Friday, July 21

Good 70s Films: The Champ

1979 Drama
From MGM
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli


Jon Voight
Faye Dunaway
Ricky Schroder
Jack Warden
Arthur Hill
Joan Blondell
Strother Martin
Elisha Cook Jr.

There are two things I very much love about The Champ.  One is the sadness it generates. You see, I love sad movies.  I am probably one of the most upbeat people you're likely to not meet but I am inexorably drawn to sad movies.  I don't cry much in real life but the tears have come during more films than I can count.

The second reason is I love dramatic stories about kids.  And movies that have superior child actors continue to impress me.  When I find myself saying how did they get that kid to do THAT, I am nearly speechless.  (I said nearly.)  Well, stand back Shirley, Mickey, Hayley, Tatum and Daniel. Here is the film that contains the most wondrous child performance I am sure I have ever seen and from one of the best-looking kids to ever grace the big screen.  We know I mean Ricky Schroder.

The Champ is the story of an ex-boxer who has been ko'ed by booze and gambling and who has never recovered from the departure of a wife who left him for a brighter tomorrow.  What he does have is custody of their 8-year old son who idolizes him. Together they live on the grounds of Florida's Hialeah Race Track where the father trains horses.

While the film was enormously popular with the public, critics kind of ganged up on it, haranguing it for being a bit too sentimental.  Any film that can wring this many tears from people, especially those who don't wring so often, there are charges of being too mushy.  Mushy?  Sure.  But I never regarded it as too mushy.  I was a divorced father at the same time, also with an eight-year old son, only I didn't have custody of mine.  This story always spoke to me.

It is, at its heart, a truly touching father and son story.  It isn't done by Disney and Fred MacMurray is nowhere to be found.  Here, gloom hangs over this relationship like African herds at a vanishing watering hole. We know it can't end well.  And it was told well in two previous incarnations.  The most famous is the 1931 version that won Wallace Beery an Oscar and solidified little Jackie Cooper's charm with the public. In 1953, the story, now called The Clown, was revamped to give a dramatic opportunity for comic Red Skelton. Tim Considine was fine as the son.  All three versions are out of MGM.

Voight plays Billy Flynn (the same name Richard Gere had in 2002's Chicago).  He used to be the champ and Champ is what his son, TJ, calls him. Billy used to be on top of the world but the truth is one more blow to the head could kill him.  The love of son for father is undeniable and total.  

There is no doubt Billy loves TJ but the fact is he's not very good at being a dad.  He wants to be but he's neither focused nor purposeful.  He counts on others at the track, living there in The Backstretch, to keep an eye on TJ. He's the dream kid and they don't appear to mind.  Billy's convinced them that he's still the champ and they think they walk among giants.

The problem is that Billy has has some addictions. He's often so drunk at night that TJ has to pour him into bed.  And then there's the gambling. Billy apparently hasn't heard that gambling is about losing.

Things have an upswing, however, when Billy wins. He takes $20 out of his son's piggy bank and manages to parlay it into $6400 and then buys a racehorse, She's A Lady.  The moment in the film where Billy surprises his boy with the horse is the audience's first real cry.  Young Master Schroder knows how to set off the waterworks and only the hardest souls wouldn't at least tend to moist eyes.

One day a fashionable-looking woman comes to the track with her doctor husband and she runs into TJ, whom she finds adorable.  He tells her he is the owner of She's A Lady who is about to run in the big race.  She is fascinated and then saddened when she observes the horse taking a tumble.  Watching through binoculars, she sees TJ run onto the track, toward his felled horse... and there's Billy running behind him.

She is Annie (Dunaway) and she realizes TJ is Timmy, the child she left seven years earlier.  She gave up being bullied by Billy and left her one-year old son behind to go off and find herself, make something of her life. She becomes a successful dress designer, marries a wealthy gerontologist (a doctuh, as TJ would say, since he can't pronounce the g-word) and they live part-time on a long, sleek yacht. 

Billy hasn't seen Annie since the day she left.  He's full of hostilities as he sees her walking toward him in the paddock area.  As he aggressively approaches her and takes her off to the side while TJ hovers over his horse, she asks is that Timmy?  Billy spews of course that's him.  Who did you think it was?  Even a dumb horse knows its own foal.  She wants to see her son again and tell him that she is his mother but Billy forbids it and says that he has told TJ that she is dead.

Billy's eventual loss of the racehorse in another gambling mess produces one of the film's most dramatic moments. Billy is not handling it well, to say the least, and winds up in a brutal fight with the cocky new owner. 

