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    Chance Encounters

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    According to Janet L. Meyer’s 1998 Sydney Pollack: A Critical Filmography chapter on Bobby Deerfield (1977), which opened in theaters 40 years ago today, actor and auto racing enthusiast Paul Newman “owned the original script, which he commissioned after he optioned the novel Heaven Has No Favorites [by All Quiet on the Western Front author Erich Maria Remarque] from Columbia Pictures. Pollack and Newman liked the Alvin Sargent adaptation of the novel but they were both a bit skeptical of its commerciality. When Pollack was finally free to do the picture and Three Days of the Condor (1975) was making money in the theaters, Newman was unavailable to play the lead. Since Condor appeared to be on its way to success at the box office, Pollack felt he could take a chance with Bobby Deerfield.” It was to prove a very chancy enterprise all around, a romantic drama involving a coolly emotionless celebrity racer (Al Pacino) attracted to an effervescent free spirit (Marthe Keller) defiantly battling a terminal illness, expansively shot on beautiful, jet-set French locations while internally probing long buried emotions, juggling the supersonic, death-defying allure of the race track with the methodical interiorized struggle of coming to terms with one’s own true identity. Can someone who challenges death with impeccably mechanized efficiency convert that driving energy into embracing life. Pollack seized on, Meyer writes, “the idea of a man who has turned against his own past and therefore makes himself a totally isolated individual. He has constructed an identity that isn’t organic to himself. But during a relationship with a girl, he learns to accept the reality of who he is and to accept his own roots.” Audiences and critics were cool to the film, but it remained one of its filmmaker’s favorites, later saying that movies “have a funny way of finding their true value quite a while after they’re made.” He would also admit: “Sometimes I lose track of the black and white, and I find myself falling in love with the gray areas.” Meyer concludes her analysis: “What Pollack wanted most was for audiences to appreciate the role which Al Pacino [nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe Award] played so skillfully: ‘It’s a performance that doesn’t call attention to itself…Al had the guts to be obnoxious for the first hour of the film, to the point where you want to punch him. That’s a level of truth very few actors are willing to give.’” Take your own chance and buckle in behind the wheel of Bobby Deerfield on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, and give it a second spin with director Pollack on his enormously revealing Audio Commentary.