No, she wasn’t auditioning for a Martin Scorsese film in 1977’s “Semi-Tough,” but two-time Oscar nominee Jill Clayburgh (neither for this one) dropped quite a number of f-bombs as she played alongside Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. It was Hollywood’s cheesy way of showing that a woman could curse and lead a very liberal life. Although “Semi-Tough” isn’t really that good of a film, it does an excellent job deflating the supremely stupid self-awareness crap in which many immersed themselves in the post-1960s tedium that was the late-1970s. “Semi-Tough” has recently been making rounds on movie networks, so you can catch this one … if you like.
(1977; 108 minutes; rated R; directed by Michael Ritchie and starring Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh)
IF YOU CAN’T BEAT IT, THEN BEAT IT
“Semi-Tough” isn’t a good movie if you take it as a whole. However, taken in parts, you’ll be more than mildly amused at some of its philosophical points; you’ll laugh out loud at some of its jokes; and you’ll be impressed with the mocking of self-help movements such as EST. It even does an admirable job of trashing Rolfing (remember that nonsense?) as “Pelfing” with the woman who played 007 villain “Rosa Kleb” (remember her lethal shoe?) in a wonderful supporting turn.
In “Semi-Tough,” I was impressed with the effort each by co-stars Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh. Ultimately you can’t grade them out great, but they do good work here in turning out smooth performances. Two time Oscar nominee Clayburgh (not for this one) has the real acting chops here, so it feels very cheesy as she curses her way through this one. In the supporting cast, Robert Preston is blusteringly funny as the football team’s owner (oh, right, I haven’t yet mentioned this is a football movie).
The cinematography in “Semi-Tough” is a slice of 1970s cheese (especially the very poorly executed football sequences), but it is nice today to see the clothes, a few neat cars (such as Kristofferson’s sweet Datsun 260Z – remember, today you call the company Nissan) and interior décor.
“Semi-Tough” is adapted from sportswriter Dan Jenkins’ novel of the same name. It’s the story of two pro football players and their best friend, who happens to be a woman. They all live together in wonderful bliss that money and fame brings. Then, one of the players falls in love with the woman and the other realizes that he wants her, too.
Reynolds plays “Billy Clyde Puckett,” Kristofferson plays “Marvin ‘Shake’ Tiller” and Clayburgh plays “Barbara Jane ‘B.J.’ Bookman.” Kristofferson, who has embraced the self-help nonsense of “BEAT,” asks Clayburgh to marry him and then the hilarity ensues with the film alternating between the players’ antics and the mocking of the self-help movement.
The film winds up – after a Super Bowl victory by the good guys – at a wedding that is one for the books. I normally would like seeing someone shoved head-first through a church’s stained-glass window, but it works here. The denouement has two characters (I won’t tell you which, but it’s not Burt and Kris) walking on Miami Beach in their wedding clothes.
Here’s a rundown of some of the primary cast and how they fit into the film:
- Burt is good being Burt and he’s Burt here. He does his usual excellent job of gliding through a role and winning the audience over. His insouciance is pitch perfect here and Reynolds actually does a nice job with being sincere (although some of his work in the BEAT training scenes is a bit forced). In addition, Burt does a good job with emotion through subtle expression, which has to be a challenge for his type of acting. I like Reynolds the best in the stuntman movie “Hooper” (click here for my review) and he was dramatic dynamite in the porn industry film “Boogie Nights” and received an Oscar nomination for that one.
- Like Reynolds, Oscar nominee Kristofferson (for music and not in this one) is smooth, cool and is working on a Zen-like countenance. It’s a good role for him and his work is probably as good as anyone can do, but he keeps up with Burt here … and that’s not bad. He’s been in “Fast Food Nation” and way back in 1974 was in Sam Peckinpah’s “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.”
- Clayburgh is the real actor here and once you get back the screenplay having her curse just for the sake of cursing (really, even in the late 1970s that was lame) then you’ll see a real actor at work. It’s surprising to write that it is her nuance of looks and expressions that reveal the depth of her talent in a dime-store film. Her work with Burt is really good at times and elevates his game. Clayburgh, who died of leukemia at 66 in 2010, was in “Silver Streak” with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor (click here for my review) and “Bridesmaids.” She got back-to-back Oscar nominations in 1979 and 1980 for “An Unmarried Woman” and “Starting Over,” which is another with Burt.
- Preston does a wonderful job as team owner “’Big’ Ed Bookman,” who’s the father of Clayburgh. He blusters his way to over-the-top pronouncements and even does the “creeping” self-improvement thing by going around the floor of his office on all fours (don’t worry, it works here despite the lame idea). Preston delivers a great line as his team is about to score the winning touchdown: “You ain’t gonna let me have it Lord. I’m a sinner and you’re gonna f*** me!” Preston had a great career in Hollywood from big screen spectacles such as “The Music Man” to other turns in films such as “Junior Bonner” with Steve McQueen, “Victor, Victoria” (he landed an Oscar nomination for this one) and “S.O.B.” with Julie Andrews’ only topless scene in a film).
