Looking for Mr. Goodbar was an immediate success upon its release, sitting at the top of
the New York Times Best Seller List for almost forty weeks, with reviews suggesting that the best
way to read it was in one gulp, “the way one eats the candy bar of the same name.”28 In addition
to its entertaining and suspenseful read, the novel had wide-ranging appeal in its portrayal of the
sexual dilemma faced by many single Americans during the 1970s. Reviewers made it clear that
they felt both Quinn’s murder and Rossner’s book said something sweeping about the way young
people’s sex lives had gone astray. Lore Dickstein, a reviewer for Ms. Magazine, wrote that the
novel goes beyond reconstructing a murder to make for a “haunting, compelling thriller,
26 Roller, Judi. The Politics of the Feminist Novel. New York: Praeger. January 1986. p. 86
27 Gerhard, Jane, Desiring Revolution: Second-wave Feminism and the Rewriting of American
Sexual Thought, 1920-1982. Columbia University Press, 2001, p.143
28 Cameron, Julia, “Candy from Strangers,” The Washington Post, June 1, 1975.
guaranteed to make any woman terrified of the next strange man she meets.”29 In her review for
the New York Times, Carol Eisen Rinzler praised Rossner for her “well-written and well-
constructed” portrayal of one woman’s “descent into hell.” Rinzler refers to Theresa as another
victim of the American dream, “a woman who never roused herself enough to wake up from the
nightmare.”30 A review published in Time emphasized that Theresa’s character is no “Little Ms.
Victim,” before continuing to sympathize with her killer. “He strikes her first because he is
exhausted,” the reviewer remarks, “He gave her a good time in bed.”31 Overall reviews praised
Rossner for raising the question of how much control women have over own lives, with many of
them agreeing that the novel sheds light on the exploitation and self-exploitation of the city’s
single scene in the 1970s.
Rossner sold the film rights to Looking for Mr. Goodbar for $250,000 and the paperback
rights for an additional $305,000.32 In 1977, the story was adapted into a film by director Richard
Brooks featuring Diane Keaton (Theresa), Richard Gere (Tony), and Tom Berenger (Gary).
Although he follows Rossner’s story line closely, Brooks’ deviates heavily from her archetype in
his portrayal of Theresa as primarily a victim of external forces in her life rather than internal
forces deeper within her identity. In the novel, Theresa’s murder is the result of her reluctance to
embrace herself as well as conventional standards of gender and sexuality. In the film, however,
Theresa’s death is centered on her refusal to accept those standards.
Brooks’ film adaptation follows the structure of the book but beyond that, as Fran Moira
put it, “There are about as many similarities between the film and the novel as there are between
29 Dickstein, “The Deadly Pickup,” Ms. Magazine. June 1975, pp.86-7
30 Rinzler, Carol Eisen, “The New York Times Book Review.” NewYork Times. June 8, 1975.
31 Martha Duffy, “The Trap.” Time, July 7 1975, p.60
32 Krier, Beth Ann, “Judith Rossner: Looking for Detachments.” Los Angeles Times, October 11,
the candy bar and the singles bar.”33 Brooks offers an interpretation of Rossner’s story in which
Theresa is punished not for her sexual encounters with strangers, but for her refusal to submit to
the gendered roles she has been prescribed by society. A teacher by day and rover of singles bars
at night, Theresa is portrayed in the film as troubled because of her childhood trauma and
resulting body-image issues, but the film further emphasizes the void left from the love withheld
by her father and all the other men in her life. Likening Brook’s film to Truman Capote’s In Cold
Blood, critic Charles Champlin argued Theresa is too innocent a character to feel betrayed but
too guilty to feel abandoned.34 But Brook’s disagrees with this view, claiming that it is
specifically her feelings of betrayal and abandonment at the hands of men that impact Theresa’s
life in such dark ways. Referring to her killer he remarks in an interview, “He is one part of a
total man, beginning with her father and parish priest, each contributing to what became of
her.”35 Throughout the movie, each of the male characters in Theresa’s life attempt to dominate
her and when their attempts fail they become physically violent. The first person to exert his rule
over Theresa is her father, a man who refuses to accept a woman’s freedom to decide for herself
because of the threat it poses to the dominant patriarchy. When Theresa rejects James her father
becomes enraged and yells at her, “Freedom this, freedom that–free to leave your family…free to
abort your own kids…free to go to hell.”36
Both Tony and James attempt to dominate Theresa as well. Tony comes and goes at his
leisure, but when Theresa becomes upset with his erratic schedules he does not understand and
33 Moira, Fran, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” Off Our Backs, December 31, 1977.
34 Ehrenstein, David. “Melodrama and the New Woman.” Film Comment ABI Collection.
35 Murphy, Mary. “Movie Call Sheet: Brook’s Research on ‘Mr. Goodbar.’ Los Angeles Times.
36 Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Directed by Richard Brooks. Performed by Diane Keaton and
Richard Gere. United States: Paramount Pictures, 1977. DVD.
