That Championship Season

Director: Jason Miller   
Robert Mitchum, Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach, Martin Sheen

Why are movies made? Well, most of the time the answer is simple: to make money for the investors. But there are often times the answer is that the filmmakers want to make art, and to get respect from their peers. Sometimes those who want respect for movies can be governments as well. Years ago, I remember reading an interesting story in the Hollywood trade paper Variety. Seems there was this certain Asian country - I think it was Indonesia - that had a government that was concerned about the movies that were being made by its country's film industry. They were concerned, because almost all the movies being made in their country were filled with sex and violence. The government reasoned that their citizens needed a dose of true culture and pride, and they commissioned a movie that would be about a national hero from their past, and be a movie that would be respected by all who would see it. The movie was made, but when they tried to release it to theaters, they were met by a flat "no" by the theater owners - seems they thought that this movie was uncommercial and that no one would see it. Outraged by this rejection and lack of faith, the government subsequently passed a law that essentially forced the theater owners to book the movie and screen it to the public. With great hoopla, the movie opened in theaters across the country... and no one went to see it.  The government eventually admitted that they had made a great mistake in thinking what their public wanted to see in a homegrown movie, and pledged they would study the public taste a lot more before getting involved in moviemaking again.

While I'm on the subject of government involvement in filmmaking, let me seize this opportunity to once again criticize the Canadian government's involvement in domestic filmmaking. It was not always so bad - in the '70s and the early '80s, the government would freely give funding to real movies instead of unwatchable artistic crap, and also had a tax shelter system encouraging private investment in Canadian films. Then they had a change of heart, not only declaring that they would only fund more "meaningful" films, but scrapping the tax shelter. The result, one that is still going on to this day, is an almost unbroken chain of boring art movies no one but critics likes. Enough of my rant - I'll now illustrate other examples of how there has been filmmakers looking for respect, though in these examples you'll see how the quest for respect has come from unusual resources. When you think of producer Roger Corman, you probably don't think of movies of a more artistic nature, but Corman for a while did bring artistic films to an American audience. In his autobiography, Corman admits that while he did see a source of money to be made by distributing foreign art movies in the United States, he also admits that he was worried that his company, New World Pictures, would become too closely associated with exploitation films. So while he continued to make exploitation movies, he regularly got the rights to such foreign movies as Amarcord, The Tin Drum, Dersu Uzala, and Breaker Morant. He even released Ingmar Bergman's Cries And Whispers to drive-in theaters, which delighted Bergman because he wanted his films to have the widest audience possible.

One other studio that strived for respectability was Cannon. "What?" you're saying. "Those schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus actually dealt with non-exploitation movies?" Yes, they did. While certainly most of the movies they made were exploitation films, Golan and Globus loved making all kinds of movies, and during the '80s they funded and/or distributed a number of more artistic movies. Some of these movies include Lady Chatterley's Lover, Hanna's War, Fool For Love, Shy People, and Otello. Although they strived to make some movies that had a chance of getting an Academy Award, the closest they got to that was when The Assault - a movie they just distributed and didn't actually produce - won an Oscar for best foreign language film. Not only were they deprived of awards for their artistic movies, they also didn't find consolation at the box office for these films. That includes their movie That Championship Season, an all-star movie based on an acclaimed Broadway play. I was attracted to this movie not just because of its cast, but because it was a representation of Cannon that I had not experienced before - and I have been striving for years to be an expert on Cannon. It's an adaptation of a 1972 off-Broadway play, written by writer/actor Jason Miller (who's best known for his role in The Exorcist), that won both a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony Award for best play of the year. Miller himself not only wrote the screenplay for this cinematic adaptation, he also stepped into the director's chair for his first and only try at directing a movie.

