September 3, 2013


The NFL regular season begins this Thursday night when the defending champion Baltimore Ravens face the Denver Broncos. It has been a tumultuous offseason for the National Football League, as they battled a lawsuit brought by 4,500 ex-players seeking liability payments for the long-term health effects of head trauma. Last week the league settled the suit, paying $765 million, a small price to pay for an organization that brings in $10 billion in yearly revenue. While that will temporarily quiet the calls for wider reform, the investigative PBS program Frontline will air “League of Denial” in October, which promises to show how the NFL “covered up how football inflicted long-term brain injuries on many players.” ESPN was originally a co-presenter, but backed out after receiving pressure from the NFL.

Hollywood has yet to catch up with these unsavory developments, still grinding out a cycle of post-Blind Side inspirational football dramas. It’s way past due for another dig in the dirt like North Dallas Forty (1979) or at least the amiable satire of Michael Ritchie’s Semi-Tough (1977), which is streaming on VUDU. North Dallas Forty was recently named the greatest football movie ever by NFL.com, although it was denied the league’s cooperation on its initial release. Now it’s pill-popping wide receiver is feted on the league’s website. Semi-Tough has not been so rehabilitated. Michael Ritchie’s follow-up to The Bad News Bears, it focuses less on the violence of the sport than its megalomaniacal personalities.


Semi-Tough was adapted from the novel of the same name by sportswriter Dan Jenkins, who expressed dismay at how much Ritchie and screenwriter Walter Bernstein departed from his original. There had already been a foiled attempt at a musical version, which Jenkins relays in a production diary for Sports Illustrated (Semi-Pro made the cover). They added an entire subplot about a self-help guru (modeled on Werner H. Erhard), shifting the story’s focus from bad boy athlete antics to a Design for Living love triangle. Billy Clyde Puckett (Burt Reynolds) and Shake Tiller (Kris Kristofferson) are Miami’s star running back and wide receiver, making a deep run into the playoffs and hotel bars. They are best friends with Barbara Jane Bookman (Jill Clayburgh), the daughter of eccentric team owner Big Ed (Robert Preston). The trio lives together in playful platonic harmony until Shake gets mystical, and proposes marriage to Barbara.


Michael Ritchie had already made a career out of competition. His films delineated the preening vanity required to win at all costs, which is a cardinal virtue in his vision of America.   Downhill Racer (1969) used skiing, The Candidate an election and Smile a beauty pageant, but all abided by Ricky Bobby’s maxim in Talladega Nights: “If you’re not first, you’re last.” The Bad News Bears opened a new path for Ritchie, the slackers who rust out the competitive machine. Semi-Tough is an amalgam of both of these approaches, because while Billy and Shake are both supreme narcissists, they are also incredibly lazy – too eager to drink and shoot the shit to care about career advancement. Early on Billy is introduced to a supercilious publisher (“Intellectuals are the jocks of the mind”) eager for a gossipy tell-all, requesting stories of drug use and excess.  Although it would be an instant best-seller, Billy could care less, leading him on with absurdist tales of pre and post-game orgies.  The only thing Billy and Shake seem to care about is Barbara.


Burt Reynolds is fabulous as Billy, using his snickering humor to undercut his matinee good looks. In her review for New York Magazine, Molly Haskell puts it better: “He can be subtle and ironic without betraying the basic simplicity of his character, and, with that total confidence that comes out as generosity rather than narcissism, he is one of the most effortlessly romantic male stars on the screen. His subtlety is in the tilt and tease of his swagger.” Jenkins recalls Reynolds improvising many of his lines on the set, “all of them in keeping with the spirit of the novel.” Jill Clayburgh does some teasing of her own, a footloose woman who can talk dirty with an innocent gleam in her eye. Kristofferson can’t compete with their layered performances, but his haggardly handsome mien is always a welcome presence regardless.