tells her that she is “still his girl.” Theresa replies that she is her “own girl,” at which point Tony
becomes enraged and remarks, “You and my mother–the two biggest cunts in the world.” Later
in the film when Theresa refuses to allow him to stay over he becomes even more aggressive and
threatens her. But a significant difference is in the scene during which Tony hits Theresa. In the
novel the fault is entirely Tony’s, he is beaten and humiliated by his mother’s boyfriend and
when Theresa approaches him later he hits her. In the film, however, Theresa throws the first
swing and then Tony hits back. Rossner attended a screening of the film and to her one of the
biggest weaknesses in the adaptation was the portrayal of Theresa as a victim rather than
somebody who is equally responsible for the violence in the story. “She didn’t do anything to
provoke Tony. In the book they set each other off,” Rossner told The Washington Post, “I feel
like the mother who delivered her 13-year-old daughter to the door of Roman Polanski and
didn’t know what was going to happen.”37
Unlike the sweet and nurturing characterization of James in Rossner’s novel, the
depiction of James in Brooks’ film is one that embodies self-hatred as well as hostility towards
women. As the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear that James considers women to be
entitled, demanding and impossible to please. During one scene in particular, he tells Theresa the
last time he saw his father was when he walked into his parents’ bedroom and witnessed his
mother laughing at him for failing to maintain an erection. After beating her severely, his father
walked past James and never returned. In a later scene, Theresa laughs at James for pulling out a
condom before they have intercourse, but James walks away in silence. When she realizes she
may have hurt his feelings Theresa apologizes but James, facing a wall, begins to laugh in a
disconcerting and crazed manner, saying he made up the whole story about his parents before
37 Harris, Art. “Rossner: Looking For Her ‘Goodbar’ in the Film,” The Washington Post. October
leaving the apartment. Whereas in the novel James was the most grounded and patient man
Theresa dated, in the film he quickly becomes the most dominating man in her personal life, and
each time he is rejected he becomes more erratic and more prone to violent behavior. He cannot
comprehend why Theresa rejects her “correct” place in society, and he displays his frustration
through brutal hostility. It all comes to a head when Theresa resists James’ marriage proposal
and he goes on a rampage and trashes her apartment.
When asked how she felt about the film Rossner responded, “nauseated…I feel like the
mother who delivered her 13-year-old daughter to the door of Roman Polanski and didn’t know
what was going to happen.”38 Overall the film divided critics and audiences, with some booing at
the end of the first screening while movie-goers applauded at later showings.39 Some reviews
agreed that Diane Keaton gave a stellar performance as the seeker of Mr. Goodbar, while others
complained that she created a problem by essentially being too smart and attractive. A New York
Times article claimed that Brooks’ “mistake” was in presenting Theresa as “splendidly beautiful,
intelligent, and funny.”40 Complaining about the authenticity of Keaton’s performance as a
conflicted young women, Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times cited Keaton’s physical
beauty as the main reason why he was skeptical about the credibility of the character
representation and found it “baffling just why–given motivations notwithstanding–she is making
such a mess of the quest for pleasure.”41
When translating the novel into a screenplay, Brooks noted that he struggled with the
amount of eroticism he should include and wanted to avoid making a film that would be
39 Champlin, Charles. “Looking Again at Brooks’ ‘Mr. Goodbar.’ Los Angeles Times. November,
40 Canby, Vincent. “Goodbar’ Turns Sour.” New York Times. October 20, 1977.
41 Champlin, Charles. “Warm-blooded ‘Mr. Goodbar.'” Los Angeles Times. October 19, 1977.
considered pornographic. “How do I show explicit and violent sexual encounters without being
too explicit?” Brooks asked, “without making her look too kinky?”42 To him Theresa’s sexual
encounters and murder is more than just a product of her past trauma and desires. In addition to
the influence of her family, Brooks wanted to show that the social environment under which
Theresa lives plays a significant role in her demise: “She comes out of puberty into the sexual
revolution and she feels her own sense of guilt and an unwillingness on the part of men to accept
what is happening.”43
In her book, Those Girls: Single Women in the Sixties and Seventies Popular Culture,
Katherine Lehman examines the concept of the “single girl” as a sexually conflicted and
maladjusted cultural figure in popular novels and magazines, advice literature, films, and
television shows. Lehman argues that such works as Looking for Mr. Goodbar both mock and
humble their characters, “ultimately pairing them with paternalistic men…and undermining
female sexual pleasure and career ambition.44 However, she also points to popular works like
Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl to demonstrate that there were other perspectives
alongside the grim representations that presumed an active and fulfilling sex-life for single white
women. In Brooks’ portrayal, the underlying idea is that women who refuse to accept their
allotted roles are viewed as a threat that must be eliminated. Brooks’ film does not put as much
focus on retracing Theresa’s life as it does on exploring the tension between the sexual
revolution and the dominant patriarchal authority.
42 Murphy, Mary. “Movie Call Sheet: Brook’s Research on ‘Mr. Goodbar.’ Los Angeles Times.
43 Murphy, Mary. “Brooks’ Research on Goodbar. Los Angeles Times. April 26, 1976.
44 Fraterrigo, Elizabeth. “Single Girls and Working Women: Gender, Power, and Feminism in
American.” Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 27. pp. 176-186.
The cautionary tale told through Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar dramatizes the fears
and anxieties of many Americans during the sexual revolution of the 1970s. By asserting her
sexuality and attempting to gain autonomy, she sets limits on men’s involvement with her, and
she is ultimately punished for refusing to submit to dominant standards of gender, sex, and
romance. Rossner was not the first writer to construct a tale warning single white women against
the physical and emotional dangers of the city, nor was she the first to ground her text in female
submission to male power. What makes this novel unique, however, is that the desires Theresa is
attempting to fulfill involve both pleasure and punishment; self-value and self-contempt. More
recent 21st century popular works of fiction such as Fifty Shades of Grey—and as well, the recent
emergence of slang euphemisms like “slut-shaming”—make it clear that the relationship
between depictions of pain and pleasure as well as sex and violence continue to shape public
conceptions of and attitudes toward female desire and sexuality as well as understandings of rape