Hollywood is bankrupt when it comes to any son of originality in sports movies, which becomes doubly apparent when it offers two at once. Consider these, which have just opened: Dreamer is a shoestring flick about the pin busters at a tacky, tacky Bowl Haven in downstate Illinois; Players is a big-budget beauty about international tennis stars at Wimbledon. They have the exact selfsame plot, the neo-Rocky plot that evidently has been patented as the one to be used in all sports movies. It has been franchisee, and if you dial the 800 number you can buy it for your sports movie.
Franchise plot starts with a star athlete who is a hopeless unknown, the more implausible the better. Step two: a pinch of girl trouble. Step three: time to introduce a grizzled coach with vision. If you do purchase the franchise plot for your sport, be advised that Jack Warden must play this role in 50% of all sports movies. He is not in Players, he is in Dreamer. Next: a hard training sequence with thumper-type music to match. Next: a little unbelievable upward mobility to rush the unknown into the championships. Finally: the championships. The unknown either wins or loses by a hair. The way you can tell whether a sports movie fancies itself sophisticated is if he loses. This week's hint: Dreamer is not sophisticated. By the way, the high point of its subplot involves the question of whether the unknown's tacky new bowling shirt will be ready in time for the championships.
It is Hollywood's patronizing view that if you give sports fans some hot action shots at the end, the mouth-readers will salivate happily throughout. I suppose this was the same attitude the last generation of movie producers had about climactic gunfights. Alas, because bowling is to spectator sports what bowling shirts are to Pierre Cardin. Dreamer can't even make much of its obligatory championship sequence. Was the 10-pin set improperly? That is what passes for high drama. In Players, the finale does make for some lovely grass-green/tennis-white footage, but much of it is hokey: virtually every point is won or lost with an overhead smash by the unknown.
He is played by Dean-Paul Martin (above), Dean's son and skater Dorothy Hamill's innamorato. In real life, Dean-Paul is a minor league tennis pro whose good looks and name have earned him a lot of wild-card spots on the big tour. He is modest and engaging, popular with the players on tour, and his winsome qualities are manifest on the screen, where he comes off sympathetically—although he has no visible means of support from either script or director. Opposite Martin, in the role of "older woman," is the beautiful Ali MacGraw. We speak of weekend players in tennis: Miss MacGraw might charitably be called a weekend actress. There are also a number of real court luminaries, notably Guillermo Vilas as Martin's opponent in the Wimbledon final and Pancho Gonzales as the Grizzled Coach with Vision.
July 1, 1979
Both play themselves, and I'm sorry, but the fact that Pancho Gonzales manages to portray Pancho Gonzales so well is not enough to make me applaud. This sort of vanity casting cheapens any drama. It is distracting enough that Dick Weber appears under a pin name in Dreamer. When Vilas is Vilas, Gonzales is Gonzales, Ion Tiriac is Ion Tiriac, and so on, pretty soon you are thinking, well, why are they calling Ali MacGraw Nicole, and wondering if Dorothy Hamill picked out Dean-Paul's I shirt ensembles. I or that matter, who are they kidding that Vilas could get to the quarters, much less the finals, on Wimbledon grass? Mix fact and fiction so promiscuously and you do so at the peril of crippling the act of imagination we must perform to believe the tale. Besides, it is bad enough that we must have foisted upon us actors playing celebrity tennis: having jocks playing at celebrity acting is worse still.
And, oh, a final note, just to prove that one viewer is paying attention. In Dreamer, the franchise plot begins with the unknown, about 12 years old, setting pins in 1954. Twenty-five years later he is 27. In Players, the plot begins with the unknown, a 10-year-old, watching Gonzales on TV in 1949. Thirty years later the kid is 23. We know by now not to expect superior acting, writing or directing in sports films. But surely we could have counting. Please, at least, counting.