Sometimes, I come across things on my DVR that I not only have no memory of recording but which I also cannot, for the life of me, figure out why I decided to record it in the first place. I recorded the 1977 film One On One off of TCM on January 17th and I’m not really sure why.
It’s not that One On One is a terrible movie or anything like that. It’s an extremely predictable film and it’s got one of those soundtracks that is extremely 70s but not cool disco-style 70s. No, instead this film is full of the type of soft rock music that your grandmother listens to while driving to the local CVS Pharmacy. (The majority of the songs are performed by a group called Seals and Croft and are painfully undanceable.) But, even with that in mind, it’s not really a bad movie. If I’m confused about why I recorded it, it’s because One on One is a movie about basketball, which is a sport that holds absolutely zero interest for me.
(My main issue with basketball has to do with the sound of all of those squeaky shoes on the court.)
But, before going any further, let’s watch a commercial:
One on One tells the story of Henry Steele (Robby Benson), a high school basketball star. Henry is from Colorado, which this film seems to suggest is the equivalent of coming from Siberia. When Moreland Smith (G.D. Spradlin). the renowned coach of Western University’s basketball team, offers Henry a full athletic scholarship, Henry negotiates a pretty good deal for himself. Not only is his education going to be paid for but he also wins a guarantee that he’ll never be cut from the team and that his father will get a car. All Henry has to do is keep his grades up but that shouldn’t be a problem. Sure, Henry appears to be an idiot but the athletic department will set him up with a tutor and, as long as the coach is happy with him, it’s not like Henry’s actually going to have to go to class.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Henry picks up a hitchhiker (a very young Melanie Griffith) who promptly robs him of all of his money. Once he arrives at the university, he discovers that Coach Smith is not going to be the surrogate father figure that he was expecting. Instead, Coach Smith is a rather cold and ruthless taskmaster, whose main concern is winning. When Henry, who is by far the shortest player on the team, struggles, Smith tells Henry that he needs to renounce his scholarship and return home. When Henry refuses to do so, Smith becomes obsessed with trying to break him.
As Henry’s roommate, Tom (Cory Faucher), points out, Henry’s head is not in the game. Instead, Henry can’t stop thinking about his tutor, Janet (Annette O’Toole). At first, Janet assumes that Henry is just a dumb jock, largely because Henry’s a jock and he spends the first half of the movie acting really, really dumb. Then, out of nowhere, Henry reveals that he’s not only read Moby Dick but he can quote passages from memory. In fact, Henry even understands that Ahab was — wait for it — obsessed! Oh my God, Janet realizes, Henry’s literate! In fact, Janet exclaims that Henry is the first person she’s met who has actually read Moby Dick! (Really?) Janet and Henry fall in love but, unfortunately, Janet is already dating her psychology professor.
(The professor has got a beard that looks like it reeks of stale weed and he says stuff like, “Have you seen my sandals?,” so we know better than to take him seriously when he compares the popularity of college athletics to the rise of fascism. When Henry accuses him of being a hippie, the professor just smirks and says something condescending. Stupid hippie.)
Will Janet and Henry fall in love? Will Janet dump her unattractive and unappealing boyfriend so she can date Henry? Will Henry manage to pass his classes? Will Henry ever get a chance to prove himself on the court? Will … oh, why even ask these questions? You already know what’s going to happen in this movie. There’s really not a single unexpected moment to be found in One on One. Everything about the film, from the coach’s ruthlessness to Henry’s transformation from idiot to savvy player, feels pre-ordained. It’s a predictable movie but, at the same time, it’s a likable movie. At the start of the film, Benson overplays Henry’s stupidity and O’Toole overplays Janet’s brittleness but, at the film progresses, both performers seem to relax and, by the time the end credits role, they’re actually a fairly likable couple. Benson even gets a killer final line, one that I imagine made audiences in 1977 applaud.
That said, the film is pretty much stolen by G.D. Spradlin. Spradlin was a former Oklahoma oilman who reinvented himself as a politician and then as a character actor. Best known for playing Senator Pat Geary in The Godfather, Part II, Spradlin had a flair for bringing casually corrupt authority figures to life. In One on One, Spradlin turns Coach Smith into a Mephistophelean figure, offering Henry success at the cost of his soul. Coach Smith is arrogant, oily, casually racist, and an all-around jerk but, at the same time, it is also obvious that he knows how to lead a team to victory. The great thing about Spradlin’s performance is to be found in not just how menacing he is but in how charismatic he is. You never doubt that Coach Smith is both a lousy human being and an absolutely brilliant coach. If nothing else, he’s good at his job.
As I said at the start of this review, I am not really sure why I recorded One on One but it turned out to be better than I was expecting. It is a flawed and uneven film but worth watching for Spradlin’s intriguingly villainous turn.