Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The Champ (1979): A Review


THE CHAMP (1979)

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Joan Blondell.

On paper, a remake of the 1931 film The Champ looks like a winner. You have a great story, two Academy Award winning actors and a celebrated director. Somehow though, the 1979 version of The Champ does not quite hold up despite the cast and crew's best efforts. 

Billy Flynn (Jon Voight) is now a horse trainer, but he was once the heavyweight champion of the world. Booze and gambling and age all conspired to bring him down. His only bright spot is T.J. (Ricky Schroeder), his son who loves and worships "The Champ". 

Despite his generally irresponsible behavior, this time he came up a winner and won enough to buy T.J. a horse that they name She's a Lady. They enter She's a Lady in a Hialeah race, where two women are also attending. One is a rival horse owner, Dolly Kenyon (Joan Blondell). The other is her friend, the wealthy Annie Phillips (Faye Dunaway). Annie soon realizes on seeing Billy that T.J., whom she has a friendly side bet, is the son she abandoned years before.

Annie wants to reconnect with Timothy Joseph Flynn, but Billy won't allow it. Eventually, Billy's irresponsible behavior and subsequent arrest push him to send T.J. to stay with Annie. She tries to bond with T.J. but after learning the truth, he runs back to Billy. Billy, determined to make a comeback for his son, goes to intense training and reaches a rapprochement with Annie. She goes to his big fight, where Billy both wins and loses, and T.J. and Annie now must find each other.

It is a bit difficult to judge The Champ given that I have seen the original and found that version to be brilliant. It is not impossible to make a good remake, but I think the primary reason that this The Champ stumbles is that it loses its focus. The Champ should be about the Billy/T.J. relationship, but whole scenes revolve around Billy and Annie and their relationship. It is, perhaps understandable why The Champ made that decision: Voight and Dunaway were at the peak of their drawing power at this point in their careers.

That being said, The Champ loses steam whenever the film opts to make their fraught relationship, not T.J. with either Billy or Annie, what it thinks the viewer is interested in. It is almost as if Walter Newman's adaptation of the original film thought The Champ was about Billy himself, not Billy with T.J. 

Newman also did a very curious thing: it made Billy almost wholly sympathetic. He is almost always a good guy, not a good but flawed guy. Take for example when Billy steals T.J.'s boxing glove piggy bank. What could have been a revelation of Billy's gambling addiction at the expense of the son he genuinely loves is if not quite dismissed at least downplayed. There is no real struggle for Billy, no sense of regret or emotional turmoil at having essentially robbed his son. 

As such, one wonders if it was a good decision by both Newman and director Franco Zeffirelli to make Billy, not saintly but not a fool either. There is a scene in the middle of The Champ where T.J. delightedly tells Billy about his day with Annie, which culminated in a gift of a saddle. As T.J. is wrapped up in reciting the day's frolics, we see Billy toss the small stuffed panda he had won on the boardwalk aside. One knows what Newman and Zeffirelli were going for. One also knows they were trying too hard and were too obvious with the subtext.

I also wonder if The Champ made a mistake with some of its casting. It is not to say that Voight, Dunaway or Schroeder gave bad performances. Far from it: each did well in varying degrees. Voight was probably the weakest. He seemed to be trying too hard to be this semi-educated figure. Moreover, in a curious criticism, he seemed too athletic and physically strong to be this washed-up boxer. He did have some good moments with Schroeder, but on the whole Voight again seemed too determined to play the part versus being the part.

Dunaway was quite glamorous, but she brought an intelligence and regret to her role as the lost mother. Like with Voight, her best scenes were with Schroeder. That leads me to think that Schroeder was the standout in The Champ. His mop-top hair and wide eyes were effective in making T.J. this innocent who adored his father. His initial rejection of Annie too is heartbreaking, as is his final scene with her. I do not know if the lisp I heard was deliberate or unintentional, but it adds to the innocence of T.J.

It is a shame that Blondell was pretty much left out of things. Rather than just be a wealthy friend of Annie's (T.J. said of her, "She's rich but she's also very nice"), she could have been T.J.'s grandmother, bringing a bit of fire and sarcasm along with some motherly wisdom and caring. 

The Champ is a good story that might benefit from a second remake. The first one does try but does not quite succeed. It might get an "A" for effort, but it's no knockout. 


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