Originally aired 3 Dec 1983
Written by Rod Browning
Directed by Noel Black
Starring Helen Hunt, Don Murray, Barbara Babcock, John Stockwell, and Dana Elcar
My rating: ★★★ stars
Amiable made-for-TV movie explores the real-life story of a young woman who managed to be a football quarterback and a homecoming princess.
I love TV movies from the 1980s. They’re so refreshingly unpretentious. Without the pressure of having to impress critics or accrue box office revenue, they often took chances, exploring stories that would be considered too mundane, or too melodramatic, or too frivolous to be a theatrical feature. While they aren’t always creatively successful, they are entertaining. Sadly, sometime in the 1990s, they became tragically repetitive—the whole woman-in-jeopardy plot being recycled endlessly. Soon, network television got out of the original movie business.
Quarterback Princess is a particularly well-known example of the made-for-TV movie because it stars the then unknown actress Helen Hunt. As with many television movies, it was based on a true story, in this case, that of Tami Maida, the first known high school football player who also became the school’s homecoming princess. Additionally, Tim Robbins (also unknown then and also a future Oscar winner) appears in a small role as Hunt’s lumbering teammate, Marvin Blaylock.
Much of the film is focused on the opposition Maida faces as a female football player, which, even today, is unusual (although more common now than when Maida played 35 years ago). In this respect, the film thematically mirrors Coach (1978), where a female basketball coach must prove herself to the sexists around her who are rooting for her to fail. Quarterback Princess locates most of the opposition onto the figure of Mr. Caine (Dana Elcar), the most powerful man in town, mirroring Keenan Wynn’s role in Coach. In Coach, Wynn’s grandson is one of the first to support the female coach while in Quarterback Princess it’s Mr. Caine’s son, B.J. (Beau Dremann), the team’s center. In fact, the team quickly rallies to Maida’s side, recognizing her ability and supporting her against hostile townspeople and other students.
The quick acceptance of Maida by the team wastes some dramatic possibilities and rings untrue—in fact, in an interview, Maida said that she experienced ongoing aggression from some of her teammates. Her role as a quarterback requires her to call plays and direct the team, yet none of the teammates voice any doubts about her abilities in this area or prickle at the idea of being led by a girl.
In the movie, with the exception of Mr. Caine, most of the opposition Maida faces is from other women, who react to Maida’s adoption of a role atypical of her gender. Some of the women are won over by the fact that Maida is pretty and feminine and, thus, doesn’t threaten their notions of gender too much. Although it is never stated outright—the closest the movie comes is using the word “unnatural”—the fear that Maida is a lesbian is put to rest. Others find her gender conformity, her femininity, even more of a challenge to comprehend. At one point, Maida’s mother (Barbara Babcock) says, “To them, you represent a world that they just don’t understand.” Maida’s parents are unusually supportive for parents in teen movies. They back her at every turn. Unfortunately, that leaves Don Murray, who plays her father, with little to do despite his top billing.
The movie makes a few changes from the real-life story for dramatic effect, such as having Tami join the varsity team instead of the junior varsity and turning Tami’s boyfriend Scott (John Stockwell) from a casual dating partner into a significant romantic interest. Overall, however, Maida claims the movie was accurate. Her one criticism was that Hunt’s aloof performance didn’t reflect her outgoing personality. While the performance may not have been true-to-life, the sensitive portrayal allows Hunt to show a deeper, more mature character. (In the movie, Tami is two years older than she was in real life when the story happened.) Hunt is very good at conveying her character’s confusion about what is expected of her, what she wants to be, and where she fits into the world. One thing worth noting about Hunt’s performance is how well she adopts a subtly athletic gait. She moves like a football player without overdoing it and telegraphing her performance to the audience.
We may live in an age where such overt sexism as that which Maida faced is less prevalent. However, issues over gender and gender roles continue to occupy the public discussion. Quarterback Princess may, on its surface, reflect the concerns of second wave feminism—allowing women into previously male-dominated positions—but, at a deeper level, it also confronts 21st century questions of gender performance.