a sports car, shingles, and front door bleed Technicolor red. The dining room curtains are so red, they could catch fire and no one would notice. On another note of spectacular (and spot-on) production design, may I direct your attention to the ultimate in ‘60s chic, a wood-paneled basement rec room complete with a wet bar, ping pong table, and a refrigerator stocked with an orchard’s worth of fresh fruit.

My high school English teacher was a fiercely progressive educator, and along with such staples as The Catcher in the Rye and Romeo and Juliet, Ms. Rosow peppered her curriculum with the seemingly taboo likes of Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Having read the book not long after seeing the movie, I was delighted to see Goodbye, Columbus on her list of required reading. I knew that I could ask Ms. Rosow anything, so I did. There was a moment in the movie that didn’t appear in the otherwise faithful adaptation that I needed help with. While driving away after a frustrating session of heated front-seat romance, Neil stops the car and runs around to the trunk. There, he proceeds to jerk and clean the bumper as if it were a barbell. Ms. Rosow explained that physical exertion was the quickest way for a man to lose his erection.

The wedding scene alone was enough to spark outrage: guests slobbering over a buffet table like pigs in a trough. This was my first sighting of Jack Klugman, and I couldn’t have been more delighted to make the acquaintance of this chazer. As Brenda’s father Ben, he uses the palm of his hand as a stopper to shake the salad dressing bottle when the cap is out of reach. And that’s nothing compared to barbarous Ben using a knife and Ritz cracker to decapitate a chopped-liver chicken. Alas, Peerce has no idea how to time a gag, and so squanders what could have been a tightly observed climax in favor of a free-for-all.

One of the more problematic aspects surrounding the film’s release was the poster catchphrase: “Every father’s daughter is a virgin.” Newspapers refused to run it in their ads. Theatre owners would snipe the poster with masking tape to cover the offensive word. But the theatre that dad and I attended let the poster hang uncut. Larry lingered over the poster, but by that time we had already parked the car and there was no turning back. Even the old jagoff in the ticket booth couldn’t get in my way. “This is adult material,” he cautioned before punching our tickets. “You sure you want your kid to see it?” “He read the book,” Dad answered while handing him a fiver. All that, and he obligingly fell asleep during the nude skinny dip. Thanks, Dad!

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Goodbye, Columbus: say hello to Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw as the Jewish American Princess in sausage curls.
Goodbye, Columbus: say hello to Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw as the Jewish American Princess in sausage curls.

What was the first film to receive an R rating from the MPAA? Not The Graduate, which was classified Adults Only, but The Split, a crime drama starring Jim Brown and Diahann Carroll. Do you recall your first R? It was a sweltering July night when Dad put a halt to the imploring and took me to Goodbye, Columbus, the film that introduced moviegoers to Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw.

Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

Any Jew worth their kosher salt was kvelling to see how Hollywood was going to film Philip Roth’s pot-stirring National Book Award-winning novella. Roth called it a story of “tribal secrets;” members of the Jewish community, aghast at the author’s airing of dirty laundry, called him a self-loathing anti-semite. In the decade between publication and screenwriter Arnold Schulman’s adaptation, America entered into a sexual revolution and a war that was growing more unpopular by the hour. The book describes Neil Klugman (Benjamin) as a Korean War veteran. Schulman doesn’t mention Vietnam in his update, opting to downplay topicality in favor of playing up the romance between the Jewish American Princess and the nebbish frog who, even after receiving her kiss, will never turn into a Prince.

The exclusionary Old Oaks Country Club, a monied playground located in aptly named Purchase, New York, was a world to which Neil was allowed entry into but once a year, and then only at the invitation of his cousin Doris (Kay Cummings). Imagine Doris’ shock when Neil shows up the next day as a guest of pampered Radcliffe student, Brenda Patimkin (Ali McGraw). Hers is a land marinated in nouveau riche absurdity, where nose jobs are mandatory parts of the effort to make what’s already pretty look even prettier. The two leads are perfectly cast, and the film is great to look at, thanks to cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld’s (Fail Safe, Young Frankenstein) luminous location work. All it needed was a director, a task for which Larry Peerce was clearly not up. The first shot we see is a tight closeup of an undulating navel, sizzling poolside — a greased griddle waiting for a beach ball to drop on it. When confronted with a crowd, Peerce does his best to zoom his way out of things or butt scenes together in an annoyingly literal manner. Zoom in on an engine overheating: cut to Neil’s Aunt Gladys lifting the lid off a steaming pot of peas. He later interrupts lovemaking in the attic by juxtaposing it with a slab of red meat.

The poster's tagline "Every Father's Daughter is a Virgin" was unfit for print. "Chicago Tribune," July 13, 1969.

In the year since his discharge, Neil has been working as a librarian. Assigned to the front desk, he is approached by a young African-American boy (Anthony McGowan), who asks Neil to point him in the direction of the art section. A sanctimonious co-worker — who just the day before had the kid ejected — alleges that he caught the boy in the stacks, pleasuring himself to Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti. Neil intervenes before his colleague makes good on his threat to alert the authorities. It turns out the kid is suspicious of library cards, thinking they’re a way of keeping track of him, or even a form of punishment. He wonders why Neil encourages him to take the book home. “Don’t you want me around here?” he asks.

