North Dallas Forty (1979)

“You had better learn how to play the game — and I don’t mean just the game of football.”

Synopsis:
An aging football player (Nick Nolte) pumps up his body with painkillers in order to survive in the game.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is clearly an enormous fan of this adaptation of a “semi-autobiographical source novel” by “former Dallas Cowboys’ glue-fingered end Pete Gent”. He calls it an “exceptional sports film”, arguing that “the humor comes from the absurd, dictatorial mentality of the coaches and the childishness of the players”, and noting that “the tragic elements of the sport also come from the same sources”. Unfortunately, it’s this very “childishness of the players” that may turn many film fanatics off during the first fifteen minutes, as we’re subjected to an interminable variation on a gonzo fraternity party a la Animal House, only with beefed up football players and their floozy fangirls taking center stage. With that said, Peary analyzes the players’ childishness as masking “their fears of injuries, playing badly, or upsetting the coaches”, noting that “their refusal to grow up is symptomatic of their terror about what they’ll do when their football careers are over” — and this may very well be true (after all, the film is based on a book by an insider, who should know).

We’re clearly meant to sympathize with poor Nolte, who is presented as “more intelligent than his loony, barbaric teammates”, and who — as a player clearly on the tail-end of his viability as a pro athlete — epitomizes many athletes’ willingness “to endure pills and shots, and ‘take the crap, the manipulation, and the pain’ in order to have that special feeling of playing football”. Indeed, this “willingness” ultimately becomes the central thesis of the somewhat aimless screenplay, as we watch Nolte treating his body like a piece of strategic meat he must somehow keep just fit enough to make it onto the field — where he can finally work his “glue-fingered” magic by catching and holding on to the ball. To that end, the film is at its best presenting a brutally “realistic view of the world of pro football on the field and behind the scenes” (a view most sports movies stay far away from); the “big game” at the end of the film is over far more quickly than one expects, given typical cinematic conventions in such films.

Peary argues that “Nolte has never been better” in the central role, and to a certain extent — as a former junior college football player himself — he seems perfectly cast; but my husband couldn’t help pointing out that Nolte simply didn’t seem buff and beefy enough (even as a clear soon-to-be “has been”) to be competing in pro football, especially in comparison with his teammates (many of them actual players). Nonetheless, his characterization is fine and rings true. Giving an equally memorable, quirky performance is “country singer Mac Davis” as “Nolte’s best friend, a partying, sex-obsessed Don Meredith-like quarterback”. Unfortunately, however, Dayle Haddon as “Nolte’s football-hating girlfriend” falls completely flat; she’s boring from the moment we first see her watching the opening party scene with disdain, and we never understand exactly what Nolte sees in her (other than her obvious beauty). Listen for a fine, haunting score by John Scott.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nick Nolte as Phillip Elliott (nominated by Peary as Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • A brutally realistic look at behind-the-scenes pro-football

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly recommended for sports fans.

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One Response to “North Dallas Forty (1979)”

  1. A must.

    As someone who is not at all a sports enthusiast, I must say that, if a film fanatic is only going to see one movie about football, this should be the one. There may be other football flicks that are in some way worthy (none come to mind readily) but ‘ND40’ is set apart due to its bravery in revealing the savage underbelly of the professional/corporate sport.

    This is a character-driven film (so we actually see very little football being played) and it affords Nolte his definitive role – meaning, here we get to see him at his best as an actor. (Sadly, Nolte hasn’t had the career he should have had – perhaps due to ‘personal demons’ – but, when he’s good, he’s very good. I’m reminded of his very memorable work in ‘Lorenzo’s Oil’, etc. Nolte has stated that everything comes down to the script and it does seem that, when he respects the script, he respects the amount of work necessary to meet it. That meant a fine result for ‘ND40’.)

    True, there really is no ‘story’ outside of the protagonist’s gradual and eventually total disillusionment with the world he’s in. But what a twisted world it is – and the detailed script (in terms of how many players it follows effectively) and Ted Kotcheff’s alert, spot-on direction make sure that we see this chaotic free-for-all warts and all (and it’s mostly warts).

    While we do see much that’s unbecoming in men, very little of that should come as a surprise, given the territory. Sometimes the level of intelligence is so low that it can’t help but be funny. ~which is why it’s good that we’re seeing things largely through Nolte’s cynical eyes.

    [I love Nolte’s sideline exchange with a new draftee during a practice –

    Nolte: Hey, Douglas, isn’t this the kind of day you’d rather be by a fire with a good book?
    (Draftee): Fuck you, faggot.
    Nolte: Promises…promises…]

    The film is most ‘refreshing’ in the clear-headed way it represents scummy behavior. And, in this vein, the supporting cast does not disappoint, esp. Charles Durning, G.D. Spradlin and Dabney Coleman (as, basically, corporate goons of one sort or another) and Bo Svenson as Jo Bob Priddy (who gives full rein to an extremely mentally challenged football thug).

    In a surprising turn, Mac Davis is intriguing in his somewhat Machiavellian role as Seth – who is in the game, not totally of it, and seems to get perverse enjoyment out of it (“Hell, we’re all whores; we might as well be the best.”; “I’m getting to like the pain. When the pain got the worst, that’s when I felt the most…secure.”)

    What I like most about Scott’s fine score is that, in its opening notes, it makes ‘ND40’ sound almost like a murder mystery ~which couldn’t be more appropriate; Nolte is slowly killing himself while being killed. This musical motif is again hinted at near the end.

    But, yes, here’s another movie with a makes-no-sense love angle. When I see a relationship depicted in such a puzzling manner, I tend to think (or hope) that, at least, the sex is worth the trouble for them. …Until something much better comes along.

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