- Bert Convy rises to the occasion as the smooth-talking self-help guru “Friedrich Bismarck.” He’s got a nothing answer for everything and it sounds philosophical. He conveys perfectly the vapid stupidity of the self-help movement – especially in the training session as he calls the audience “a**holes.” It’s a word very common throughout this film. At the end he gets shoved into a birdcage during the church brawl scene as Preston yells, “Experience that, you a**hole!” Convy was a staple on TV series in the late 1960s through the early 1980s (he was in just about any familiar one you can name) but did films including “The Cannonball Run” with Burt (click here for my review) and “Hero at Large.” To his credit, he also did episodes of “The Love Boat.” He died of a brain tumor at 57 in 1991.
- Lotte Lenya plays “Clara Pelf” and gives Burt a good “Pelfing” here in the mockery of Rolfing. She’s perfect with her clipped, fascist-like voice and manner. Just a glance from Lenya and Burt knows he’s in trouble. You’ll remember Lenya as a Bond villain in “From Russia With Love.” Lenya was nominated for an Oscar in the original “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” and had only 10 screen credits and was a Tony Award winner. Lenya died of cancer at 83 in 1981.
I would have much rather seen a lot more of Carl Weathers as “ ‘Dreamer’ Tatum” and a whole lot less of Brian Dennehy as “T.J. Lambert.” Weathers is an opponent of Burt’s and has a neat pregame TV interview with Reynolds. He does a much better job than Dennehy’s stop-and-go acting as Burt’s thick-headed and violent teammate. A lot more Weathers and a lot less of Dennehy would have raised the film considerably. Of course Weathers was “Apollo Creed” in the “Rocky” franchise as well as doing a great turn in “Predator” (click here for my review) and a funny one in “Happy Gilmore” (click here for my review).
Director Michael Ritchie is obviously in uneven form here and is certainly capable of doing better – just look at the original “The Bad News Bears” three years earlier (click here for my look at the remake). He also did the wonderfully funny “Fletch” (click here for my review) with Chevy Chase, but also spit out a complete stinker when he did the sequel.
In the end, the film doesn’t work as a buddy movie (although it has good buddy moments); it doesn’t allow Clayburgh to make her character into what the plot intended (although she does a good job here); it’s certainly a terrible football film (although it has flashes of football possibility); and it’s just not a good translation of Jenkins’ book. However, translating Jenkins’ work has never been easy – take two TV movies: the horrific golf flick “Dead Solid Perfect” with Randy Quaid or the somewhat better “Baja Oklahoma,” which screenplay was co-written by Jenkins and starred Lesley Ann Warren.
“Semi-Tough” was just outside the top 10 films in ticket sales in 1977 with $37.1 million, according to Wiki, while the No. 10 film “Annie Hall” had $38.2 million. The No. 1 film of the year was no surprise – “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” and it made a near-unbelievable $307.2 million (about 41 percent more than the No. 2 film “Smokey and the Bandit” also with Burt Reynolds had $126.7 million – click here for my review of that film). Here are some films (and one television series) I have reviewed from that year:
- “Black Sunday” (great anti-terror flick) – click here for my review
- “Bobby Deerfield” (wickedly bad Pacino effort) – click here for my review
- “A Bridge Too Far” (classic big-cast WWII flick) – click here for my review
- “The Choirboys” (horrid piece of crap) – click here for my review
- “Cross of Iron” (Peckinpah’s only WWII film) – click here for my review
- “The Eagle Has Landed” (solid WWII film) – click here to read my review
- “Fun with Dick and Jane” (hilarious comedy-drama) – click here for my review
- “The Love Boat” (my favorite TV series’ debut year) – click here for my review
- “Rollercoaster” (neat murder mystery) – click here for my review
- “Smokey and the Bandit” (Burt’s iconic, classic car flick) – click here for my review
- “The Spy Who Loved Me” (OK thriller with 007) – click here for my review
- “Telefon” (OK Bronson action-espionage) – click here for my review
I also reviewed these three solid war films:
- “A Bridge Too Far” (rating: very good) – click here for my review
- “Cross of Iron” (Sam Peckinpah – rating: good) – click here for my review
- “The Eagle Has Landed” (rating: very good) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Reynolds wears jersey No. 22 in this film. He also wore No. 22 jerseys in both the original and remake of “The Longest Yard” … and it was the jersey number from the past for his character in his Emmy-winning “Evening Shade.”
- Former pro football star Joe Kapp plays quarterback “Hose Manning” (not of the real Manning quarterback family) and has played football on screen in movies such as “The Longest Yard” and was uncredited as a football player in “MASH” (yes, the film does not have asterisks in its title). He did other screen work in films such as “Breakheart Pass” with Charles Bronson and was in the supremely terrible “The Choirboys.”
- Directly from IMDb.com: “This picture was the first film of a two picture contract between star actor Burt Reynolds and producer David Merrick. The second movie in the deal was Rough Cut (1980).” I like “Rough Cut” much better than “Semi-Tough” (click here for my review of it).
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