This was, despite appearances, no racing movie.
The 2013 movie, “Rush“, depicted events of the 1976 Formula 1 Grand Prix season. But it wasn’t the first movie to deal with that subject. Before “Rush,” there was the much misunderstood and almost forgotten “Bobby Deerfield.”
The weekend of the United States Grand Prix in Watkins Glen, N.Y., in October 1977, someone invited us to attend a special world premiere of a new movie. It was in an odd venue: A small old theater in a nearby town. We sat down in old red velvet-covered metal chairs, our feet stuck to the gooey floor, and watched with great anticipation as the movie, “Bobby Deerfield” flickered up on the screen.
We hadn’t heard much about the movie, except that it was supposed to be a racing movie, made in cooperation with Formula 1 and the Brabham team then run by Bernie Eccelstone. It featured the cars and drivers of the 1976 Formula 1 season – yes, the real life James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Mario Andretti, Jochen Mass, Jean Pierre Jarier, Tom Pryce, Carlos Pace and others were all in it, in their actual F1 cars. Wow! Was this going to be the first decent racing movie since the iconic “Grand Prix” in 1966? There was much anticipation.
About two hours and two minutes later, we all – and there must have been several dozen of us – left the theater thoroughly disappointed.
“Racing movie?” a friend said contemptuously. “The worst love story since ‘Love Story‘. Get out your hankies. What crap!”
“Absolute crap! And it went on and on. For-ev-errr. Jesus!” said another. “Who do I talk to, to get that two hours of my life back?”
You wondered how a movie with that much talent attached to it could disappoint so badly. It starred Al Pacino, who had just been nominated for four straight Best Actor Academy Awards (“The Godfather” I & II, “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon”). It was directed by two-time Oscar winner Sydney Pollack (“Out Of Africa”), scripted by another two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent (“Julia” and “Ordinary People”), and adapted from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque (“Heaven Has No Favorites” – for which Paul Newman originally owned the movie rights), who also wrote the immortal anti-war novel, “All Quiet On The Western Front“.
The movie flopped at the box office. It grossed barely $9 million. Although Pacino received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance, it was shut out of all other consideration. The little-known female lead Marthe Keller, who became romantically involved with Pacino during filming, was trashed so badly it probably hurt her career.
“Critics panned Bobby Deerfield as an over-the-top melodrama with a plodding story line,” notes a film guide. “Audiences reportedly laughed at scenes intended to be dramatic.” New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby panned it as “the year’s most cynical movie, made by people who know better.” Cynical? How? (Roger Ebert loved it, btw.) Racing fans were especially bitter – feeling that the movie was such a bomb, it poisoned Hollywood on attempting other racing flicks for years.
Time has not been especially kind to Bobby Deerfield, either. Rotten Tomatoes rates it at 22. Cheeky Time Out magazine dissed Pollack (who died in 2008) as being a “classic example of a Hollywood director being struck down by a lethal ‘art’ attack as soon as he sets foot in Europe” to make a film.
One reviewer said the movie’s most redeeming feature was “the French countryside is captured beautifully.”
Idiots! What are you talking about?!?
That wasn’t the French countryside! That wasn’t a racing movie. That wasn’t a bomb. It was an under-appreciated classic.
First off, most of the movie was filmed in Switzerland and Italy. I can almost name the places, because I’ve driven all around there. In the film, Pacino (who had no driver’s license, and didn’t know how to drive, prior to the start of filming) motors around in a gold 1976 Alfa Romeo Sprint Veloce – a time machine in and of itself.
Much of the film is shot in the Swiss spa town of Leukerbad, and Florence, Italy. There are a series of absolutely wonderful drives filmed in loving detail, down through the Valais, onto the auto train that goes through the Simplon Tunnel, across Lake Como on the ferry to Bellagio, and down into Tuscany and Florence. (Note to self: One day, write a Bobby Deerfield Travel Guide.) The scenery is just unforgettable – and it is charming to see that so little has changed along the route in the intervening 37 years. A heartrendingly gorgeous travelogue for anyone, especially those who have been there.
There are really only two racing sequences of any consequence – and they are each expertly shot – in the movie, and when I saw it for the first time, I couldn’t place exactly where they were. The script mentions one of them as “Jarama” (with a hard “J”) in Spain. But, in re-watching the movie recently, I realized it was actually le Circuit de la Sarthe – the 24 Hours of Le Mans race track (where, ironically, there is no Formula 1 racing) in France. I went to Le Mans in 1976, and saw all those same pit boxes, paddock lots and grandstands you see in the movie; sadly, they’ve have all long since been bulldozed into oblivion.
One particular line in Sargent’s generally very fine script, I think, is the key to understanding what the movie is really all about. Keller’s character Lillian sums up Bobby as being “so busy avoiding death, you aren’t living life.” (Or something like that.)
In Remarque’s book, everybody (spoiler alert) either dies or is doomed to die. The movie is actually more about making the most of life than it is about the capriciousness of death. (On that subject, the film is dedicated to racers Pryce and Pace, who doubled for Pacino in racing scenes; each died in 1977 before the movie was released.) Deerfield is also obsessed dissecting anything he doesn’t understand, whether it be racing, magic tricks or the enigmatic Lillian.
I won’t tell you the plot, except to tip you that Lillian is ill (no, idiot reviewers, it is not tuberculosis; your hair doesn’t fall out with that). I encourage you to watch it yourself. Or re-watch it, and give it another chance, if you were among the original disillusioned throngs.
In my latest viewing of it, I thought Pacino’s acting was exceptional, especially in the second half (personally, he rates it as among his favorite performances). And Keller’s acting was actually quite affecting. Their chemistry is undeniable. It you take the time to watch it when you are in a certain mood, perhaps on a gray, quiet afternoon, when you are willing to give in to it and let the movie transport you at something less than Grand Prix speeds, it can be quite moving.
Bobby Deerfield should get credit for getting one thing absolutely right about racing: It was a bloodbath, back then. Enough to give even an emotionally stunted Deerfield pause.
Bobby Deerfield was, however, no racing movie. And the marketing genius who tried to sell it as such was a real jackass.
March 27, 2014