Despite an uneven career, he was a master of intelligent satire, says Chris Willman

By Chris Willman
Updated April 30, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Michael Ritchie: Frank Trapper/Corbis Sygma’s tribute to ”Downhill Racer” director Michael Ritchie

In the 1970s, if you thought of filmic satire, chances are director Michael Ritchie would be the first to come to mind. (Nowadays you probably hardly think of it at all, so rarely is this type of serious wit even attempted in the movies.) Ritchie, who died of prostate cancer complications last week at age 62, specialized in narratives having to do with the American competitive spirit — a subject that’s rife with chuckles, especially when played straight. This lanky, literate Harvard grad was the unlikely king of sports movies, starting with his 1969 feature debut, ”Downhill Racer,” and moving on to the more comedic ”Bad News Bears,” ”Semi-Tough,” ”Diggstown,” and ”The Scout.” But some of his best pictures took on other kinds of contests: politics in ”The Candidate,” beauty pageants in ”Smile,” and cutthroat pompom rivalries in ”The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom.”

That last film, a celebrated 1993 cable feature that helped put HBO movies on the map, represented his comeback as a master satirist after a dry spell of overly commercial pictures. It may have sounded like a comedy, but in his eyes, it was just a really, really funny drama. ”There are no jokes in ‘Cheerleader Murdering Mom,”’ Ritchie asserted when I talked to him not long after he won a DGA award for best director for the telefeature. ”I fought HBO a lot about the labeling of it as a comedy, and to a certain extent won. But there were still people who insisted on advertising and referring to it that way.” Of course, there was that smirk inducing title — which was Ritchie’s doing, after all. ”Jane Andersen’s original title was about half that long. I added all the extra words. And when Bob Cooper of HBO raised his eyebrows, I said ‘Think of the space you’ll get in TV Guide.”’

The high point of his career, he felt, was a ”Cheerleader Murdering” scene in which titular mom Holly Hunter and wiretapped informant Beau Bridges discuss a murder plot in a car for 10 unedited minutes, or the length of the film in the camera. ”It sounds ad libbed, but every um, uh, and er came from the court transcript” — a lawyer dictated mandate that was especially tough on the actors. ”We shot it 11 times, and consistently, take after take, Holly and Beau got a standing ovation from the crew,” Ritchie told me in 1994. ”That was thrilling. The only time I’d had an experience like that before was when on ‘Smile,’ we staged the beauty pageant, and nobody knew who was gonna win, and the audience voted, and the girls were really crying at the end when they won real prizes. And it wouldn’t have mattered if the film hadn’t turned out as good as it did, that night was just so exhilarating.”

Not everything in Ritchie’s ouevre was so thrilling. It’s difficult to think of any director, ever, who had a more consistently uneven career. Once the market for satire dried up, he became better known for lower common denominator ’80s comedy vehicles like ”Fletch” and ”The Golden Child.” A 1993 piece by Bernard Weinraub in the New York Times, while mostly flattering, ran under a headline referring to ”the director’s roller coaster career.”

”All you really want to do is keep making movies,” Ritchie later told me. ”One reasonable success can buy you another three or four years’ work.” Even his most negligible pictures had their moments, especially when Ritchie indulged his penchant for getting media types and others to play themselves — straight — which inevitably results in the funniest kind of satire of all.

When notoriously persnickety critic John Simon picked a list of the five best modern American movies, three of them — ”Downhill Racer,” ”The Candidate,” and ”Smile” — were Ritchie’s. Albert Brooks, who asked Ritchie to direct him in ”The Scout,” also had high praise. ”Michael has made some really wonderful American movies,” Brooks told me on the ”Scout” set. ”With ‘The Candidate’ he was one of the first guys to be doing handheld and semi-improvisational. He can be very experimental. Barring a few of the Chevy Chase movies, he has fine taste. He’s this very sort of quiet man who’s got a great deal of intelligence. When you’re a director and you have to go take jobs, every movie can’t be the smartest movie you ever took. But his eyes light up when he gets a challenge.”

Ritchie’s last great challenge was making — and then getting released — his dream movie, an adaptation of the long running stage musical ”The Fantasticks.” Even in this exquisitely rendered celebration of barely spoiled innocence, he found something to satirize: the vagaries of puppy love. But essentially it’s the movie that best reveals this onetime cutting edge director of the 1970s as the softie he really was. Ritchie told me that in the dozens of times he’d seen ”The Fantasticks” on stage since 1961 (and even as he watched his own leading actors sing their parts live on location), he always teared up when they got to the show’s bittersweet closing number, ”They Were You.” Now that he’s gone, the man who taught many of us who came up in the ’70s the meaning of ”satirize” has left us, too, with sadder eyes.