In 1957, the basketball team of Fillmore High School in Scranton, Pennsylvania won the state championship basketball tournament. Twenty-five years later, the members of that basketball team have come That Championship Seasona long way. George Sitkowski (Dern) is now mayor of Scranton, and is presently fighting for reelection against a young upstart candidate. His former team-mate James Daley (Keach), a high school principal, acts as George's campaign manager, though keeps his own desires a secret. George's campaign is being aided considerably by another former team-mate, Phil Romano (Paul Sorvino), a rich businessman who is getting as much aid for his business ventures from George as the aid he gives George. James' brother Tom (Sheen), another former member of the basketball team, is an alcoholic failed writer who comes into town not long into the film so that all four men can celebrate the anniversary of their winning the basketball championship with their former coach, a man named Delaney (Mitchum). At first, the reunion goes well, but as the night progresses, various secrets, resentments, and backstabbings start coming out, and all four former teammates are soon at each other's throats, with only their coach the possible key to getting them through all this and saving their relationships. While there is plenty of conflict ahead for all five men as the night goes on, this drama actually spends as much time being a character study as well as illustrating these characters' conflicts. Interestingly, none of the characters is totally likable - in fact, you might not want to meet any of them in real life. For example, all five men show they have little sympathy for people of certain ethnic backgrounds, whether it's the coach using derogatory language to describe an African-American the team played against, to George showing dislike to the man running against him for mayor just because the man is Jewish.

But the questionable nature of these men goes beyond ethic discrimination. George resorts to blackmail - twice - against someone threatening to publish an embarrassing photograph in the media, as well as the person running against him for mayor. Tom gets sloshed on alcohol and as tensions build between the men, makes snappy comments such as suggesting George should do push-ups or run in place after finding out his wife had an affair. And while James and Phil are aiding George in his campaign for mayor, they privately joke between themselves that George is "looney tunes", and are only behind George for their own benefit (James has been promised to be placed as school superintendent, and Phil need George to allow him to lease city property.) While these aren't the kind of men that you would want around you in real life, strangely enough I didn't fill up with hate watching these men spit out bile and backstab each other. Instead, I was more filled with pity. These men (including their coach) are five individuals who have deluded themselves for twenty-five years that they are successful. They cling to the fact that they won a basketball tournament that has been forgotten by everyone else during the years. They may have won a game, but they have failed at being human beings. Watching these flawed people further degrading themselves, I was fascinated. What drove them to such depths? The movie gives us some clues and answers, but leaves us to figure much of it out for ourselves as the movie progresses. As the movie progressed, I soon wanted to know what would happen to these men at the very end of it all. If they could somehow get through it, then maybe then there's hope for us, the viewers, who have our own failures and broken dreams.

Of course, these five characters had to be successfully sold to the audience by not just their writing, but by the performers who play them. Without hesitation, I can tell you that the acting by everyone in That Championship Season is top-notch. I can't tell you who gives the best performance, because every actor is given at one point (or more) a chance to showcase his skills. For example, while you would normally associate Stacy Keach with his tough guy roles before (and after) this movie, here he plays someone who has vulnerabilities, and at one point even bursts into tears. He stands up to everyone else in the cast. Another reason that the movie works is that writer/director Miller took some precautions translating his work to the silver screen. Obviously, a straight telling would have risked being boring, with limited changes in locations, for one thing. Miller starts off by moving the characters around different locations around Scranton for the first third of the movie. While the rest of the movie takes place in one general area (the home of one of the men), Miller keeps it fresh by having the characters regularly moving room to room, as well as occasionally going outside. Also, Miller keeps things lively by putting in a few little touches you couldn't do on stage, like someone falling down a flight of stairs or someone getting a basketball thrown into their face. (You can't have a Cannon movie without some action!) But even if the movie had played out in a way closer to its stage origins, I think I would have still been riveted by what I saw. A combination of talented actors at the top of their game acting out colorful and well-written characters alone makes this movie worth a look. It's too bad Cannon's artistic efforts like this didn't succeed at the box office. If they had, I'm sure the reputation of Golan and Globus would be much different than it is now.

Note: In 1999, another filmed version of That Championship Season was made, also starring Sorvino (this time in the role of the coach.) If you seek out either version, be sure what version you'll be getting.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check Amazon for the original stage play

See also: The Ambassador, My First Mister, Surrender