Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Competition: Will Love Capture the Biggest Prize?

When we first meet Paul Dietrich, the driven pianist has placed a disappointing third in a minor Midwestern competition. Despite his proud father's support, Paul (Richard Dreyfuss) considers ditching his concert pianist dream for a job in the Chicago public school system. However, when he earns an invite to the prestigious Arabella Hillman Competition--the "Super Bowl" of his field--he decides to go for it one last time.

Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving in The Competition.
Paul encounters nothing but distractions when he arrives for the event in San Francisco. His mother finally reveals what Paul already knew, but refused to acknowledge. His father, who is still working to support his unemployed son, faces serious health issues. The competition is also unexpectedly delayed when the teacher of a young Russian pianist defects to the U.S.

The most significant distraction, though, is the presence of Heidi Joan Schoonover (Amy Irving). The talented and pretty pianist has harbored "an itch" for Paul since they met two years earlier. Paul tries to ignore her...but the attraction is definitely mutual.

I've been in the mood to revisit The Competition (1980) ever since I saw Amy Irving in Crossing Delancey (1988) last year. Thus, I was delighted when it appeared on cable recently. I think one's appreciation for the film hinges on the two leads and the lengthy musical passages.

Heidi plays a Prokofiev composition.
As in several of her early movies (e.g., The Fury, Yentl), Amy Irving exudes a winning mix of vulnerability and strength. If that sounds like an oxymoron, it's a testament to Irving's ability to find depths in her character even   when--as in The Competition--the script hasn't fleshed them out fully. Initially, Heidi seems unfocused as she copes with Paul's inconsistent attitude toward her. Yet, when it comes time to play in the competition, she takes charge and unleashes her passion and precision on the keyboard. We gradually realize that, despite Paul's outward appearance of control, that Heidi is by far the stronger of the two--both emotionally and in terms of talent.

Paul conducts the orchestra in one of
the film's best scenes.
Richard Dreyfuss faces more of an acting challenge, if only because Paul is at times downright unlikable and obnoxious. It's fortunate that Dreyfuss can counter his on-screen abrasiveness with an inner endearing quality that peaks through now and then. It has saved him in numerous portrayals of obsessive characters in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Goodbye Girl (1977), and, most notably, Once Around (1991) in which he pushes the limits with his brash, overbearing salesman.

For some viewers, though, The Competition is all about the music. Lalo Schifrin, the composer who gave us the Mission: Impossible theme, does a remarkable job of condensing the classical works of Chopin, Brahms, and Beethoven. He also adds a memorable love theme (though I'm not especially fond of the lyrics sung over the closing credits). The song earned Schifrin and lyricist Will Jennings an Oscar nomination. (The film also received a nomination for editing.)

The Competition is not altogether successful in its attempt to combine romance with a portrait of an obsessive artist. Yet, if it misses the mark occasionally (I would have nixed the Russian defector subplot), it still holds one's attention with the performances, the music, and the lovingly-filmed San Francisco locales. One still wishes, though, that the whole movie could have been as good as the climatic scene between Heidi and Paul, in which the latter confesses with stark honesty that he never thought she could play better than him.


  1. I've never taken the time to check this out. It came out at a time when movie-going wasn't in the budget and - well, you know how it is. Now I'm pleased to have it to keep my eyes peeled for a new experience.

  2. I've not seen this one, either, despite my admiration for Amy Irving. Thanks for the recommendation. :)