[Movie]Semi-Tough (1977)

For both men football is an afterthought. Billy is a Gene Autry fanatic, and Ritchie scores a muddy playoff game to Autry’s “You’re the Only Good Thing to Happen to Me”, as if the game were an extension of his leisure time. Ritchie pays little attention to game details, even placing Miami against Green Bay in the Conference Champoinship, even though those teams are in different leagues. The game is an afterthought. What Ritchie seems most fascinated by is the culture of continual self-improvement in the celebrity set, represented by a “Human Potential Movement” group called BEAT, of which Shake becomes a devotee. The opposing QB (Carl Weathers) espouses “Pyramid Power”, while Miami owner Big Ed is into “movagenics”, which involves crawling on the floor like a baby. The most uncomfortable program is espoused by Clara Pelf (Lotte Lenya), whose full body intrusion massage is a painful parody of “Rolfing”, a “soft tissue manipulation” fad.

BEAT is modeled on Werner Erhard’s est seminars, which professed “to transform one’s ability to experience living so that the situations one had been trying to change or had been putting up with, clear up just in the process of life itself.” It’s Zen Buddhism with a higher price tag, and Barbara is attracted to Shake’s emerging sensitivity. All of these self-help mechanisms replicate the win-at-all-costs mentality again, but instead of elections or football games, it’s infiltrated philosophy and religion. The priest at the climactic wedding offers money laundering tips as if he’s a numbers man in the mafia. When the even the spirit has become commodified, it’s time to blow it all up and start over. And so they do.



January 25, 2011


Two reviled flops from 20th Century Fox have finally made their way to DVD on the brave shoulders of the Shout! Factory label. Charles Grodin adapted and starred in the heist film 11 Harrowhouse after the  success of his turn in The Heartbreak Kid (1972), only to be met with critical and audience indifference. Lucky Lady is the more infamous failure, the product of agent-turned-producer Michael Gruskoff’s ability to game the Hollywood system (both DVDs come out next Tuesday, February 1st.). Formerly the representative for screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, he bought the rights to their script for $75,000, and then sold it to Fox for $450,000. An impressive profit over the 10% he previously made from their services. By investing that kind of scratch, Fox had to inflate the story into a blockbuster, signing up Liza Minnelli, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds to star, and Stanley Donen to direct. It received vitriolic reviews, many noting Gruskoff’s ploy, and failed to make a profit (although Jonathan Rosenbaum indignantly reported in Movie Wars that it came close, with $12,107,000 in rentals, a half-million less than its budget, due to Fox’s forcing theaters to keep it for extended runs if they wanted it at all.)

Despite all of these shady backdoor dealings, I rather enjoyed both of them, the “bumbling and stupid romp” (Pauline Kael, New Yorker) 11 Harrowhouse and the “mirthless trumpery” (John Simon, NY Mag) of Lucky Lady. Seeing them outside the torrent of negative publicity both received upon their initial release, it’s easier to judge them on their own limited but amiable merits.

11 Harrowhouse was based on a novel of the same name by Gerald A. Browne, for which Grodin received the ambiguous “adapted by” credit, while Jeffrey Bloom is named as the screenwriter. It’s unclear how much input he had into Bloom’s script, but it at least indicates his investment in the material. Directing duties were handed to Aram Avakian, who had filmed another comic heist, Cops and Robbers, in 1973. Harrowhouse is deeply marked by Grodin’s laconic personality, delivered through his sarcastic voice-over that coolly belittles the events on-screen. It’s an odd distancing device that was apparently removed from some home video releases, turning it into a more conventional thriller. The new Shout! Factory DVD contains the original voice-over, thankfully, and the video transfer is strong. The original film element shows some wear, and the colors are slightly faded, but it shows nice texture and sharpness, probably the best it could look with the material they had. The only extra is the theatrical trailer.

Grodin plays Howard Chesser, a small-time gem trader hired by business tycoon Clyde Massey (Trevor Howard) to steal an enormous cache of uncut diamonds in London. With the help of his scrappy heiress girlfriend Maren (Candice Bergen) and Watts, their man on the inside (James Mason), they engineer a robbery of Rube Goldberg-esque intricacy. The owner of the fleeced diamond exchange, the fastidious Meecham (John Gielgud), is understandably peeved, and Chesser and Maren try to escape with the jewels and their lives.

The material is not a good fit for Grodin’s deadpan sad sack routine, which is presumably why the caustic voice-over was added. But the narration is so cutting it undermines the usual genre pleasures of the heist film. When Chesser’s voice drops out and the narrative picks up, the jaunty tone disappears and we’re back inside the thriller mechanics, which Avakian runs through at a dulled pace. This tension between tones drains the film of any suspense, as we are now viewing the actions through Chesser’s retrospective disdain. It’s an odd, discomfiting viewing experience, an experiment in POV that implodes its own narrative.

