Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Amy Irving, Lee Remick, and Sam Wanamaker
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
Intelligent romantic drama and character study.
The Competition could never be made today. In the 21st century, romantic dramas come in one variety: schmaltz. The Competition is utterly devoid of sentimentality, false or otherwise. It’s the story of complex people who fall in love and must balance that romance with the difficulties in their lives.
The title refers to a prestigious competition for young aspiring concert pianists. One of the most impressive things about the film is the way it thoroughly immerses us in the world of world-class piano competitions.
For this competition, Paul Dietrich (Richard Dreyfuss) has reached his last year of eligibility. Years of struggling on the competition circuit, knowing he’s better than the winners in an unfair system, have made him bitter and cynical. He has been offered a public school teaching position, which, if he takes it, will relieve the financial burden his piano career has put on his aging parents.
A wonderful scene near the beginning of the movie shows Paul scouting the school where he’ll be teaching and seeing the prospective job in all its soul-killing, stultifying dreariness. For a great musician like Paul, taking the job represents a complete waste of his talent and the death of all his dreams. (Ironically, Dreyfuss would famously later play a musician who finds great accomplishment as a music teacher in Mr. Holland’s Opus.)
Paul decides to take a last shot at launching a concert career through one final competition. He reaches the semi-finals, where he encounters a witty young competitor, Heidi Schoonover (Amy Irving). Heidi is just beginning on the competition circuit. Unlike Paul, she comes from a wealthy family that can support her as she trains with the best possible coach, Greta Vandemann (Lee Remick). Vandemann has all the right connections to gain Heidi an entree into the right circles in the classical music world.
For all her privilege, Heidi is charmingly self-effacing, with a habit of breaking into long-winded, intellectual chatter when she’s nervous. Paul finds her fetching but realizes immediately that she is a dangerous distraction. For him, the competition is everything. His whole future depends on it. For Heidi, there will be other years and other competitions.
Vandemann resents Paul’s intrusion into Heidi’s routine and focus. She processes his interest her pupil as a deliberate bit of psychological gamesmanship to undermine Heidi’s performance. Remick is wickedly witty as the feisty and worldly Greta, especially when she faces off with the competition’s arrogant and difficult conductor, Andrew Erskine (Sam Wanamaker). She delivers one of cinema’s best putdowns to him when he’s being particularly contrary during the tensest moments of the competition: “It costs extra to carve ‘schmuck’ on a tombstone, but you would definitely be worth the expense!”
For his part, Wanamaker is perfect as a man who is convinced of his own infallibility. He has a great moment when Paul proves that his interpretation of a musical passage in question is superior to Erskine’s. The conductor must grudgingly accept that Paul is right, but he doesn’t want to let anyone suspect he knows that Paul’s version is better. Wanamaker delivers Erskine’s response with insouciance, but we can tell that inside he’s seething.
The key performance, however, is Dreyfuss’s. Paul is a risky role for him, as his character is difficult to like. He’s sour-faced and ill-mannered, and Dreyfuss doesn’t try to soften him. Yet, we feel real sympathy for Paul. Every now and then, he has these fleeting moments of hope where we see the character come alive and, then, return to his bitter shell, as if terrified to be disappointed again. And Dreyfuss accomplishes this without having to rely on the tics and mannerisms that seep into many of his performances.
For all of Paul’s flaws, we never wonder why a fresh, talented, and intelligent woman like Heidi would be interested in him. The screenplay makes it clear that Heidi likes his neediness and imagines herself saving him. Irving finds the right balance between naivety and astuteness.
The piano concertos that fill the movie are a highlight. I wish that the film’s score had used notable piano concertos throughout because, in comparison, Lalo Schifrin’s score sounds like elevator music. The film doesn’t give the musical performances short shrift. Yes, it cuts some time from the concertos, which, if played in their entirety, would be about a half an hour long each, but the film treats the viewers to significant portions of them. Some reviewers complain that the film is overlong at 129 minutes, but that extra time is used well—in exploring the crucial concert performances on which the plot hinges.
The film is noted for the excellent piano faking provided by the actors. Indeed, to the untrained eye, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the actors pretending to play the piano and the real concert pianist Adam Stern, who plays the quietest and most enigmatic of the finalists.
Also, the film does a great job of allowing the audience to see, through subtle gestures, expressions, and camerawork, which character gives the best performance. The New York Times’s reviewer, Janet Maslin, criticizes the movie for “telegraphing” the winner and, thus, ruining the suspense. However, as the film makes clear, the winner isn’t always the person who gives the best performance. Just because we know who was the best does not mean that person will win.
The Competition doesn’t end with the announcement of the winner. One of the best scenes in any romance that I’ve seen comes after the competition when the couple is faced with the reality of the results. It’s set in a practice room with a flickering fluorescent light. The relentless hum of the light and its harshness makes a tense scene even more nerve-wracking. Unfortunately, after this scene, the film does not know how to end. The film is so realistic in its depiction of the characters and their relationship that it can’t find a satisfying ending. It’s too much like real life, which is a lot messier than movies.
Nevertheless, The Competition is a fascinating exploration of character and romance. The film has a simple premise: only one of the two people in this romance can win the competition. Yet, as simple as that seems, the characters imbue the story with engaging human complexities.