Goodbye, Columbus

by David Galassie
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The new cinema of the 1960's led to the frequent portrayal of a new type of leading man, an anti-hero if you will- an ethnic, often poor outsider, loaded with angst.

Sprung from this model came the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Richard Dreyfuss, and Richard Benjamin. The Graduate is likely the best known of these '60s movies using this archetype, but consider another - Goodbye, Columbus.

Based on Philip Roth's novella of the same name, it satirized the assimilation of a nouveau riche Jewish family as framed by their interactions with their daughter's latest boyfriend, a poor and seemingly apathetic librarian named Neil Klugman (Richard Benjamin.)

At a country club, of which he is the invited guest of his cousin Doris, Neil is immediately smitten with the flamboyant and liberated Brenda Patimkin (Ali MacGraw), a prototypical Jewish American Princess. Neil pursues her and begins dating her exclusively, despite the class distinctions he is warned about by his cousin Doris.

Indeed, after having dinner with the entire Patimkin family early on, Brenda's father (Jack Klugman) remarks out of earshot to a very unhappy Mrs. Patimkin (Nan Martin), "Don't worry...she'll tire of him." In spite of the fact that the Patimkin fortune was won by dealing in plumbing supplies, all that appears to matter to her is that Neil is from the other side of the tracks and has a job that clearly doesn't jive with their daughter's ongoing Radcliffe education.

After all, the Patimkins reside in Westchester County, have a maid, and multiple telephone lines (very extravagant for 1969) while Neil resides in the Bronx in a boarding house manner with his uncle and aunt.

As the summer progresses, Neil is invited to stay with the Patimkins as they ready themselves for the wedding of their son, Ron (Michael Meyers), a star basketball player at Ohio State. Over the course of time, they begin sleeping together surreptitiously, which eventually puts Brenda at odds with Neil's Bohemian morality.

The summer ends with Ron's wedding, a rich traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, played almost to comic effect with loudness and over-the-top gluttony) which serves to only highlight even more to Neil that the Patimkins meet his disapproval.

During the course of the wedding reception, Mr. Patimkin's sentimental speech about how proud he is of his daughter (i.e., chaste and pure, as the movie's tag line is "Every father's daughter is a virgin"), moves her to tears, and this only tends to intensify her guilt over sleeping with Neil.

Brenda soon returns to Radcliffe for the fall term and on a weekend visit by Neil, it becomes clear that something is wrong. A distraught Brenda shows Neil the letters she'd received just that week from her disappointed parents who'd discovered the birth control device she'd mistakenly left behind.

Neil doesn't believe that it was an accident and the two part ways after a vigorous argument. In the end, Brenda has realized she can never recapture that lost innocence in her father's eyes if Neil remains in her future. Neil's long journey back to the bus station only underscores the disparity between the upper-crust Patimkins and his lower-class existence.

In the context of 1969, this motion picture tried to convey a similar coming-of-age quality that The Graduate had mined two years' earlier. But while both films featured anti-heroes who pursued seemingly unattainable women, The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock eventually won over Elaine Robinson in the end, despite her parents' objections.

Neil Klugman was left to ponder what might have been. Sometimes there is no happy ending romantically, but I suspect, if there was a sequel, in looking back, Neil would take heart that he didn't compromise himself.

And wasn't that the spirit of the 60's, after all?

About the author: David Galassie is a human resources specialist in Columbia, South Carolina. In his free time, he pursues popular culture- comic books, animation art, movies, and music. A frequent contributor to Rewind the Fifties, he chronicles the more notable acts of the 1960s as well as many obscure bands and one hit wonders.

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