Thursday, March 26, 2009

MOVIES: #6 The Paper Chase

In 1973 I was thinking about college in a year's time. I was headed to Ryerson on a journalism scholarship, but I was trepidatious about leaving the friendly confines of Bramalea Secondary School, where I generally had the run of the place. So, imagine my horror when The Paper Chase was released that year.

YOU can have Friday the 13th and Jason and all, THIS was MY DEFINITION of a horror flick. It made the college experience look like something worth failing my final year at good old BSS over. Timothy Bottoms plays a bit of a rebel student, who runs afoul of John Houseman. He gets 'shrouded!' Literally told by the prof that he's 'dead' to him and will not be recognized at all. Me, with my big mouth, that would have been ME. At least it was, in my nightmares. (Oddly enough, those nightmares became largely true during my astonishingly brief sojourn at Ryerson).

Houseman, who was a major pitchman for an investing firm at the time, was an odd choice to become a movie star so late in life. His Professor Kingsfield could have stepped from the Smith-Barney commercials sets he habituated right into this movie. He'd been working in the movies since 1938, and was even involved in the 1941 classic, Citizen Kane. But for one uncredited role, he hadn't acted in a movie in the 35 years separating his debut from this role as the Harvard law professor. Second time out proved lucky for Houseman, who merely won the Oscar for best supporting actor.

Professor Kingsfield was an autocratic professor in this movie. He terrorized students the way only a one teacher ever got to me in high school. Outside of Frank Marsellus, my Grade 10 French teacher, I wasn't all that scared of my teachers. (Here's an earlier blog entry detailing my tangling with Mr. Merciless!) I openly feuded with a couple of them, Mr. Cannon in history and Mr. Mohammad in math, but only Marsellus got to me. Maybe it was because I'd spent the summer before, diddling with the class assignment computer in an effort to escape him. Transposed a couple of digits in my self-serving screw-up and ended up with him as my French teacher AND my home-room teacher (which was supposed to be impossible. Ahh, the wages of sin). But like Houseman, it turns out nasty and adversarial brings out the best in some students. Like me. Like Bottoms' shaggy-haired James T. Hart.

Hart doesn't give up when Kingsfield gives him ample opportunity to do so. He hustles. He ends up as almost a hero to a small study group of Kingsfield's students, including ones played by Edward Herrmann, Graham Beckel and James Naughton. There were others, but Herrmann, Beckel and Naughton stand out. In the end, not all of the students survive Kingsfield's inquisitions.

Late in the movie, Hart is faced with a decision. He's been dating Lindsay Wagner's character and discovers her link to Kingsfield. Kingsfield, who doesn't like Hart, but has, more or less, developed the merest hint of respect for the shrouded one, demands he make a choice. The girl or the passing mark Hart's worked so hard for. For me, it would have been an easy choice, given my past interaction with Wagner. For Hart, not so much.

It's his last act of real defiance in the movie and a good capper. Didn't make me sleep any easier thinking about university was going to be like.

NOTE: This is one of the movies that turned into a REAL GOOD TV series. Houseman also starred in the series, which debuted on network TV back in 1978 before being cancelled. It then was revived two years later in first-run syndication, and ran for three more seasons. It is DEFINITELY worth tracking down on video-tape. I don't think DVD's have ever been released of the series.

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