The exchanges are genuine, the performances persuasive, and the dialogue 100% Roth, with the exception of one word. The F-word was still a year or so away from making its big screen debut in M*ASH, and the thought of a 9-year-old boy summing up Gauguin’s work with, “Man, ain’t that the fucking life” was never going to fly. And on Peerce’s watch, we hear the boy’s second, “Ain’t that the life” spoken under Neil pulling into the Klugman’s four-car circular driveway. FYI: the “Bren” in Brenda is Yiddish for “fire,” an insight of which art director Emanuel Gerard was clearly aware. There’s almost as much red in the Patimkin house as there is Harry’s Bar in Vertigo. At first glance, the driveway and exterior of the Westchester Mansion are ablaze with crimson: a sports car, shingles, and front door bleed Technicolor red. The dining room curtains are so red, they could catch fire and no one would notice. On another note of spectacular (and spot-on) production design, may I direct your attention to the ultimate in ‘60s chic, a wood-paneled basement rec room complete with a wet bar, ping pong table, and a refrigerator stocked with an orchard’s worth of fresh fruit.

My high school English teacher was a fiercely progressive educator, and along with such staples as The Catcher in the Rye and Romeo and Juliet, Ms. Rosow peppered her curriculum with the seemingly taboo likes of Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Having read the book not long after seeing the movie, I was delighted to see Goodbye, Columbus on her list of required reading. I knew that I could ask Ms. Rosow anything, so I did. There was a moment in the movie that didn’t appear in the otherwise faithful adaptation that I needed help with. While driving away after a frustrating session of heated front-seat romance, Neil stops the car and runs around to the trunk. There, he proceeds to jerk and clean the bumper as if it were a barbell. Ms. Rosow explained that physical exertion was the quickest way for a man to lose his erection.

The wedding scene alone was enough to spark outrage: guests slobbering over a buffet table like pigs in a trough. This was my first sighting of Jack Klugman, and I couldn’t have been more delighted to make the acquaintance of this chazer. As Brenda’s father Ben, he uses the palm of his hand as a stopper to shake the salad dressing bottle when the cap is out of reach. And that’s nothing compared to barbarous Ben using a knife and Ritz cracker to decapitate a chopped-liver chicken. Alas, Peerce has no idea how to time a gag, and so squanders what could have been a tightly observed climax in favor of a free-for-all.

One of the more problematic aspects surrounding the film’s release was the poster catchphrase: “Every father’s daughter is a virgin.” Newspapers refused to run it in their ads. Theatre owners would snipe the poster with masking tape to cover the offensive word. But the theatre that dad and I attended let the poster hang uncut. Larry lingered over the poster, but by that time we had already parked the car and there was no turning back. Even the old jagoff in the ticket booth couldn’t get in my way. “This is adult material,” he cautioned before punching our tickets. “You sure you want your kid to see it?” “He read the book,” Dad answered while handing him a fiver. All that, and he obligingly fell asleep during the nude skinny dip. Thanks, Dad!

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Comments
8

Sorry I missed this iconic film the first time around. I was a little bit distracted in Vietnam at the time. But I'd heard plenty aboutit afterward, and I both read the book and saw the movie version of Portnoy's Complaint. As to the plot of that movie, I haven't a clue, and that was how forgettable it was. Maybe I need to get a DVD of this movie and see it at last. Reliving my youth?

Good old Ali McGraw had that late-60/70 "look", and it sold so well. But could she act? I also missed "Love Story", although I actually had read the book. The movie was slammed by many reviewers, and that helped keep me away. I did see "The Getaway" when she and Steve McQueen, aided and abetted by Slim Pickens, made an improbable story about a crime involving the Texas & Pacific railroad and its passenger train traveling west across Texas to El Paso. Her performance, if you can call it a performance, was woody and a "just let me read my lines" effort. Why was she so acclaimed when her actual chances to act left so much to be desired?

Aug. 7, 2021

Good question. She's at her best in this film, but I still wouldn't call it acting. She's playing herself only Jewish. "Love Story" is an all around abomination. It's worth watching just to see her cry. The worst cryer this side of Michael Cohen. And don't forget her Afro in "Convoy." She was a former model who gave it a shot and vanished.

Aug. 10, 2021

How inane is it to admire a movie and then condemn it's director? "Zoom in on an engine overheating: cut to Neil’s Aunt Gladys lifting the lid off a steaming pot of peas. He later interrupts lovemaking in the attic by juxtaposing it with a slab of red meat." Maybe the cut from engine-to-peas represents the arc of sexual passion mutating into the mundane? Maybe the cut from lovemaking-to-meat represents Neil's inner struggle with his true feelings for Brenda as either worthwhile or merely nothing more than an object of physical lust? You've got a bad case of too much hipster scholasticism and too little talent for actual perception.

Aug. 28, 2021

"it's director" should be: its director

Aug. 28, 2021

Wow, never saw a comment correcting a typo in someone else's comment before - we have such literate commentators!

Aug. 29, 2021

He wants to be a mosquito when he grows up.

Aug. 30, 2021

Typos just pop out at me. I don't go looking for them. It's a curse. They are really bad on KUSI news captions (Chyron).

Aug. 30, 2021

Ali McGraw was at her best in this film. Perfectly cast. Her mother is Jewish.

Aug. 10, 2021

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