It’s always with anticipation and always with trepidation when I hear one of my favorite novels is coming to the big screen. The lack of detail in film and just plain bad acting hurt, so, of course, few such translations work – but you have to be optimistic. In the case of Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal” (click here for my review) it worked. And it worked well in a big way. In the case of Joseph Wambaugh’s “The Choirboys” (click here for my review) it fell flat on its face. And I mean completely face-first in a coma. Today I’ll look at “North Dallas Forty,” which is from what I consider the best sports novel of the 20th century and it falls somewhere between the former and the latter as a film. In the end, I guess that gives it a passing grade.
‘NORTH DALLAS FORTY’
(1979; 119 minutes; rated R; directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Nick Nolte, Mac Davis and Charles Durning)
HE PLAYED THE GAME AND THE GAME PLAYED HIM
(NOTE: I expanded this review on Nov. 17, 2015. I added some opinion without changing any; took care of a couple of typos; and added trivia.)
I knew without a doubt that when Peter Gent’s novel “North Dallas Forty” came to the big screen it wouldn’t be as good on celluloid as on paper. It simply couldn’t match the passion of Gent (it’s pretty much an autobiographical effort using the frame of a novel). Also, it absolutely would never have the chance to be able to explain all the emotion and nuances of a football player and his mind – especially such a rebel as Gent.
Still, “North Dallas Forty” is a good but flawed film with a solid cast and capable direction by Ted Kotcheff, who also was at the helm for the funnies “Weekend at Bernie’s” (click here for my review) and original “Fun with Dick and Jane” (click here for my review) or the little-remembered but excellent “Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” (click here for my review).
In “North Dallas Forty,” Nick Nolte plays “Phil Elliott,” who’s an aging and aching pro football player for the fictional “North Dallas Bulls.” His career is stagnant because of his declining health but more so from his rebellion to the team’s structure and his acidic tongue stemming from his cynical psyche. The movie tries to show the pressure on players and coaches as well as the mind-games heaped on players by coaches. It also shows free-flowing prescription drugs and some of the bigotry of days (hopefully) gone by in football.
It doesn’t do all this well, but at least it tries and doesn’t insult its audience in making the attempt. Damning with faint praise, I guess.
On the acting front:
- Three-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Nolte is very good here, along the same lines as he was in “Who’ll Stop the Rain?,” and was well cast. He efficiently portrays the low-key passion for the sport and evolving personality of his character and is especially effective communicating the physical struggle that some athletes face each day. Nolte also showed his acting chops in efforts such as “48 Hrs.” with Eddie Murphy; “Teachers” as the headliner; and the basketball film “Blue Chips” (click here or my review).
- Country singer-songwriter Mac Davis has his first big-screen role as superstar quarterback “Seth Maxwell.” Davis is good and smooth, but not great. He is solid in conveying the affability of his superstar QB status as well as when he has to face up to reality in the fantasy world he usually occupies. Davis, who would co-star with Jackie Gleason in “The Sting II,” has more than twice as many soundtrack credits (73) than acting credits (29).
- The love interest for Nolte here is Dayle Haddon, who plays “Charlotte Caulder.” Haddon, who was a model before her acting career, doesn’t do much here and this is one casting choice that should have been reconsidered. Haddon has no range of emotion and it is too bad since this character could have elevated the film. Haddon has also been in “Bullets Over Broadway.”
- Back to an example in great casting is two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Charles Durning as “Coach Johnson,” who is a Maalox-swigging volcano of coaching frustration, aggravation and aggression. Durning is so good at being mad that you believe that his head will explode at any second when he’s yelling at the players. Good job, Mr. Durning. He was good in “Tootsie” and TV’s “Evening Shade” and even tried to elevate “The Choirboys” without success.
The two most interesting supporting characters are played by actor Bo Svenson and former star NFL player John Matuszak in his first film. They are massive and violent offensive linemen “Joe Bob Priddy” and “O.W. Shaddock” respectively. Both swagger and strut through the film and Matuszak has a great post-game locker room scene in which he confronts Durning. It is surprisingly effective and passionate from an athlete in his first movie.
Actually, I’m not sure why filmmakers change characters’ names from the source material since the characters played by Svenson and Matsuzak were “Joe Bob Williams” and “O.W. Meadows.” It was a step back for the film with such silly new names (it’s as if the original names weren’t Texas-enough or football-enough).
Matuszak, who was a two-time winner on Super Bowl teams, went on to roles in films such as “The Goonies,” but he died of a heart attack in 1989 at the young age of 38 (click here to read his colorful history). Svenson has had a prolific career from “Heartbreak Ridge” to “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” to a variety of TV roles.
I don’t believe the film manages the indictment of pro football as much as the novel did, but it tries. It does show coaches conspiring to get players to use drugs to come back from injury and other nonsense by those in charge, but doesn’t quite close the deal. Nolte, however, closes out the film in a moment frozen for the credits that perfectly sums up his character.
A word about height here: Rumors abounded that Davis had to stand on things so that he would be at or nearly eye level with Nolte (6 feet tall) much less Svenson (6-foot-5½) and especially “Tooz” Matuzak (6-foot-8). I’m not sure of Davis’ height, but you sure don’t see many scenes showing him with other actors fully side by side where you see their feet.
“North Dallas Forty” made $26 million at the box office, according to Wiki, and wasn’t in competition for top 10 status as No. 1 was “Kramer vs. Kramer” at $106.2 million and No. 10 was “The Muppet Movie” at $65.2 million. Other films from that year that I’ve reviewed include the coming-of-age classic “Breaking Away” (click here for my review); the little-remembered but delightful “French Postcards” (click here for my review); and the wonderful “Time After Time” (click here for my review).
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- G.D. Spradlin does a great job as the tight, conservative and judgmental head coach “B.A. Strother.” Spradlin has been familiar with such roles in his career as he’s been such a coach in “One on One” as well as the unwise senator who tries extortion on “Michael Corleone” in “The Godfather: Part II.” He’s always a pleasure to watch even if you despise his character (the mark of a good actor).
- Dabney Coleman plays “Emmett Hunter,” the obsequious brother of the team owner (Steve Forrest as “Conrad Hunter” in a bland effort), but only gets one chance to show his considerable skill. He has an outburst at Nolte at the end that is OK. Coleman has been in “WarGames” (click here for my review) and “You’ve Got Mail” (click here for my review) in a prolific career of 170 credits and counting.
- There were always gossip that novelist Gent was portraying real star football players Don Meredith and Roger Staubach plus legendary coach Tom Landry with the characters “Seth Maxwell,” “Art Hartman” and “B.A. Strother” in “North Dallas Forty.” Anyone familiar with the Dallas Cowboys of that era will have no doubt that there’s truth to the rumors.
- As to Gent in real life … well, his pro football career crashed; he wrote more books after “North Dallas Forty” but none were as successful; and, sadly, he died at 69 on Nov. 30, 2011, of pulmonary disease. Click here for the Wiki biography of Gent, whose full name was George Davis Peter Gent.
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