The Paper Chase (1973)


Bil’s rating (out of 5):  BBBB.5

USA, 1973.  Thompson-Paul Productions, Twentieth Century Fox.  Screenplay by James Bridges, based on the novel by .  Cinematography by . Produced by , .  Music by .  Production Design by .  Film Editing by .  Academy Awards 1973.  Golden Globe Awards 1973National Board of Review Awards 1973.  

 arrives for his first year of Harvard Law and is immediately made a target by a legendary professor (theatrical and film producer John Houseman in his first major film acting role), who treats him with both derision and admiration depending on what the day’s case studies bring. Bottoms makes friends and starts a study group while romancing a beautiful woman () who turns out to be Houseman’s daughter, the difficulties of balancing the personal and academic tightening as the film progresses and the stakes get higher towards the year’s exam finals. The themes are murkily presented by James Bridges’ literate and beautiful screenplay, scholarly excellence rated against the need to be your best self for the people in your life never clearly delineated but presented as the overwhelming situations that our hero finds himself in. What does it matter that you amass degrees, certificates and licences in a life of paper chasing if they distance you from your own personal needs as well as your ability to connect with others?  Bottoms’ performance is plucky and attractive all throughout the entire film, and the intelligent direction keeps the whole thing feeling natural and compelling at the same time. In short, it’s hard to know how to feel about life after watching this movie, full of people wanting to be the best without really knowing why, but you have no doubt that you have watched something terrific. Houseman jump-started a late-life acting career with his Oscar-winning performance, including a four season-long stint on a television series based on this film; his final scene with Bottoms is superb.

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