But there is plenty to savor amid the debris (see the grizzled faces above). While Grodin and Bergen both seem cold and affected for their supposedly suave characters, the supporting cast is superb. The three Brits inject reptilian evil (Gielgud), blowhard narcissism (Howard) and a weary nihilism (Mason) into their preciously scant screen time. These are actors who can evoke entire backstories with an inching up of an eyebrow. Mason’s aging diamond appraiser quietly shuffles off with the film, secreting tragedy in the midst of the procedural. Watts has been under the employ of Gielgud’s Meecham and suffered his silent censures, whether dismissive hand waves or a skeptical lip curl, for a lifetime. Mason is a mound of regret, with a slightly haunched back and a slow-motion manner. The way in which he delicately eats a sandwich in a secret meeting with Grodin expresses everything about him – his professionalism and exactitude as well as his fatalism, as  might be the last lunch he ever has. (Reviewers of the time also singled out Mason’s performance, including Kael, Stanley Kaufmann, and the NY Times’ Nora Sayre).

No saving graces were allowed for Stanley Donen’s Lucky Lady:

Pauline Kael: “an agent’s picture – everybody’s rip-off” (compiled in When the Lights Go Down)

Jonathan Rosenbaum: “conspicuously overproduced and under-nourished.” (quoted in Movie Wars)

Vincent Canby: “it’s ridiculous without the compensation of being funny or fun.” (NY Times)

The ever-misogynistic John Simon:  “As for Miss Minnelli, she is herself a perfect menage a trois in which lack of talent, lack of looks, and lack of a speaking voice co-habit blissfully. Donen sensibly concentrates on her best feature, her legs, but he unfortunately can’t wrap them around her face.” (New York Magazine, Dec. 29th, 1975)

And yet, I found it companionable and amusing, despite the vaseline-gauzed cinematography and the cramped framings necessitated by shooting everything on real boats at sea (it is, in terms of press, the Waterworld of its time). According to one of the two promotional shorts included on the DVD, the production took “a full year to make”, because of the stars’ schedules and the endless problems of shooting on rocking vintage boats. Fox also required re-shoots to include a happy ending (as Joe Baltake outlines here). But as important as production history is to criticism, it is no substitute, and I found Donen’s disaster to be a rather fleet and funny (albeit over-designed) vehicle that teased out the idiosyncracies of his actors.

Liza Minnelli (as Claire, a flapper), Burt Reynolds (as Walker, the dandy) and Gene Hackman (as Kibby, the hobo wiseacre) start up a rum-running business during Prohibition, running their boats up from Mexico. This cuts into the mob’s market, and soon they’re in a shooting war over territory.

The script is slangy and self-conscious without being arch, a pastiche of Jazz Age argot that the actors are able to thrum to life. The set-design is overstuffed art-deco, suffocating the already cramped spaces Donen has to work in, and the decision to use heavy soft-focus filters throughout the film is a failed attempt to go nostalgic, ladling every image over with a soupy haze (the DP was Geoffrey Unsworth, who also shot Liza in Cabaret).

In and around these production snafus the actors excel. Minnelli, the critics punching bag, is quite touching here as the dizzy dame love interest of both leads. Minnelli plays Claire, the intended bombshell, more like an antic Jean Arthur than the Harlow clearly intended. She’s the feather boa-clad ball of energy bouncing off the deft comic work of Burt Reynolds, who exhibits his flair for self-deprecating slapstick (Another bizarre John Simon sidebar, on Reynolds:  “[his] face looks like an armored car made, inexplicably, out of meat.” If someone can parse this, please let me know). Hackman has the knockabout trickster role, the gruff kind of asshole he could play in his rum-induced sleep. Together they form an improbably fun trio, and form one of the few successful polyamorous relationships on film.

The DVD of Lucky Lady is a fine anamorphic presentation, the soft image resulting from the original material (it’s remarked upon in the original reviews). The two vintage featurettes feature interviews with the cast and crew, and there are three theatrical and TV trailers.