Thursday, June 03, 2004

Video: North Dallas Forty (1979)

The adaptation of Peter Gent’s no-holds-barred novel about life in the National Football League is ranked #16 on Sports Illustrated’s list of the 50 best sports movies. The only gridiron film ranked higher is Harold Lloyd’s THE FRESHMAN, which proves that the magazine’s editors and not its readership put this roster together.

ND40 was the first movie to treat sports like a business, and by extension the audience as adults. The opening scene establishes the tone: wide receiver Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte), a Frankenstein’s monster held together by surgical tape, drags himself out of bed and into the tub on Monday morning, his body remembering every hit from the previous day’s game. Gent played for the Dallas Cowboys during the Tom Landry era, when the team introduced computer modeling to the sport and the fun began to leach out of the game. The film’s Landry stand-in (G.D. Spradlin) has slightly less warmth than the then-cutting edge terminal on his desk. Assistant coach Charles Durning tells a player that he’ll have to learn the difference between pain and injury. But the true villains are the team’s owners, constantly touting the bottom line but using their connection to football as a macho ego boost.

Elliott makes an ideal guide to this world, smart enough to know that the league’s rules are against him but certain that he can beat the system. He’s the kind of guy who cracks wise as he steals painkillers and allows himself to be shot up with tranquilizers in the hope of getting some playing time. Nolte is completely believable as an athlete, as is Mac Davis as a character based on Dandy Don Meredith.

The movie’s not perfect. Elliott’s relationship with a socialite seems calculated to make him interesting without actually making him interesting, and a few of the big speeches are too on-the-nose. But one of them is delivered by NFL great John Matuszak, who would go on to greater fame as Sloth in THE GOONIES, providing inspiration to many like my friend Tara Thomas.

ND40 is easily the best film by director/co-writer Ted Kotcheff. He first became known for the adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ and went on to a career more characteristic of directors of the studio era. His other credits include films as diverse as John Rambo’s debut FIRST BLOOD and WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S. He’s been directing episodes of LAW & ORDER: SVU recently, but has also turned to acting. He’s extraordinarily effective in his few scenes as New Republic publisher Marty Peretz in last year’s SHATTERED GLASS.

TV: The Miss Universe Pageant

Miss Australia took the tiara, although I don’t see how with Miss Trinidad & Tobago in contention. Then again, I’m not a judge. And neither is APPRENTICE runner-up Kwame Jackson, who was cut days before the show for waving to contestants in a hotel lobby. Bill Rancic, the actual Apprentice, did serve as a judge. Were both Kwame and Bill supposed to be on the panel? (The pageant is owned, after all, by Donald Trump.) Or did Trump pull Bill out of a critical meeting and give him his marching orders? “Ecuador. Now. Pack light.” One you’re in a show like that, you’re never out. Letterman’s right: reality TV is the new Mafia.

Pageant organizers did say that they’ve asked Kwame to be a judge next year. As if anyone will remember who he is by then.

Miscellaneous: Links

Two pieces from the Guardian. One cites the best and worst movie cameos. The other, courtesy of Paul Herzberg, looks at Hollywood’s chronic ‘whatever happened to?’ syndrome and the curse of the VANITY FAIR cover. Poor Gretchen Mol. I think she was only given a career so it could serve as an object lesson. In the Times, Alessandra Stanley asks when it became safe to be a stupid slut on television. And the publishing business refuses to let a little thing like death stand in the way of a successful career.