NORTH DALLAS FORTY is a film about the corrupt, exploitative, and brutal industry of professional sports as told by the corrupt, exploitative and brutal industry of movies. Which means that the filmmakers have given the public what they presume it wants to see--a savage, cynical, off-the-wall, black-and-blue comedy that exposes the scarred, flabby, shot-to-hell underbelly of our country's heroes--our athlete superstars. It says that football players are mutilated, dope addled monster-martyrs who are swept up, wrung dry, and fucked over. One character explains, "We're all whores, so we might as well be the best," and that becomes the movie's warped Rockyism. These writers, producers and actors know something about being good whores, and North Dallas Forty is a grand trick; bitterly in tune with its audience, vulgar and sexy and funny enough to get up and get dressed with little loss of dignity.
But the pain. From the very first shot--of Nick Nolte bleeding through his upturned nose into his pillow--we see the physical agony of these walking receptacles of pus and scars and shattered joints, pumped full of speed and xylocane. Nolte, step by agonizing step, gropes for his painkillers, washes them down with warm beer, and settles into his tub to get high. Fortified, he staggers through the Pro Football Day--wild parties, reckless hunting, chasing women. Does the pleasure make up for the pain? This is North Dallas Forty's existensial question. Phil Elliot, Nolte's latest in a series of Rugged Individual roles, takes abuse and passes it back--a though guy who won't play the game, and don't mean football.
In The Deep, most people dismissed Nick Nolte as a dumb blonde pretty-boy, a poor man's Robert Redford. But Nolte's not as dumb as he looks, and that's his fortune--always managing to act one notch more sensitive and intelligent than you think he's capable of. That's not much, and he gets away with a lot, until his "big" scene at the end of the movie, when he emotes and rocks and gesticulates like a marionette and babbles in an elaborately whiny voice. Mostly, though, he's pretty good--funny, spirited, with a tongue-in-cheek existensial awareness made coarsely funny beside his physical pain.
Predictably, Nolte lays hard to get. He won't fall for just any pink, bouncing bimbo. He goes for a new distant star--Dayle Haddon. The camera "catches" her off to the side, pale, immobile, delicate, profoundly beautiful. And you know that after an appropriately titillating interval, you will see her with her clothes off. Dayle Haddon is the antithesis of the old cheerleaders in sports movies; she's liberated, divorced heiress, she reads books, drinks milk and doesn't like football. She rides horses and spends half her day combing their backsides. But she's just as phony, just as much of a lie as Jane Fonda in Tall Story or Talia Shire in Rocky. Inhuman, frightening, vacant--beautiful.
The script, adapted from Peter Gent's novel of the same name, is fairly true to the book. Like gent's novel, the movie captures the urban cowboy humor of the locker rooms, it delights in the sadistic pedantry of the coaches who see football as a business and players as equipment, and it squirms with pain from beginning to end. For caricatures, the supporting characters are remarkable--they put a lot into their limited parts. G.D. Spradin as Coach Johnson has a fear-inspiring glimmer in his eye and a loud piercing voice; he's an army sergeant who's made it in the big leagues--the private sector. Jo Bob Priddy, the Baby Huey of the team, exudes a grizzly bear cuddliness and enthusiasm that brings his par out of the sterotype file from which it was lifted. And Mac Davis, despite his musical talent--or lack thereof--turns in an engaging performance as the team captain, alternately whooping it up with the players and then conforming to the wishes of the management. Davis is everyone's good buddy, the guy whose final compromise--to protect himself--hurts the most.
The direction and editing are smooth and competent, and the football scenes, with their low angle shots of huge players against the unrelieved blackness of the sky--take on a surrealistic quality that is shockingly enhanced by the crunch of bone and startling flashes of violence. The only element ignored by director Ted Kotcheff is the fans, who are never even glimpsed. Maybe it's just as well--you can only take so much of that decadent-Romans-drooling-over-the-slaves-being-eaten-by-lions stuff. But you can't help but feel that a whole dimension of professional sports has been left out.
NORTH DALLAS FORTY is one of the best non-documentary sports movies ever made, but professional sports--especially football--are not particularly intriguing subjects for existential speculation. The movie is more successful before it gets pretentious; in the early scenes it out-good-ole-boys the best good-ole-boy movies, with a refreshing Texas lunacy to wipe away memories of The Deer Hunter's plodding steelworkers. But it's all that physical agony that makes the film so dificult to watch for sensitive viewers; as the movie's particulars fade away, all you may remember it as is one long wince.
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