The Competition (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Pianists fall-in-love.

Paul (Richard Dreyfuss) is a gifted, but frustrated pianist. He has entered many classical piano competitions, but has always come just short of winning first prize. He wants to take one last stab at it, but his parents (Philip Sterling, Gloria Stroock) push him to settle down with a regular job and consistent pay. Paul though decides to forge on with his hopes at receiving a medal by entering a contest that will allow for a financial grant and 2 years of concert engagements for the winner. It is there that he meets Heidi (Amy Irving) who is also competing for the same prize. She immediately becomes smitten with him having met him a couple of years earlier at a music festival. She tries to get into a relationship with him despite warnings from her piano teacher (Lee Remick) who feels it might soften ‘her edge’ and allow him to attain the award instead of her.

The film does a masterful job at recreating a realistic atmosphere of a piano competition including showing the judges meticulously following each note on the sheet music they have at hand as the contestant performs while also taking studious notes of each performer afterwards before finally settling on a winner. The viewer is given a broad understanding of all six contestants involved helping to give the movie a fuller context on the human drama that goes on behind-the-scenes in these types of competitions while also showing how parents and instructors can at times be great motivators, but also crippling nags.

Watching the actors mimic the playing of a pianist is another major asset. Usually films dealing with pianists will never show the actor’s hands on the keys, but instead shoot them from behind the piano while editing in close-ups of a professional pianist’s hands later. Here though the actors, with the help and training of music consultant Jean Evensen Shaw, convincingly move their fingers along the keys in tandem with the music. How they were able to later effectively edit in the sound to stay on track with the finger movements and vice-versa is an amazing thing in itself, but watching the actors literally ‘play the piano’  helps to heighten the film’s realism and make watching the concert footage, which gets amazingly drawn out, quite fascinating.

The film has a terrific supporting cast as well including Lee Remick as Heidi’s no-nonsense instructor who looks at Heidi’s budding relationship with Paul with immediate cynicism and isn’t afraid to bluntly speak out about it either. Sam Wanamaker has the perfect look and demeanor of an orchestra conductor and the scene where Paul decides to ‘show him how it’s done’ by taking a stab at conducting is the film’s highlight.

The weakest element though is the romance and the movie would’ve worked better had this been only a side-story instead of the main focus. The idea that Heidi has to do all the sacrificing and at one point even considers dropping out of the competition because it’s ‘more important to him that he wins it’ is sexist. Woman can be just as competitive as men and sometimes even more so. The story would’ve been better served had they both been portrayed as fierce competitors who deep down have mutual feelings for the other, but remain guarded and slowly shows a softer side as the contest progresses and then only when it is finally over does the romance really blossom.

Having Heidi constantly chase after Paul, who is extraordinarily arrogant, is ridiculous. After his initial rebuff she should’ve quickly moved-on as she was pretty and there were plenty of other men for her choose from instead of having her literally throw herself at him like she were some dimwitted groupie. It was bizarre as well that when Paul finds out that is father is dying that Heidi is the first person he decides to turn to for comfort and solace. This is well before a relationship was established and the two had only spoken to each other in passing, so why does Paul consider her a trusted emotional confidant and shouldn’t he most likely have other friends that he would’ve known longer that he could go to instead?

The film has a side-story dealing with a Kazakh performer (Vicki Kriegler) whose instructor (Bea Silvern) decides to defect to the U.S. during the competition, which takes the film in too much of a different direction that distracts from the main theme and should’ve been cut out completely. I also thought it was odd that the music played over the closing credits is a disco sounding song. We’ve just spent 2 hours listening to classical piano music, so shouldn’t the music at the end have been kept with the same theme/sound?  Otherwise this is still a terrific study showing the emotional and mental sacrifices that go in to achieving success and how staying too focused on a central goal can sometimes affect a person’s relationships with their friends, family and lovers.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 3, 1980

Runtime: 2Hours 6Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Joel Oliansky

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

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