In the early seventies, arriving for an appointment at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, I took the opportunity to explore Greystone, the former mansion of the Doheny family which it then occupied. An eerie moan led me along empty halls to what had been in more gracious times a ballroom. Most of the staff were seated cross-legged in a circle on the floor, holding hands and, with eyes closed, intoning a collective wavering note redolent of doubt and despair. Clearly rumours of dissent within the Institute did not exaggerate.
Self-help flourished in those credulous days as a regiment of gurus and guides met our need for reassurance. We embraced Transcendental Meditation – had anyone not read I’m OK, You’re OK?- pyramid power, rebirthing, hypnosis, Rolfing, chanting or colonic irrigation, and one-time automobile salesman John Paul Rosenberg, rebranded as the more Teutonically efficient-sounding Werner Hans Erhard, unveiled his Erhard Seminar Training, aka EST.
The cinema paid surprisingly little attention to self-improvement, even though show business personalities were among its most eager supporters. An exception was Lawrence Kasdan who, in Grand Canyon, cast Steve Martin as a Joel Silver-like producer of schlock and spatter movies who, after a mugging, vows to embrace Art and Live In the Moment, only to back-slide as his injuries heal. Otherwise, the field belongs largely to Michael Ritchie’s 1977 Semi-Tough.
We often dismiss Ritchie as a specialist in sports movies, a form with a notoriously short shelf life. Downhill Racer, The Scout, The Bad-News Bears and Wildcats argue for this view, but, in each, sport takes a back seat to other concerns; the perils of personal ambition in Downhill Racer, for example,and those of social and racial stereotyping in The Bad News Bears. He was on surer ground as a parodist in his political comedy The Candidate and the under-rated Smile, which cynically probed another American institution, the beauty pageant.
He achieved synthesis most effectively in Semi-Tough –pronounced, by the way, southern-style, “Sem-eye”- based on Dan Wakefield’s comic novel about the hard-partying excesses of professional football. Little of that reportage remains in the film, represented primarily by Brian Dennehy (in his screen debut) as mindlessly mountainous linebacker T.J. Lambert. The opening shot, of Dennehy’s naked backside, on show during a drunken post-game debauch, pretty well closes the book on football as far as screenwriter Walter Bernstein is concerned. Having just emerged from the shadow of the blacklist with The Front, he chose, with an assist from fellow leftist Ring Lardner Jr., to replace jock humour with a look at Werner Erhard, ESTand self-improvement in general.
Kris Kristofferson and Burt Reynolds turn in an engaging joint comic performance as Marvin “Shake” Tiller and Billy Clyde Puckett, stars of the team owned by Big Ed Bookman (Robert Preston). They share an amiable and, initially at least, sexless ménage a trois with Ed’s daughter Barbara Jane (Jill Clayburgh), though cracks appear when Shake joins the cult of Friedrich Bismark (Bert Convy).
Participants in Bismark’s punishing weekend “seminars” are locked in a room together, verbally abused, denied bathroom visits – “I just peed in my pants,” announces an ecstatic woman, “and it felt good!” – and otherwise brain-washed into discovering themselves and others anew. Sessions culminate in everyone on the floor, writhing and screaming, expressing their innermost fears. Those who “got It” ie, the Bismark message, emerge, as does Shake, in a state of dreamy acquiescence. Conflicts and tensions dissipate, since “it’s all cool - because you’re beautiful. We’reall beautiful” and disagreement is defused with a bland smile and the complacent formula “I acknowledge that.”
Barbara Jane falls for the transformed Shake, to the despair of Billy Clyde, who sets out to undermine their romance. In showing him doing so, Bernstein offers a guided tour of cult crankiness. The captain of a rival team extols the priapic effect of placing a pyramid under the bed. Big Ed, in order to re-bond with his infant self, removes the legs from his office furniture and crawls around on all-fours. To experience Pelfing, a parody of Rolfing, the punishingly invasive deep-tissue massage developed by Ida Rolf, Billy Clyde visits Clara Pelf (Lotte Lenya) who, explaining that the inside of the body is just as much a reflection of the personality as the outside, ominously draws on a pair of surgical gloves.
Nothing escapes the pervasive cynicism. Waiting with Bismark to conduct a joint wedding service, a priest explains how to avoid capital gains tax by funnelling income through Switzerland via an eleemosynary trust. The chilly tone invades more conventional scenes, such as a painful episode with raucous groupie Earlene (Mary Jo Catlett), whom Billy Clyde humiliates before his team-mates, only to come begging for her favours when every other woman is taken for the night. His lame attempts to excuse his earlier behaviour are all the more excruciating for her weary acceptance of the lie.
Mary Jo Cattlet as groupie Earlene, Burt Reynolds,
A publisher (James Mackrell) invites Billy Clyde to write “a look at the football nobody’s ever seen – what drugs the players take, how games are really fixed, the influence of the Mafia,” not to mention the incidence of gay players (more prevalent in the defence, explains Puckett, straight-faced, since they’re permitted to use their hands.) It would be a courageous film that treated sports today with such levity. A 1980 tv series with Bruce McGill as Puckett and David Hasselhoff (!) as Tiller failed after four episodes. The fun of the Ritchie/Bernstein version gave way to the grittier Friday Night Lights, Personal Best, North Dallas Forty, A League of Their Own, Jerry Maguire and Moneyball,not to mention a sour remake of Bad News Bears with Billy Bob Thornton. It’s not winning but how you play the game? You must be kidding. Show me the money!
*A good copy of Semi-Tough can be seen if you click here