Billy goes to jail and his son, suddenly very timid and uncertain, come to visit. Neither is really himself and Billy's pent-up fury lashes out as he tells TJ he is going to have to stay with Annie for awhile.  TJ puts up a fuss, of course, because he doesn't know her or their connection.  He says he can stay with his buddies at the track but Billy won't hear it.  He rages at TJ that he's tired of the kid nagging him, he's tired of feeding him.  TJ cries out that he won't eat so much. Billy yells that he is a pain in the ass and slaps TJ. One may not cry but the lump in the throat is undeniable.

Then there's the scene where father and son reunite for the first time after Billy is out of jail.  He is in the empty stands at Hialeah, looking out at the track.  In walks TJ, suitcase in hand, and so begins the reunion which remains one of the film's most heartfelt scenes.  (Is that the drubbing of the unsentimental that I faintly hear?)

In another Annie visit to the racetrack comes another tender moment.  She has come to tell Billy that TJ knows she is his mother.  She wants to work with Billy by discussing how they will move forward. Billy responds that their son is strong and will be ok and then cries out but what about me?  Annie is taken aback and Billy sees her reaction.  And then in the most humble way he knows how, he cries out you can always come back. We'll take you back. We'll give you another chance.  Underneath it all, he still loves her.  He's hoping that being back together they can build a bright future for their son. It is unbelievably sad. When Annie reminds him that she is married, Billy says it's all ok, that he knows what he has to do. That decision will kill him.

He will go back into the ring.  He trains and then gets in a bruising, punishing prizefight and though he gets pummeled, he actually wins.  On the way to dressing room, he hangs on the back of his manager because he cannot walk.

The final scene of The Champ is renowned for its sadness.  To watch TJ witness his father's death, to see how inconsolable the boy is with his cries of wake up, Champ, wake up, and then going to others in the room to help is almost too much to bear.  

Over the years, apparently, psychologists have used this scene and scores more from other films to elicit responses from those being tested on emotional responses and most agree the death scene from The Champ is the saddest they'd ever seen.  

Italy's Franco Zeffirelli is a huge fan of the 1931 version which he saw when he himself was a youngster. Around the time he saw the film again years later, he heard that MGM was thinking about a remake and he called the studio and offered his services.  They accepted and it would become his first American film. Movie-savvy Americans were aware of who he was chiefly because of the worldwide fame accorded him because of his 1968 production of Romeo and Juliet.

Zefferelli having fun with his young star

Ryan O'Neal was attached to the project but only if his son Griffin played TJ.  That idea was nixed because the kid was deemed too young and as a result O'Neal withdrew.  As it turns out, filming had begun before they hired a title star.  There has been criticism over the years that Voight appeared too smart to play the boxer who has taken too many blows to the head. Jon... and I mean this is the nicest way... but that criticism is not valid at all.  I thought you nailed it.  His performance is finely tuned. Considering he had precious little time to perfect the boxing, I applaud him more.  

How Ricky Schroder was not nominated for an Oscar simply escapes me.  I put him up there with the two kids from To Kill a Mockingbird, Mary Badham and Philip Alford, as three of the best child performances. And the Mockingbird moppets didn't have to deal with the hysteria that young Schroder did.  I had a son the same age at the time (and I confess this fact has always influenced how I felt about this film) and I am not sure I would have allowed him to be put through this experience.

I also confess that it is not a wholly perfect film at all. One of my criticisms is the squeamishness I felt watching Dunaway.  When she's been great, I have said so but this is not one of those times.  She is so cloying in many of her scenes, although I didn't always think her scenes were written so well either. One of those scenes, oddly, is the final one.  The idea that a mother would enter a room witnessing right off that her son is hysterical and not go to him is preposterous. Instead she simply watches and after she's had her fill, she calls for him to come to her. Dunaway always did better work when a director tightened his grasp and I suspect Zefferelli didn't do that.

She and Voight, who had worked together a few years earlier in a Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, didn't always get on during the filming, which probably ultimately helped their characterizations.     

I loved this musical score.  It is bright and cheery at some moments and deeply melancholy when it's called for. Bravo to Dave Grusin on his richly- deserved Oscar nomination.

Movies that cause me to feel strong emotions usually get a nod from me.  As I said in the opening, I love sad movies and this is one of the saddest. If you can handle it, here is that final scene.

Next posting:
Another good 70s film

No comments:

Post a Comment