First released in 1971, Drive, He Said tells the story of two college roommates.
Hector (William Tepper) is a star basketball player who everyone expects to turn pro. His intense coach (Bruce Dern) is always yelling at him to stop fooling around on the court but Hector is more interested in fooling around elsewhere as he’s having an affair with Olive (Karen Black), the wife of a self-styled “hip” philosophy professor named Richard (Robert Towne).
Gabriel (Michael Margotta) is Hector’s best friend. They live together, even though Hector’s coach thinks that Gabriel is a bad influence. Gabriel is a self-styled campus radical. He has a devoted group of followers who will do just about anything that he tells them to do. Gabriel is big into guerilla theater and symbolic protests. Nothing he does seems to add up too much but, unlike Hector, he’s good at giving speeches.
Together, they worry about the draft!
Of course, they’re both worrying about two different types of drafts. Hector is worried about the NBA draft and whether he should enter it. He’s been playing basketball for as long as he can remember. The only thing that he’s really good at is playing basketball. And yet, Hector isn’t sure if he wants to spend the rest of his life taking orders from his coaches and devoting every minute to playing the game. However, Hector’s worked himself into a corner. When one NBA official asks him what he’s going to do if he’s not drafted, Hector admits that he doesn’t know. When asked what his major is, Hector replies, “Greek.”
Gabriel, on the other hand, is worried about being drafted into the military and being sent to Vietnam. Gabriel considers himself to be a revolutionary but it soon becomes clear that he really doesn’t have much of a plan for how to start his revolution. Indeed, the film suggests that his activism is more about his own insecurity over his own sexuality than anything else. Gabriel particularly seems to be obsessed with Hector’s affair with Olive. While Hector reaches new highs on the court, Gabriel comes closer and closer to having a psychotic break.
Drive, He Said was one of the many “campus rebellion” films that were released in the early 70s and, much like Getting Straight, it’s definitely a product of its time. Today, it it’s known for anything, it’s for being the directorial debut of actor Jack Nicholson. (Nicholson has said that, before he was cast in Easy Rider, he was actually planning on abandoning acting and pursuing a career as a director.) The film features many of the flaws the are typically present in directorial debuts. The pacing is terrible, with some scenes ending too quickly while others seem to go on forever. At times, the film feels a bit overstylized as Nicholson mixes jump cuts, odd camera angles, and slow motion to little effect. It’s very much a film about men, so much so that the film’s ultra-masculinity almost verges on self-parody.
And yet, there are moments of isolated brilliance to be found in Drive, He Said. Some of the shots are genuinely impressive and the army induction scene shows that Nicholson could direct comedy, even if he does let the scene drag on for a bit too long. Though Nicholson doesn’t appear in the film, his approach to the story features his trademark cynicism and sense of fatalism. Though he was often associated with the counterculture, Nicholson was more a member of the Beat generation than of the hippies. As such, Drive, He Said has more in common with Jack Kerouac than Abbie Hoffman. Drive, He Said is definitely an anti-establishment film but, at the same time, it doesn’t make the mistake of glorifying Gabriel or his followers. Gabriel, with his constant demand that everyone join him in his ill-defined revolution, is almost as overbearing as basketball coach and, towards the end of the film, he commits an act of violence that leaves no doubt that his “revolution” is all about his own self-gratification. The film is less a polemic and more a portrait of people trying to find their identity during a time of political and cultural upheaval.
The film’s biggest flaw is that neither William Tepper or Michael Margotta really have the charisma necessary to carry a movie, especially one in which even the main characters often do unlikable things. Tepper is dull while Margotta overacts and, at times, comes across as if he’s trying too hard to imitate his director. It falls to the film’s supporting cast to provide the energy that Tepper and Margotta lack. Fortunately, Bruce Dern and Karen Black are both perfectly cast. Bruce Dern seems to be having a blast as the fanatical basketball coach while Karen Black brings a fierce intelligence to the role of Oliva, an intelligence that one gets the feeling wasn’t really in the original script. Considering how misogynistic every other character in the film is, it’s impossible not to cheer when Olive announces, “I’m not going with anybody, anywhere.”
(For whatever reason, there was a definite strain of misogyny that seemed to run through the majority of the late 60s and early 70s counterculture films. Just consider the amount of time Getting Straight devoted to Elliott Gould shouting at Candice Bergen.)
Drive, He Said is flawed but interesting. As a director, Nicholson understood how to frame a shot but he wasn’t quite sure how to tell a cohesive story. That said, the film itself is a definite time capsule of a very specific cultural moment.