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The Goodbye Girl began as nothing more than a notion inside a cozy restaurant in Florence, Italy. Famed writer Neil Simon and his new wife, actress Marsha Mason, were visiting Florence on a belated honeymoon following their marriage in 1973. Simon, who had already enjoyed a string of successful plays and films including Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965) and The Sunshine Boys (1972), had married Mason after a whirlwind courtship that lasted all of two weeks. In order to strengthen their relationship, according to Simon in his 1999 memoir The Play Goes On, Mason decided to temporarily give up any roles in her bourgeoning acting career until the marriage was on firm ground. "I knew I had to make it up to her in the only possible way I knew how," said Simon, "by writing a film for her considerable talents."

During dinner one night in Florence, Simon and Mason began to talk about the idea of working together on a film. "There was no thought as to career or profit or even success in this joint venture we talked about," said Simon. "Our discussion was mostly about the joy of spending our days together on a project that was of our making, and that joy wouldn't end at the finish of each day's work. It would continue until our heads hit the pillows next to each other as sleep finally overtook us. 'It's got to be a love story,' Marsha said between bites of bread sticks and pasta. 'A funny love story,' I said, scribbling notes on the bill instead of a spiral notebook. 'Like one of those old Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movies,' she said...'Old-fashioned but contemporary,' I added. 'Kind of corny but smart. These should be really bright people,' I mumbled...'Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan,' Marsha said with a giggle...We wandered out onto the curved streets, back to the hotel, and having had two bottles of wine, I'm not positive the hotel was ours. When you're in Florence and in love, details aren't really important."

At home back in New York, Simon began to think about a film idea for the two of them while at the same time they prepared for a major relocation to Los Angeles. The move to California was a thought that caused major anxiety for Simon, a native New Yorker. Gradually, as a result, California began to emerge as a central character in the film project he was working on for Mason. He called the film Bogart Slept Here, which ultimately became The Goodbye Girl.

Bogart Slept Here was a reference to the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood where numerous actors of the Golden Days lived before getting their big break. "The basic idea of the story," said Simon, "was that Marsha, an ex-dancer, was married to a very promising but struggling off-Broadway actor who gets discovered in a small play and is whisked out to Hollywood, where he reluctantly moves with his family. He feels very out of place there...and they have trouble adjusting, especially after his first film makes him an international star...and it creates chaos in their marriage. The story was coming out a little darker than I had imagined, but I envisioned the character of the wife as a very good role for Marsha."

Marsha Mason was surprised and thrilled when Simon finally handed her some pages of Bogart Slept Here. According to Mason, Simon had been partly inspired by a conversation he once had with Dustin Hoffman about how much Hoffman's life had changed when he had been tapped as a young struggling actor by director Mike Nichols for the lead role in The Graduate (1967). "[The story] was also about what happens to you and your family when you become an overnight sensation," said Mason in her 2000 autobiography Journey.

Excited, Neil Simon sent the finished first draft of Bogart Slept Here to his friend Mike Nichols, who loved it and agreed to direct. Nichols in turn set up a deal with Warner Bros. to make the film with Ray Stark producing. To star opposite Marsha Mason, Nichols hired a young up-and-coming actor named Robert De Niro. The intense De Niro was still on his way to stardom when tapped by Nichols, having just come off his Oscar®-winning portrayal of the young Don Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II (1974). According to Marsha Mason, De Niro was the second choice after Dustin Hoffman took too long to get back to Neil Simon and Ray Stark when they originally offered him the part.

Before beginning rehearsals on Bogart Slept Here, Robert De Niro wanted to squeeze one more film into his already tight schedule: Taxi Driver (1976). "He would finish Taxi Driver on a Saturday in New York," said Mason, "and be in Los Angeles for rehearsals on Bogart Slept Here on Monday."

By the time rehearsals began, according to Mason, tensions were already beginning to build between Simon and Nichols, who were friends, but having trouble seeing eye to eye on some aspects of the production. To make matters worse, De Niro had no down time between playing the iconic Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and moving into a light romantic comedy, and he was having trouble finding the right tone for his character. "He seemed a bit at sea when he tried to connect to the funny, sunny, upbeat, and ebullient nature of his character in our movie," said Mason. "He needed time to 'live' the character he was to play...I could feel the tension coming from Mike, from Neil, and from Robert. So there we all were, trying valiantly to have a good time, when a good time was not being had by anybody."

When cameras rolled on Bogart Slept Here, it became clear that there were serious problems. "The powers that be didn't think Bobby understood the humor in the script," said Mason. "Worse, they were worried he might not have a sense of humor."

