' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: One on One (1977)

Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: One on One (1977)

If “Hoosiers”, another basketball movie, opened with world-wearied Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) driving through rural Indiana for one last chance in nowheresville, “One on One” opens with apple-faced Henry Steele (Robby Benson) cruising the L.A. freeway for his first chance at the Big Time. Norman Dale’s one last chance works out, not simply because it is narratively pre-ordained but because he has Seen Some Things, things like what Henry Steele is about to go through, coming to grips with the pressure cooker of big time college athletics and employing lessons learned in the name of teaching young kids right. Indeed, Henry Steele probably could have used a Norman Dale in his life. As the movie opens, fans in his small Colorado gymnasium chant his name as he hogs the ball and shoots to win. And though Henry is portrayed as something of a hick, he is not so dumb as to not get exactly what he wants from the college of his choice, including a brand new ride. If this movie was made in 2018 then Henry would have called an ESPN conference to decide between Western University and Faber College.

That edge is what makes “One on One” surprisingly agreeable, the unintentionally hilarious detour into an After School Drug Special notwithstanding. There are fewer scenes on the basketball court than you might realize, even if Benson really was, it turns out, a pretty decent basketball player in real life. No, Lamont Johnson’s film is just as interested in the entire athletic ecosystem, where Henry is summoned first not to the classroom but the office of his coach, Moreland Smith (G.D. Spradlin), whose secretary functions as something like his caretaker and academic advisor, getting him out of tests if it interferes with practice, lining him up with a paying job where he doesn’t do work. One of the best scenes involves Henry going to his job and quickly learning that he is expressly forbidden from actually doing work from the incensed, overworked Latino landscaper (Hector Morales). If this was “Rudy”, no doubt these two men would become fast friends. Here, Henry is more or less told to eff off, and the racial and economic dynamic here is striking for the way it is not played up. Indeed, Benson just allows Henry to take this in like it’s the nautral order.

Benson’s voice, which is barely pitched above whisper, makes him sound more like John-Boy Walton, though you can easily hear him giving all thanks to God in some post-game interview, often exudes an apple-faced innocence that is quite deceiving. When he tells his tutor Janet (Annette O’Toole) that he never had to study because he played sports you can’t quite tell if, a la Thurman Merman, he’s messing with you, so guilelessly does he say it. Maybe that’s why Janet warms to him, at least after first dismissing him as just some dumb jock.

Alas, Henry and Janet’s eventual relationship barely flies, with the movie essentially arguing that Janet falls for him on the strength of his reading “Moby Dick”, not least because we are meant to believe this book-averse jock has read the totality of “Moby Dick” when he cites a single quote. They had Bartlett’s in 1977! C’mon, Janet! You’re smarter than that! What’s worse, Benson and O’Toole emit next to no chemistry, polite or otherwise. There is more tension in Henry’s brief standoff with his Janet’s teaching paramour, a haughty academic who doesn’t like jocks and vice-versa. That the movie doesn’t really allow either one of them to be a good guy in this moment suggests a surprising depth that Henry and Janet’s relationship could have used.

Coach Smith isn’t really a good guy either. He can’t stand Henry’s “hotdogging”, an in-game showboating tendency that is at-odds with Henry’s otherwise soft-voiced personality, a contradiction the movie shows no interest in, and lashes out at his star recruit. Before long, Henry is riding pine and Coach Smith wants him to renege his scholarship. Henry, though, feeling emboldened with his academic standing strengething and a sense of self emerging, refuses, which means he has to take “the treatment”, to borrow Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt’s term. This emerges as the heart of the movie, and part of me almost yearned for it to be remade as a Will Ferrell sports movie, with the comic actor holding strong, like if Nick Saban was the Dean Wormer, trying to prevent some young punk from lousing up his finely tuned Process. Still, his standing fast and refusing to tuck tail and run is inspiring.

You could say it is reminiscent of modern college basketball, where coaches are athletic autocrats and kids get no slice of the pie that they are directly responsible for baking, except that college basketball has, more or less, always been that way. I wished there’d been a post-credits scene where Henry spilled the beans about getting paid to the L.A. Times.

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