Underrated Movie #126: Downhill Racer

Title: Downhill Racer
Year: 1969
Director: Michael Ritchie (Smile)
Writer: James Salter
Stars: Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv

The Story: A handsome but angry small-town ski-bum gets elevated to the US downhill team, and quickly proves to be the best, even though he’s not a team player. The coach soon realizes that he has little choice other than to let this superstar set the rules.

How it Came to be Underrated: Redford, Hackman and Ritchie were all about to have a great decade in the ‘70s, but this movie was a little ahead of its time. America was just learning to love movies that cast a jaundiced eye on national glory. The studio dumped it, which caused Redford to start thinking about creating a better way to find an audience for anti-Hollywood movies...

Why It’s Great:

  1. We’ve all seen movies in which impossibly handsome actors inexplicably play lovelorn everyman underdogs. Redford was never interested in all that. He knew that he looked like a golden god, and he preferred to play characters who knew it too. Since his looks were so appealing, he figured he could be more hard-edged than other actors without losing the audience. From this point on in his career, he stopped asking to be liked (but he didn’t look down on his characters either).
  2. Redford had the original idea for the movie, then hired Salter and Ritchie, whose styles matched his vision. He had gotten sick of hearing that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose but only how you play the game. He had seen his whole life that it wasn’t true and he wanted to make a movie that showed the truth about winners.
  3. It’s the tragic paradox of all competition: who becomes the best? Those for whom nothing is ever good enough. Of course this means that being the best can’t make them happy either. The only way to get the big brass ring is lose all of your appreciation for it.
  4. As with Kind Hearts and Coronets and “The Sopranos” they get us to sympathize with a bad man by giving him an infuriatingly disapproving parent. His father asks “What do you do it for?” Redford responds, “To be a champion”. His father sneers, “The world’s full of them”. Still, given how heartless Redford is, you have to wonder is he’s a jerk because his father hates him or if his father just hates him because he’s a jerk.
  5. These days “realism” in movies is a synonym for “dreariness”. But in 1969, after years of bland technicolor epics, it meant the opposite: fast, raw, and thrilling, freed from heavy cameras, heavy make-up, and heavy-handed dramatics. They understood you could be brutally honest and still be fast-paced. Redford’s first descent, shot from his point of view, is absolutely breath-taking.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Redford and Ritchie reteamed for an equally good follow up about the price of winning, The Candidate. Another great underrated Hackman film from around this time is Scarecrow, if you can find it.

How Available Is It?: There’s an excellent Critierion DVD with long interviews with Redford, Ritchie and Salter.

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Underrated Movie #66: Smile

Title: Smile
Year: 1975
Director: Michael Ritchie
Writer: Jerry Belson
Stars: Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon (Get Smart), Annette O’Toole, Michael Kidd (It’s Always Fair Weather), Geoffrey Lewis

The Story: Teen girls from around California gather in Santa Rosa for the Young American Miss pageant, kicking the town’s boosterism into high gear. Eventually, the relentless cheerfulness of it all begins to grate on some, both within the spotlight and outside of it.

How it Came to be Underrated: This is a quiet movie and it’s always been a sleeper word-of-mouth favorite. It’s one of those movies that makes people happy when they find someone else who knows it and loves it.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Ritchie’s movies are about questions, not answers: What is the consequence of disingenuousness, versus the cost of sincerity? Is it worth doing what it takes to win? What will you be left with if you play it cynical and still lose?
  2. Satire and sympathy sometimes seem incompatible. It’s so hard to write something that’s barbed without being uncharitable. You’re standing outside and casting a harsh light on buffoonery, but in order to write it well, you simultaneously have to generate genuine feeling and understanding for the buffoons themselves. Woody Allen is great, but when he attacks someone, the audience doesn’t get to pick a side. It’s Woody and us together against the world. The fuzzy, empathetic, heartbreaking worldview shared by 70s directors like Altman, Mazursky and Ritchie is a lost art.
  3. Many actors shine in the ensemble case, including a flinty, nuanced performance from a beautiful young Annette O’Toole that makes you wonder why she didn’t have a bigger career. But the real stand out is Michael Kidd as a cynical big town choreographer stuck in Hicksville. He has the courage to be truly unlikable, right up until you realize with a shock that he’s become the heart of the movie. In a soulless town, the man with one spark of redemption is king.
  4. The takedown of pageant culture is acute and devastating. You suddenly realize that the meat market aspect is actually less grueling than the relentless enthusiasm of the question and answer period. It’s one thing to objectify these girls, it’s another to force them to insist that they love you for it.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Michael Ritchie had one persistent theme: competition. His first two movies both starred Robert Redford and they were probably his two best performances: Downhill Racer and The Candidate.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD.

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