[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
Benson’s and Segal’s screenplay for One on One must have been particularly inviting to Lamont Johnson, combining as it does the interest in two-character confrontations that keynotes virtually all of the director’s work with the admiration for little-guys-who-become-winners-through-sheer-cussedness that Johnson exhibited in The Last American Hero. For me (and, I suspect, for Johnson, too), One on One is the quintessential Johnson film to date. In it, Johnson takes a delicate subject that many another director might easily have turned to syrup, and creates a dramatic, engaging, affecting story of determination and triumph. In the pre-credits prologue, opposition is established as the key motif of the film, as Johnson crosscuts from one side of the gym to the other during a high school basketball game, from one set of cheerleaders to the other, from the high school coach to a college coach who is there as a scout. Tension between opposing points of view or allegiances fighting for domination of the spirit of smalltown basketball star Henry Steele is already established for us even before the disparate viewpoints themselves are stated through dialogue.
Crossroads and intersections are important to Johnson in extending the meaning of the main title sequence, Henry’s drive from Colorado to Los Angeles in his new sports car, ready to dazzle the big West Coast college that has given him a basketball scholarship. That sequence ends with Henry sitting in his car, engine belching steam, stranded on an L.A. street, pointed against a “one way” sign. Soon afterward an opportunistic hitchhiker (Melanie Griffith) extorts most of Henry’s money from him by threatening to scream rape; and from a medium close shot of Henry with a dumb look on his face Johnson cuts to a full-screen ECU of Henry’s backside as he walks into his new college. The boy is doomed to be made an ass of several more times before the will to win becomes more important to him than his need to please people. When his assigned tutor—a smartass T.A. biased against “jocks” as near-animals who can’t be taught—discovers that not only can she teach Henry, she can learn from him as well, the awakening catalyzes his own strength of will, as well as her at first maternal and later erotic love for him.
Johnson manipulates point-of-view in a delicately suggestive way. When Janet (Annette O’Toole) tells Henry to read Moby Dick, for example, the sound of a referee’s whistle starting a basketball game is heard as the boy turns to page one. Our thoughts are aligned with Janet’s: of course this boy can’t read Moby Dick—all he has his mind on is basketball. This is a set-up: Henry, having read the book, sees Ahab as the archetype of the kind of spiritual determination that characterizes athletes’ way of life; and he lays his tutor low by asking, after letting her coo her admiration for Ahab, “Then why don’t you like jocks?” The ref’s whistle really does have something to do with Moby Dick.
In the manner of Greek tragedy, the film unfolds as a series of two-character scenes: Henry and Coach Smith, Henry and Janet, Henry and his roommate, etc., with group scenes reserved for physical action or choral-type exposition. The one crucial exception to this is the most arresting scene in the film, a gripping three-character face-off in which Janet’s moderate distaste for jocks is caught in the center of the polarity between Henry’s devotion to competitive sports and the elitist anti-jock position taken by Malcolm, Janet’s sociology professor and boyfriend. Cuts among the three personae emphasize the growing distance between the two extremes, and the increasing tension between the two men. Janet tries to talk both men out of their confrontation, but at last sides with Henry and orders Malcolm to leave. From this point, two-shots of Henry and Janet are set off against mid-shots of Malcolm, stressing the finality of Janet’s choice. Malcolm at last walks out of the frame, out of her life, and out of the film.
Because Johnson’s strengths lie along cinematic—and expressly visual—lines, he is able to enhance the Benson–Segal screenplay through composition, camera placement and movement, and montage, where John G. Avildsen could only provide Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky with an inappropriately baroque—and frequently irrelevant—mise-en-scène. Johnson maintains visual excitement throughout—even in the often repetitious business of getting basketball action on film, he remains wonderfully inventive—and hence the climactic game scenes and the satisfying finish of One on One are exhilarating in a way that Rocky continually strove for but never achieved. Rocky Balboa never held the frame as well as Henry Steele does, and never yielded it to so powerfully imposing a figure as Coach Smith (G.D. Spradlin in a menacingly resonant performance that will stay with you for days). Silent and terrible, Smith dominates the early drill scenes, looming above in foreground hugeness, while his assistant coaches run the players through their moves, tiny in the distance. And, though some of the film’s most affecting moments are Benson’s—particularly his touching apologia pro vita sua (“Playing sports … makes me happy; it’s what I want to do”)—this one, at least, is completely Johnson’s: Steele, hazed by Coach Smith and beaten by a fellow team member in an effort to force him to resign his scholarship, is at perhaps his lowest moment in the film, and is ordered by Smith to run the stadium stairs. Johnson reverses the dramatic impact of the situation by reversing a composition he has already used a number of times to stress Smith’s dominion. He shoots Henry’s run up the steps from the top, so that as Henry reaches the top stair he replaces Coach Smith in the looming foreground and, if only for a moment, holds visual sway over the antlike coach and his distant team. I can’t think of many directors who could turn the small troubles of a college basketball player into the triumph of Sisyphus and not look ridiculous. I admire Lamont Johnson.
ONE ON ONE
Direction: Lamont Johnson. Screenplay: Robby Benson and Jerry Segal. Cinematography: Donald Morgan. Songs: Paul Williams.
The players: Robby Benson, G.D. Spradlin, Annette O’Toole, Gail Strickland, Cory Faucher, Lamont Johnson.
© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow