Monday, August 20, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Champ" (1979)

"The Champ" did not get very good reviews when it came out in 1979, with the general consensus being that it was a brazen, manipulative tearjerker. That's true, but it also happens to be a very effective manipulative tearjerker. To wit: I welled up several times watching it.

That's mostly what people remember about the movie these days: that it's very sad. In fact, a few years ago the Smithsonian Magazine ran an article dubbing it "The Saddest Movie in the World," based on some research by some at the University of California, Berkeley. They tested clips from hundreds of movies, and determined that the final scene of "The Champ," where young Ricky Schroder bawls his eyes out weeping for his dead boxer father, elicited the strongest emotional response from people.

What's lost in all this is the absolutely amazing, unforgettable and emotionally vibrant performance of Schroder, who was only 8 years old when they shot the film. It truly is one of the most affecting things I've ever seen on film.

I've often said that identifying good child acting is like that Supreme Court justice's quip about pornography -- you know it when you see it. I definitely see it with Schroder, who was acting in his very first feature film after several years apprenticing in television commercials.

What's so arresting about the towheaded youngster is how utterly unfiltered his performance is. Whether he's crying, or experiencing a fleeting moment of happiness, or just glumly soldiering on as the son of a never-do-well washed-up former boxing champion, Schroder is completely in the moment. There's no barrier between his emotions and the audience. It's so raw, it's difficult to watch at times.

I'm officially bumping Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense" as the crownbearer for Best Child Acting Ever in favor of Schroder. (Elizabeth Taylor in "National Velvet" probably comes in third.)

Schroder won a Golden Globe for his performance, but wasn't even nominated for an Academy Award, which I find just appalling. Great acting by very young performers often gets overlooked when it's Oscar time. But another kid, Justin Henry, got nominated the same year for his turn in "Kramer vs. Kramer." Henry's solid in that movie, but he can't hold a candle to the mega-wattage of talent radiating off of Schroder in "The Champ."

The other thing that struck me about "The Champ" is how little boxing there is in it. To me, it's not really a sports movie. Director Franco Zeffirelli, known for high-toned material like "Romeo & Juliet," and screenwriter Walter Newman keep the focus on the human story rather than the fisticuffs.

Billy Flynn, the 37-year-old fighter and single dad played by Jon Voight, doesn't even begin training for his comeback until the 90-minute mark of this two-hour film, with the actual bout taking up perhaps 12 minutes of screen time. The aftermath, with young T.J. watching his father die, then pulling at his corpse hollering "Wake up, Champ!" and "I want the Champ!" goes on nearly as long.

And, as those Berkeley scientists concluded, it's heartrending stuff. I think what makes it so powerful is that other men are in the room, trying to hold it together for the sake of this little boy who just lost not just his father but his heroic idol, and several of them break down themselves in the face of T.J.'s eruption.

It's never quite clear exactly why Billy climbs back in the ring, other than saying "I gotta do something for my boy." They are flat broke, but that's not a new experience for them. They live on the backstretch of the Hialeah, Fla., horse racing track, where Billy works as a horse walker.

(I noticed that many summaries for the movie erroneously refer to him as a "horse trainer," which is something else entirely. A trainer is a prestigious job, someone who often oversees an entire stable of racehorses and all the employees who work there. They pick the horses, train them, decide how and when they'll race, and oversee breeding. Successful ones are famous, get interviewed on television and become quite wealthy. A horse walker merely warms up or cools down the animals before and after races, and is even lower on the thoroughbred racing rung than the African-American stable boys. They're nobodies.)

Billy is good-hearted, but selfish and weak. He constantly goes out and gets drunk, gambling away whatever money they've earned. When he says he wants to do something for his boy, I think Billy really means that he wants to do something for himself. He wants to recapture his old life from seven years ago, before his wife left him and when he was the champion of the world. He was good enough to hold the title for another five years, so we're told, but he admits he just didn't want it anymore.

Now that he finds his life a shambles, Billy wants to be the idealized -- and idolized -- version of the father figure T.J. sees in him.

T.J., for his part, already thinks he's the greatest dad in the world, refusing to call him anything other than "Champ."

This movie is, of course, a remake of a 1931 film starring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. Beery and writer Frances Marion both won Oscars for that movie, unseen by me. I think a lot of older critics are bedazzled of that movie, which likely adds to their inability to connect with the remake.

If the 1979 version has a weakness, I think it's the portrayal of T.J.'s mother Annie, played by Faye Dunaway. She walked out on them, and Billy has told T.J. that his mother died in a car crash. She married a rich gerontologist (Arthur Hill), and they spend their days cruising around on a magnificent yacht and giving fashion shows.

Billy is extraordinarily angry at Annie for leaving them, and at first refuses her requests to spend time with T.J. (without telling him who she is). Over time, though, his brittle exterior softens, and he even ends up offering to let her come back to him. She refuses him, again, which seems to be what pushes Billy to put on the gloves again.

Dunaway's just fine in this; my main problem is that I never really bought her and Billy as a couple in the first place. Dunaway's refined, aristocratic manners contrast so sharply with Billy's loutish ways and Brooklyn accent, it's difficult to grasp the concept of what would've drawn her to him in the first place. An ambitious, smart woman with a craving for the finer things, she possibly would've had an opposite-attract type of feelings for him.

Narratively it probably wouldn't work, but maybe a scene or two of them before T.J. was born would have made their screen pairing more palatable.

Mary Joe Catlett also has a too-small role as Josie, a friend who helps out Billy and T.J., and seems to have an attraction toward the aging fighter. She's the sort of solid, loyal woman who would make a perfect complement to their harried little family, but because she has plain looks Billy takes her for granted as simply someone to lean upon.

I should mention that several iconic screen actors appear in brief supporting roles: Elisha Cook, Jr. as Billy's bucket man, Strother Martin as an amiable member of the crew at the racetrack, Joan Blondell as a rich horse owner, and Jack Warden as Billy's old boxing trainer, who takes his corner in the ring despite some reservations.

Sometimes it seems like Jack Warden appeared in every single movie made in the 1970s ... not that that's a bad thing.

"The Champ" may be a weepie, but it's a damn fine one. I really can't overpraise how good Rick Schroder is. I will carry the experience of watching him with me always.

3.5 stars out of four

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