Every era has its own cautionary tale — think Fatal Attraction — and in the free-love, post-pill, pre-AIDS ’70s, that tale was Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Judith Rossner’s devastating 1975 best-seller, based on an actual 1973 incident, told the story of Theresa Dunn, a young woman who spends her days teaching deaf children and her nights cruising singles bars — until she brings home the wrong one-night stand, who stabs her to death. When the voyeuristic film version opened Oct. 19, 1977, it set off another wave of public soul-searching about the era’s sexual and moral confusion.
The ”raunchy, risky, violent dramatization of Judith Rossner’s” book, as TIME described it, unnerved audiences with its lurid, unromantic vision of sex, complete with drug-fueled orgies and guilt-free abortions. And America was shocked that director Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood) had cast Keaton over 500 other actresses to play Theresa. Not because she was unpopular, but because Keaton was known, and loved, as Woody Allen’s fey comic foil in 1972’s Play It Again, Sam and 1973’s Sleeper (and, thanks to her la-di-dahing performance in Annie Hall, would soon be an Oscar winner). For Goodbar, by contrast, Keaton spent much of her 76-day shoot naked in a bed with a succession of unsavory men.
One of those men was 28-year-old Richard Gere, in his third film (which featured his first cinematic butt baring), as the hyperkinetic street punk-stud Tony. Another one, Tom Berenger (who played the gay-hustling ex-con who rapes and stabs Theresa), recalled to the Los Angeles Times, ”Richard Gere and I both started in that film. But people got us both mixed up. Maybe because it was lit so darkly.”
It was dark, all right: Brooks accurately predicted that ”nobody’s going to stand up and cheer when this picture’s over the way they do for Rocky and Star Wars. They’ll sit in silence and creep out.” Even so, Brooks, who took the job after other directors (including Mike Nichols, Sydney Pollack, and Roman Polanski) had passed, had such faith in the film that he remortgaged his house to support himself during the project.
Says author Rossner, whose new book, Perfidia, is due next fall, ”I knew mothers who had their daughters see the film to prevent them from doing the same thing.” In fact, the movie’s success reenergized sales of the book, which has gone on to sell nearly 4 million copies. More powerful still is the story’s continual retelling in the national psyche, where over the past two decades its title has become shorthand for anonymous and perilous sex.
Time Capsule: Oct. 19, 1977
Moviegoers had a blast at Star Wars, and Laverne and Shirley two-stepped on TV. Debby Boone lit up the music charts with ”You Light Up My Life,” and James Herriot’s All Things Wise & Wonderful galloped up the best-seller lists.