Monday, July 11, 2011
Another Old Film Review: Paper Chase (1973)
In keeping with my fascination of Oscar-winning performances, I just finished watching a screening of The Paper Chase (1973) for which John Houseman (the guy on the left, more on him below)* won a Supporting Actor Oscar.
I also feel like I'm hitting a good niche with my film reviews by covering films from before the 1990's that aren't classics but aren't exactly forgotten either. After all, what use is reviewing the Godfather or Apocalypse Now as if that hasn't been seen or reviewed already?
On to the review:
"The Paper Chase" stars Timothy Bottoms** as a first-year student entering the demanding world of Harvard School of Law who develops two primary relationships: The first is an off-again on-again romance. The second is a relationship of fear and reverence for a stodgy law professor whose rigidity and toughness are the stuff of legend. The twist is supposedly that the girlfriend turns out to be the professor's daughter and I was wary of how the film might devolve into some kind of triangular comedy (or melodrama, take your pick) of errors a la "Three's Company", but the romantic plot (or at least the tension) quickly dissipates into the main plot which is essentially the life of a student in an intensely competitive environment as he prepares for the challenge of his life.
In a sense, the professor also becomes secondary to the main plot as the protagonist slowly backs away from seeing the no-nonsense professor as his enemy and realizes the only person standing between him and success is himself (in no way, is that presented in as cliche a manner as I'm describing it here). Within the professor-student relationship, the film reminds me of other anti-establishment films from around the period like "The Graduate" or "Shampoo" where the protagonist must resist the influence of some towering figure from the older generation and decide where his own morals lie.
One thing I can definitely say about this film is that I've never seen a film that infuses academics with such adrenaline. The desparation to make a good impression on the professor or to not be called on and have the wrong answer in class, for example.
Nearly a third of the scenes involve the students in their study group. The politics of study groups have never seemed so interesting (And no, "Community" does not come close) as the students start questioning whether the others are pulling their weight or mutually panicking in the face of some new obstacle. The film's emotional resonance also comes from the bonds formed within the study group as the characters go through battle together. There's the equivalent of the fallen comrade in the form of a married study group member whose life starts to degrade as the semester wears down on him. There's another friend of the protagonist who embarks with him to a hotel for a do-or-die cram session in which the two are so focused on their studying that they draw the ire of the hotel staff and practically go mad in response.
In short, it's a very satisfying film that moves at its own pace.
*John Houseman is a ridiculously fascinating guy. Born in 1902, his acting career can best be described as his third greatest contribution to the arts. His greatest career was producing stage plays on Broadway beginning in 1929 as as means of surviving the Stock Market Crash. It was in 1934 that he became "obsessed" (wikipedia's words, not mine) with the idea that a 20-year old actor from a play at Cornell University (I believe that's what's meant by a Cornell production) would be the only person qualified to play the lead of his latest play. That 20-year old was Orson Welles and the two became collaborators. Houseman also produced the radio play "War of the Worlds" that scared the shit out of New Jersey when people thought it was real.
Ironically, whereas Citizen Kane marked the birth of many careers (Rob Wise, director of West Side Story and Sound of Music, edited the film; Agnes Moorehead went on to play Samantha's mom on Bewitched and earn 4 Oscar nominations; Greg Toland was the preeminent cinematographer of his day, etc.), it ended the collaboration of Welles and Houseman. It was mostly the controversy over who wrote the play with Houseman taking the side of Herman Mankewicz. Judging by a quote in his memoir, it seems Houseman wrote more of the script than Welles.
As for his second greatest contribution to the arts, Houseman was a professor at Julliard for acting where he taught Kevin Kline, Christopher Reeves and Robin Williams. He even formed a theater troupe out of his first class of graduates because he didn't want to see them be disbanded. He also advised Robin to follow comedy.
He wasn't really serious about acting himself until he filled in the role of the professor in this film after James Mason backed out. After winning the Academy Award, he got roles in a lot of other films and found a third act to life by taking on a lot of other roles. His last was a comic role in Naked Gun before dying in 1988.
Want to learn more about interesting Oscar winners?
Check out this article of mine on interesting supporting actress winners
**Don't fear if that name sounds unfamiliar. I've never heard of him either, although apparently he's had a long acting career and doesn't look like a character from the "70's Show" anymore