Thursday, August 21, 2014

One On One (1977)

Director: Lamont Johnson                            Writer: Robby Benson & Jerry Segal
Film Score: Charles Fox                              Cinematography: Donald M. Morgan
Starring: Robby Benson, Annette O’Toole, G.D. Spradlin and Gail Strickland

Teenage movies have changed a lot in the last thirty years. Sure, there was Kentucky Fried Movie and Porky's back then, but there were also far more intelligent films that dealt with teen issues in a thoughtful and realistic way. Today these films all seem to be about idiot kids but, worse than that, the idiots in today’s juvenile films keep getting older and older, reflecting the pathetic perpetual adolescence that has come to pervade our society. One On One is an inspirational sports story about a teenager that also happens to be good cinema. Robby Benson’s career at the time could not have been better. A teen heartthrob in the seventies, he had just broken out of child roles the year before with the hit film Ode to Billy Joe and a popular television production of Our Town. He used that success to pitch his own project to Warner Brothers with himself as the star as well as screenwriter, along with his father Jerry Segal, and One On One continued his trajectory as a star with films like Ice Castles and The Chosen.

In this film Robby Benson plays a standout high school basketball star from Colorado. He is heavily recruited by coach G.D. Spradlin from the fictional Western University in Los Angeles and signs a four-year scholarship deal with him. Wide-eyed and innocent, once in the city he allows hitchhiker Melanie Griffith--in one of her first films--to take his money and finally makes his way to the campus. Overwhelmed with basketball practice and schoolwork, he also discovers to his dismay that he’s the runt of the team and the coaches begin to question whether or not he is worth the money. Meanwhile he meets tutor Annette O’Toole, who dislikes “jocks” and never misses an opportunity to humiliate him. But he sets out to prove her wrong and studies in order to impress her. O’Toole is dating one of the psychology professors, James G. Richardson, who hates jocks even more than she does, but in a confrontation with Benson she takes Benson’s side and the two gradually become a couple. On the basketball court Benson is helped by his roommate, Cory Faucher, who shows him the ropes and introduces him to big-time college sports. The conflict comes when Spradlin has had enough and wants Benson to give up his scholarship. But Benson can’t do it, not just for his father who will be crushed, but for himself.

The film isn’t all it appears on the surface. In one scene late in the film, after Benson has been abused by Spradlin and confronts him in the hallway of the stadium, Spradlin makes it clear that he believes Benson knew he couldn’t cut it in college and manipulated the school into giving him the scholarship anyway. Of course Benson is stunned by this and his dedication to improving from that moment on is less about keeping his scholarship or even proving Spradlin wrong, it’s about proving to himself that he has what it takes to compete on the college level. Benson is a very convincing basketball player, and that’s one of the major things the film has going for it. The Western basketball team is made up of real players as well and, other than his height, Benson seems to fit right in. It’s a very inspirational film on a number of levels in addition to the basketball, including the academic strides the character makes, as well as Benson’s relationship with O’Toole. Though probably unrealistic in many ways, there is a genuine quality to their interactions and the two of them play against each other very well. G.D. Spradlin is perfect as the stoic coach and was best known for his role as the corrupt Nevada senator in The Godfather: Part II, while TV actress Gail Strickland is solid in a humorous role as the horny secretary.

The scenes at the college were filmed on location at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and while the shots in the buildings and in the gym work well the exteriors are in no way reminiscent of L.A. The utter lack of a skyline and the “big sky” overhead make it pretty clear that the campus is in the mountain west. But the few shots in the city were actually done in Hollywood. Director Lamont Johnson began his career in television and does a terrific job here, with interesting shot selection and use of wide-angle lenses on the exterior of the stadium. He had just done the controversial film Lipstick with the Hemingway sisters prior to his assignment on this film, but thereafter was relegated to television movies. The other impressive aspect of the film is the soundtrack. The music was composed by Charles Fox and the lyrics were written by the great Paul Williams. Singing the songs are seventies pop stars Seals and Crofts. The songs are uniformly excellent and the interspersed with Fox’s fusion-like jazz compositions and provide a definitive seventies soundtrack to this definitive seventies film. One On One is certainly a product of its time, but it also transcends the period to provide an inspiring and sentimental teen story that is equally enjoyable for adults.

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