Sydney and Al Take a Risk
Romance movies ran the gamut in 1977 from contemporary New York comedy (Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl) to potboiling wartime thrillers (The Other Side of Midnight) to youthful awakenings (First Love, You Light Up My Life) and even tough-minded musical fantasias (New York, New York, Saturday Night Fever). The project that the newly white-hot Al Pacino undertook because he wanted to do a love story– bypassing other high-powered offerings he was considered for – became a misunderstood final product that has proved over time to be a richer experience, personally prized by its star and its director Sydney Pollack, than reviewers and audiences of the time afforded it. Time’s Richard Schickel was one exception, considering it a “lovely, lively film” that’s “an adult entertainment in the best sense of the word.” Bobby Deerfield (1977) concerns a celebrated driver on the international Formula One auto racing circuit. As his occupation dictates that he faces injury and/or death with regularity, the boy from Newark, NJ, turned chic celebrity loner (Pacino) has encased himself in an a personal shell that locks in the attributes of precision and concentration critical to his trade and shuts out emotional connections and disorderly relationships that can cost him his edge. (At the time, overwhelmed by the blinding spotlight his newly emergent fame was casting upon him, Pacino detected strong parallels between himself and the title character.) While visiting a Swiss sanatorium in the course of investigating a crash that badly injured a talented rival, Deerfield meets Lillian Morelli (Marthe Keller, fresh off Marathon Man and Black Sunday), a woman battling terminal cancer, who instead of shutting out the world and disruptive human feelings, embraces them with relish. The race within Bobby Deerfield begins to concern not just what happens between cars on a track but what happens when one takes risks not with machines but with another person – and the even greater personal stakes involved. Shot on many beautiful French locations by Henri Decaë (The 400 Blows, Purple Noon), the film includes exciting race footage involving several Formula One drivers but a film about racing a la Le Mans or Grand Prix wasn’t Pollack’s intent. Nor do the colorfully idyllic scenes of gracious country life or a hot-air balloon regatta in rustic France signal that the maker of the prior The Way We Were (on Twilight Time Blu-ray here: http://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26203/THE-WAY-WE-WERE-1973/) and the subsequent Out of Africa, Sabrina and Random Hearts wanted to stake a claim on idealized movie love as a cure-all. As he once told an interviewer, Pollack “didn’t want to make a movie about a girl dying” but instead, “wanted it to be about a guy who is resurrected.” Schickel got to the heart of that in his evaluation: “In Al Pacino he [Pollack] has one of the few actors who can play narcissism without seeming to be a lummox, while Marthe Keller finds a steely spine in her characterization of what might have been your standard movie kook. She is vulnerable without being pathetic, compelling without being neurotic. What is especially good about this picture is that awareness of its main theme – the chancy, mysterious, unfair workings of mortality – is present, as it should be in the calculations of any healthy individual, but it appears as neither obsession nor nasty surprise. As Deerfield comes to realize, it is just part of life, something we must learn to accept, as some of us must learn to accept such happier but equally haphazard gifts – a brief romance, a sweet spring day.” In hindsight, Bobby Deerfield took a chance by delivering a love story unique and haunting, defined not by the 200-MPH speeds embedded in its premise but in the even more perilous realm of quiet yearning. Pollack delivers a thoughtful analysis of what lies at the heart of Bobby Deerfield on the Audio Commentary featured on the upcoming TT Blu-ray rounding the curve on September 13. Preorders open August 31.