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.
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.