Tag Archives: Sam Wanamaker

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

Private Benjamin (1980)

private-benjamin

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: She joins the army.

Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) is having a tough time. She is only 28, but has already been married twice. The first time was for 6 years while the second time was for only 6 hours as husband number 2 (Albert Brooks) ended up dying of a heart attack while they made love on their wedding night. Heartbroken she calls into a radio show for advice and gets hooked into joining the army by an unscrupulous recruiter (Harry Dean Stanton) who makes it sound like it would be far more pleasant than it really is. At first Judy has a hard time adjusting to the rigors of a demanding Captain (Eileen Brennan), but eventually she finds new found self-esteem and coping skills that she never would’ve attained in the civilian world.

The film starts out awkwardly and a better scenario about how she joins the army could’ve been thought-up, but once it moves into the training camp segment it gets funny. In fact I would’ve extended these scenes more as it’s the best laugh-out-loud moments in the movie. Kudos also goes out to the editing by Sheldon Kahn who creates sharp transitions that accentuates the humor.

Hawn, who was pregnant with Kate Hudson when she was offered the role and had to go through 6-weeks of basic training to prepare for the part, is excellent in a film that helped bring her career out of the doldrums. In fact I would say this is one of her best roles and I enjoyed how the character becomes more confident and independent as it goes along.

Brennan is terrific as the nemesis and I wished her conflicts with Hawn had been played-up more. The character disappears too soon and manages to return briefly, but isn’t as effective. Her brief romantic encounter with the Craig T. Nelson character should’ve been cut as I saw this woman as being frigid, or even a closet lesbian who was married to the army because that is all she had, which made the scene where Hawn puts blue dye into Brennan’s showerhead seem cruel to me. Yes, she had been mean to Hawn earlier, but that was only because she felt her army career, which again was essentially her whole life, was being threatened and the other women should’ve been more sympathetic to that.

Hal Williams is good in support as the Sargent as is Sam Wanamaker as Judy’s overly protective father. Albert Brooks though is horribly wasted as the second husband and his heart attack is much too quick and mild to be realistic. Stanton is also shamefully underused playing an army recruiter that should’ve been investigated and out of a job for the outlandish misrepresentations that he gave.

The film does go on a bit too long and includes Judy’s romance with the Armand Assante character that seems like a whole different movie, but overall it still works although this has to be the tamest R-rated movie ever. I realize this was before the PG-13 era, but it still should’ve gotten a PG as the only ‘objectionable’ elements consist of the word ‘shit’, which is said once, a simulated sex scene that is brief and done with the characters under the covers and a segment involving the girls sitting around a campfire smoking pot. In fact 9 to 5, which came out that same year and was given a PG rating, had a similar pot scene that was much more extended.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 7, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 49Minutes

Rated R

Director: Howard Zieff

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube