Dancer Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) and her ten-year-old daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings) live in a Manhattan apartment with her married boyfriend, Tony DeForrest, until one day, he deserts her to go act in a movie in Italy. Before he left and unbeknownst to Paula, Tony subleased the apartment to Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss), a neurotic but sweet aspiring actor from Chicago, who shows up in the middle of the night expecting to move in. Though Paula is demanding and also neurotic, and makes clear from the start that she doesn't like Elliot, he allows her and Lucy to stay.
Paula struggles to get back into shape to resume her career as a dancer. Meanwhile, Elliot has landed the title role in an off-off-Broadway production of Richard III, but the director, Mark (Paul Benedict), wants him to play the character as an exaggerated stereotype of a homosexual, in Mark's words, "the queen who wanted to be king." Reluctantly, Elliot agrees to play the role, despite full knowledge that it may mean the end of his career as an actor. Many theater critics from television stations and newspapers in New York City attend opening night, and they all savage the production, especially Elliot's performance. The play quickly closes, much to his relief.
Despite their frequent clashes and Paula's ungrateful attitude to Elliot helping her, the two fall in love and sleep together. However, Lucy, although she likes Elliot, sees the affair as a repeat of what happened with Tony. Elliot convinces Paula that he will not be like that and later picks up Lucy from school and takes her on a carriage ride, during which Lucy admits that she likes Elliot, and he admits that he likes her and Paula and will not do anything to hurt them.
Elliot gets a job at an improv theater, and is soon seen by a movie producer. He is offered an opportunity for a role in a movie that he cannot turn down, the only catch is that the job is in Seattle and Elliot will be gone for four weeks. Paula is informed of this and is scared that Elliot is leaving her, never to return, like all the other men in her life. Later, Elliot calls Paula from the phone booth across the street from the apartment, telling her that the flight was delayed, and at the last minute, Elliot invites Paula to go with him while he is filming the picture and suggests Lucy stay with a friend until they return. Paula declines but is happy because she knows that Elliot's invitation is evidence that he loves her and will come back. Before hanging up, Elliot asks Paula to have his prized guitar restrung, which he had deliberately left at the apartment, and she realizes this as further proof that he will indeed return and that he really does love her.Richard Dreyfuss as Elliot GarfieldMarsha Mason as Paula McFaddenQuinn Cummings as Lucy McFaddenPaul Benedict as MarkBarbara Rhoades as DonnaTheresa Merritt as Mrs. CrosbyMichael Shawn as RonniePatricia Pearcy as RhondaNicol Williamson as Oliver Fry, a Hollywood producer/director (uncredited)
The film began as a screenplay called Bogart Slept Here (essentially the story of what happened to Dustin Hoffman after he became a star), that was to star Robert De Niro and Mason for Warner Bros. It would have been the film De Niro would have made immediately after Taxi Driver. Mike Nichols was hired to direct.
Simon recalled the original idea for the film:
"The basic idea of the story 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."
Filming began on Bogart Slept Here when it became apparent that De Niro wasn't right for the role. Simon recalled: "...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." Nichols insisted on recasting De Niro. Soon after, Nichols left the project.
Dreyfuss was brought in to try out with Mason. At the end of the reading, Neil Simon decided that the chemistry was there, but the script needed work. He rewrote the screenplay in six weeks.
"[The screenplay] 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."
The film's exteriors were shot in New York City and the interiors were shot on sets in Los Angeles. Warner Bros. was less enthused about Simon's script, and considered selling the project to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, while others at the studio would have rather partnered with MGM on the film, so the latter option was chosen.
The title song, "Goodbye Girl" was written and performed by David Gates in 1977, and was a #15 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that same year.50th Academy Awards
-WinsBest Actor: Richard Dreyfuss
-NominationsBest Picture: Ray StarkBest Actress: Marsha MasonSupporting Actress: Quinn CummingsBest Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen: Neil Simon
Thirty-year-old Dreyfuss was, at that time, the youngest ever to win the Best Actor Oscar. This record stood for 25 years until it was broken by Adrien Brody, who was one month shy of 30 when he won for The Pianist.Golden Globes
-WinsBest Motion Picture, Musical or ComedyBest Motion Picture Actor, Musical or Comedy: Richard DreyfussBest Motion Picture Actress, Musical or Comedy: Marsha MasonBest Motion Picture Screenplay: Neil Simon
-NominationsBest Motion Picture Actress in a Supporting Role: Quinn CummingsBritish Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards
-WinsBest Actor: Richard DreyfussBest Actress: Marsha Mason
-NominationsBest Screenplay: Neil SimonAmerican Film InstituteAFI's 100 Years...100 Movies - NominatedAFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs - NominatedAFI's 100 Years...100 Passions - #81AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:The Goodbye Girl - NominatedAFI's 10 Top 10 - Nominated Romantic Comedy
Roger Ebert gave the film a mixed, though mostly favorable, review. He was unimpressed with Mason's performance and the character as written, calling it "hardly ever sympathetic." However, he praised Dreyfuss and cited his Richard III scenes as "the funniest in a movie since Mel Brooks staged Springtime for Hitler." Ebert criticized the beginning as "awkward at times and never quite involving," but "enjoyed its conclusion so much that we almost forgot our earlier reservations."
Vincent Canby of The New York Times found the film to be "exhausting without being much fun." and "relentlessly wisecracked."
The Goodbye Girl was subsequently developed into a 1993 Broadway musical of the same name starring Martin Short and Bernadette Peters.
A 2004 TNT remake with Jeff Daniels and Patricia Heaton keeps the screenplay from the original version.
On October 25, 2016 it was announced on the Home Theater Forum: that The Goodbye Girl will be released by WAC (Warner Archive Collection) on High Definition Blu-ray on November 8, 2016. UPDATE: Released as promised.