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National Velvet (1944), the story of a girl and her horse who win the Grand National race, made Elizabeth Taylor a star, and the idol of every horse-loving pre-pubescent girl. International Velvet (1978) is the long-delayed sequel, picking up the story some 25 years later. A middle-aged Velvet becomes the guardian of her orphaned, American-bred niece Sarah, and the young girl becomes a member of the British Olympic equestrian team. Taylor, in fact, had been pursued to reprise the role of a grown-up Velvet but she eventually declined, and the part was played by Nanette Newman, wife of the director Bryan Forbes.
Tatum O'Neal certainly had the talent and charisma to be a worthy successor to the young Elizabeth Taylor. O'Neal was ten years old when she won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award® for her performance in Paper Moon (1973). She is the youngest winner of a competitive Oscar® to date. For her next film, The Bad News Bears (1976), O'Neal became the highest-paid child actor in history. By 1978, O'Neal was 14 and ready to make the onscreen transition from adolescent to young woman. International Velvet provided a graceful yet difficult means of doing so: the character of Sarah ages from 10 to 18 in the course of the film.
O'Neal also faced other challenges on International Velvet. She was an inexperienced rider, so the producers hired a professional equestrian trainer for her before production began. After working with Tatum, the trainer, Marcia Williams, said the young star was "an exceptionally fast learner. She was doing in one month what many new riders take four or five months to learn. If she wanted to take up riding seriously, she could become outstanding." During production in England, four British and American Olympic medalists also worked with Tatum.
Critics also found O'Neal's performance medal-worthy. Vincent Canby, in the New York Times, wrote "she is very, very good - straightforward, direct, sometimes sweet and sometimes astonishingly grave." And the Variety critic noted, "what is sometimes known as the awkward age is upon her, but far from being a handicap, this is a very propitious transition." They also had high praise for Newman, Christopher Plummer, and particularly Anthony Hopkins, who played O'Neal's trainer.
Jeffrey Byron, who played O'Neal's romantic interest in International Velvet, is the son of actress Anna Lee. He has had a long career as an actor in such soap operas as The Bold and the Beautiful and Port Charles.
International Velvet was a change of pace for British writer-director Bryan Forbes, whose early films were notable for their sensitive portrayals of everyday British life, with superb performances by the actors. With International Velvet, Forbes not only showed his usual skill with actors and characterization, he showed a real flair for working on the larger canvas of the international Olympic competition. Reviews for the film were mixed, but even those who quibbled found much to like. As Canby wrote, "International Velvet sneaks up on you in unexpectedly moving ways."
Producer/Director: Bryan Forbes
Screenplay: Bryan Forbes, Enid Bagnold (novel)
Cinematography: Tony Imi
Film Editing: Timothy Gee
Art Direction: Keith Wilson
Music: Francis Lai
Cast: Tatum O'Neal (Sarah Brown), Christopher Plummer (John Seaton), Anthony Hopkins (Capt. Johnny Johnson), Nanette Newman (Velvet Brown), Peter Barkworth (Pilot), Dinsdale Landen (Mr. Curtis).
by Margarita Landazuri