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Downhill Racer

Downhill Racer(1969)

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teaser Downhill Racer (1969)

Downhill Racer (1969) was a courageous project for Robert Redford. Not only was he using as his subject the comparably minor sport of competitive skiing, he allowed himself to play an unsympathetic character. Most leading men, especially those of Redford's stature, would be terrified of alienating his audience. The film was also important to Redford on another level; it proved his ability to make an independent film in the face of Hollywood skepticism. And it led to a project that remains dear to his heart.

Based on Oakley Hall's novel and with a screenplay by James Salter, Downhill Racer is a no-holds barred look at a champion skier. Unlike other sports films, which tend to romanticize events, there is no room for sentiment here. Redford's David Chappellet seems to have one focus in his life his single-minded determination to become number one, regardless of who he has to hurt to get there. Salter told Redford he wanted to base the character on Billy Kidd, one of the American skiers then racing at the 1968 Winter Olympics. Redford disagreed, preferring to model Chappellet on Spider Sabich, a teammate of Kidd's whose "reputation seemed to be based on his having broken his leg six or seven times." In the end, Chappellet was an amalgamation of the two: his background was similar to Kidd's but his personality was closer to Sabich's.

It was not a character Redford was used to playing and it made the studio nervous. Hollywood has always had built-in restrictions on casting against type and Redford found getting Paramount to finance the film a tough sell. To help with his argument, Redford convinced filmmaker Dick Barrymore to disguise himself and secretly shoot races at the 1968 Olympic Games in Grenoble, France. "I wanted to show Paramount that I could get the footage without spending a lot, so I got the writer, the photographer and some ski-bum assistants over to Grenoble on my own. We were holed up in one room in this dive by the river. And the French weren't letting people film the Olympics, so we had to use disguises to get by the guards. Like the photographer was pretty well known, so I fixed him up in a hairpiece and a false nose so he could get out on the slopes with his camera. He loved it. The ski bums shot a lot of footage too, but they couldn't get by the officials, so they swiped a sign from a refreshment vendor, put it in their car window, and got through that way. Every night we met at the room to see who was still alive. But we came back with 20,000 feet of film."

It worked. Paramount agreed, envisioning it with Roman Polanski at the helm; Polanski preferred to make Rosemary's Baby [1968] instead. Redford then took another gamble and chose Michael Ritchie; a television director with no feature film experience. He would later work with Redford on The Candidate [1972]. Ritchie chose to shoot the film in both 16mm and 35mm which gave the film the deliberate feel of a documentary. "I did not want the audience to feel that a director was 'designing' what they were seeing. We were aiming for a documentary feeling, as though cameras happened to be around while something real was happening."

Redford drove a snowmobile over a cliff only ten days before shooting began on Downhill Racer, tearing a tendon and having stitches to close a cut. Despite the pain, he did most of his own skiing but was doubled in scenes that required him to fall by twenty-three-year-old skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who played Tommy Erb in the film. Jalbert also shot action footage while following other skiers, which was made all the more remarkable because he was using heavy equipment. Jalbert later became a producer of ski films.

The film was released on November 6, 1969 in New York. Famed critic Richard Schickel's Life magazine review was nothing short of a love-fest, "Downhill Racer is precisely what we have waited so long to see a small, tense, expertly made (and, on occasion, surprisingly funny) film about a newly chic form of athletic competition Alpine skiing....That insistence on the heart of the matter, winning or losing, is not the least of Downhill's virtues, but there are others. Quite obviously, they include capturing on color film the sheer beauty of the white world in which racers live. Here the director, Michael Ritchie, splendidly exploits a couple of paradoxes. From a distance, the skiers seem to have the effortless natural grace of birds in flight. Close up, though, he makes us see they are engaged in a brutal, breath-stealing ordeal, and the contrast gripped me as strongly as anything I have recently seen on the screen."

According to John Fry in his book, The Story of Modern Skiing, "Over Redford's objections, Paramount marketed it as an action feature, then did little to promote it. Redford had conceived Downhill Racer as the first in a trilogy of films about the American mythology of success. He never completed the trilogy, but his discouraging experience with the studio led him to create the Sundance Institute at his Utah resort, and the Sundance Film Festival at Park City both dedicated to independent filmmaking and to repudiating the kind of Hollywood represented by Paramount's treatment of Downhill Racer. Thus did a minor controversy over a movie about ski racing inspire of one of the world's premiere film festivals."

Producer: Richard Gregson
Director: Michael Ritchie
Screenplay: James Salter, based on the novel by Oakley Hall
Cinematography: Brian Probyn
Art Direction: Ian Whittaker
Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Film Editing: Richard A. Harris
Cast: Robert Redford (David Chappellet), Gene Hackman (Eugene Claire), Camilla Sparv (Carole Stahl), Joe Jay Jalbert (Tommy Erb), Tom J. Kirk (Stiles), Dabney Coleman (Mayo).

by Lorraine LoBianco

Didinger, Ray and Macnow, Glen. The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies: Featuring the 100 Greatest Sports Films Encyclopedia of Film, October 1969
Fry, John. The Story of Modern Skiing
Hunter, Allan. Gene Hackman
The Internet Movie Database
Monaco, Paul. The Sixties, 1960-1969
Schickel, Richard. "The Brutal Beauty of Ski Racing: Downhill Racer with Robert Redford". Life 5 Dec 1969
Strong, Benjamin. "Downhill Racer, Almost Certainly the Greatest (non-German) Movie Ever Made About Competitive Alpine Skiing" 9 Sep 2009

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