As Neil Simon explains in his memoir, "...it was clear that any of the humor I had written was going to get lost. It's not that De Niro is not funny, but his humor comes mostly from his nuances, a bemused expression on his face or the way he would look at a character, smile and then look up at the ceiling." Simon and Mike Nichols privately worried over what to do. While no one doubted his enormous acting talent, De Niro was taking what was supposed to be a light romantic comedy and giving it a far more serious tone. It wasn't working. Marsha Mason, who also admired De Niro, could not find a rhythm with her co-star and found herself getting angry and frustrated along with everyone else.

It was clear to everyone that De Niro needed to be replaced. When screening the first week's footage for Warner Bros. executives, Mike Nichols declared that he wanted to stop production on the film, find someone else to play Elliot and reshoot the whole thing. "The next day the picture was shut down and De Niro learned he was going to be replaced," said Neil Simon. "He was, of course, livid, and luckily I was not in the room when he was told. It made headlines in Variety and in the major papers across the country, and no one could quite understand it."

Mike Nichols began the search for a new actor to play Elliot, but was never able to find the right one. "Eventually Mike took another film," said Simon, "De Niro went off to do something else that was no doubt brilliant, and Marsha and I were left with no movie and our dreams and hopes in Florence sadly dashed. The seven days on film was relegated to a small shelf in the Warner Brothers archives. I only met De Niro a few times in all the years that passed, but it was very hard to look him in the eye when I saw him again."

It was a huge disappointment to have so much work go into a film and have it die a slow painful death. However, producer Ray Stark refused to give up on it. "These two characters are wonderful and there's some really great writing in the script," said Stark according to Neil Simon. "We'll look and we'll find someone else."

The "someone else" emerged a short time later when actor Richard Dreyfuss expressed interest in playing the part. Dreyfuss, another up-and-coming young actor who had recently made a splash in the hugely successful Jaws (1975), was a completely different type than De Niro. Ray Stark decided to have a script reading at his office with Dreyfuss, Mason and Neil Simon. "The door opened," recalled Mason, "and this bundle of sexy energy came through the door...As soon as he reached out to shake my hand, I felt something. Chemistry was afoot. We all said hello and then sat down and began to read. And it was chemistry, pure and simple. He was wired with intelligence and rhythm and the quickness of response that made Neil's script crackle with wit. Richard and I were a match. We read as if we'd known each other for years. Our timing was in tune. We didn't have to question; we didn't falter. We just flew through the material. When we stopped, we spontaneously hugged each other and got downright giddy."

Neil Simon, however, felt that there was still something that wasn't working. "Although I realized they were right for each other," said Simon, "I thought the script was not right for them. It had to be funnier, more romantic, the way Marsha and I first imagined the picture would be. What I wanted to do was a prequel. In other words, instead of an off-Broadway actor, married with a child, why don't I start from the beginning? I'd start when they first meet. Not liking each other at first and then falling in love. I told them both to hang in while I rushed to the typewriter to write an entirely new script. As a tentative title, I put down The Goodbye Girl."

Simon emerged from his desk a short time later with a fresh reworked script that came to life with the sharp wit that the new chemistry of his leading actors now brought to the table. With Mike Nichols off the project, Herbert Ross (The Sunshine Boys [1975], The Turning Point [1977]) came on board to take over the directing reins.

Before the new production could begin shooting, there was still the important role of Paula's precocious young daughter Lucy to cast. "Every agent submitted every aspiring actress from eight to twelve years old," recalled Simon, "plus sneaking in an occasional sixteen-year-old who was short and who had a high-pitched voice." Simon was distressed at the number of polished little girls who would give the overly rehearsed and wooden readings of children who were being pushed into a career by overbearing parents. "But then there were the kids who didn't care if they missed the audition," said Simon, "and cared even less if they got the part. Invariably they were looser, more relaxed; for them, going into an audition was simply a great way of getting out of school for that day. When one of them walked in, you couldn't help but sit up and pay attention."

Ten-year-old actress Quinn Cummings was one of the auditioners who did just that. "...she didn't seem to care which way we saw her," said Simon. "She was neither impolite nor blasé, but she also made no effort to charm us. There was, however, an intelligence in her eyes. And she laughed loudly when we said something funny, and squirmed a little when we talked down to her, as adults have a way of doing...The reading was perfect." Cummings was offered the part.

After all the headaches that had come during the journey between Bogart Slept Here and The Goodbye Girl, Simon was thrilled that things were finally looking up for the romantic comedy he had written especially for his new wife. Finally, the cameras were ready to roll again, this time with all the elements working together in perfect harmony.

by Andrea Passafiume




















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