International Velvet sounds like something that just went down an eighth, and for sure, upon inspection, it was obviously inspired by a bunch of bookkeepers sitting around and saying, well, we have Tatum O'Neal, and what are we going to put her into? The Philadelphia 76ers were, I believe, put together in much the same manner: it is a franchise, not a team. Should there be enough fervid curiosity in witnessing Miss O'Neal's first screen kiss (eyes open, from a dreadful neighbor boy), International Velvet may even be a very successful franchise, but it is impossible for any performer to go one-on-one with the script and make it a winner.
As every mother's son knows all too well, the original Velvet, domestic, 1944, brought us the adolescent, sylphlike Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown, who wins the Grand National steeplechase on her horse, The Pie, while posing as a boy. Miss Taylor was offered the part of the adult Velvet in this updating, but she firmly declined, thereby exhibiting a discernment she has rarely shown in matters of selection—professional, marital or caloric. The part (defaulted to Nanette Newman) calls for Velvet to regularly tramp the lonely beach, pondering the quality of love while being overwhelmed with swelling stereophonics and hackneyed imagery: waves, fallen birds, soaring jets. It is on one of the latter that her orphaned niece Sarah, age 12, arrives from Arizona, adorned in pigtails and braces.
The years pass, if not quickly enough. In the film's turgid first hour of puberty psycho-drama, The Pie sires his last foal, who is named Arizona Pie, Sarah's dog dies, and she gets a new hairdo and other grown-up appurtenances. Mercifully, the horses arrive at this point, greatly improving the dialogue, if not the plot. Another welcome addition is Anthony Hopkins, who does a turn as Vince Lombardi in British tweed, playing Tatum's strident riding coach. Hopkins was an inspired choice, because he had already shown, in Equus on Broadway, that he can fend for himself quite well, thank you, even when double-teamed by precocious young thespians and majestic equines.
And so, astride Arizona Pie, Sarah wins a spot on the British Olympic squad. To encourage her, Hopkins quotes the modern Olympic founder, Baron de Coubertin and, aging by leaps and bounds, Sarah discovers true love while staring into the Olympic flame with her rival, a handsome young American rider. I give International Velvet 1½ rings.
July 9, 1978
From a purely sporting perspective, the film takes a large gamble, because Sarah's sport is three-day eventing. In England, where Mark Phillips and his better half compete, eventing draws crowds of 100,000, but it is virtually unknown here. In point of fact, it is a marvelous competition, the concours complet, the complete test of a horse—dressage, endurance competition including steeplechase and cross-country jumping and stadium jumping—but I fear that the film fails to properly instruct the-uninitiated in what exactly is expected of the competitors. The movie is also sadly deficient in illustrating how crucial and complicated is the relationship of horse and rider.
Finally, and most curiously, especially considering the crux of the famous National Velvet, no effort is made to explain that eventing is that rare sport in which the sexes compete against each other. (Very late in the film there is one passing reference, but it is erroneous, stating unequivocally that eventing is the only such Olympic sport; shooting and yachting are others.) Overall, though, the film treats eventing honestly and, in fact, life follows art, for in September at the quadrennial World Championships of Eventing in Lexington, Ky. a man-to-woman showdown should take place between the rawboned American, Mike Plumb, and his stylish British rival, Lucinda Prior-Palmer, as she bids to become the first female ever to win the individual world title. Should Lucinda win in Lexington as Tatum does on celluloid, I think we can expect this year's little suburban Nadias and Tracys to soon be turning in their leotards and rackets for crops and saddles.
As for the comely Miss O'Neal, it is not unkind to suggest she made a better child than a teen-ager, and if she is not to go the way of Shirley Temple and Margaret O'Brien she had best get out of these contrived vehicles that carry her about aimlessly and into the saddle of a lean role that obliges her to head in more challenging directions.