I first became an Amy Irving fan when I saw The Fury (1978) on a VHS tape that I rented from the public library when I was about twelve years old. Irving is great in De Palma’s supernatural thriller, but she really impressed me in the underrated Crossing Delancey (1988). So obviously I knew that Irving was going to be the highlight of The Competition (1980). That isn’t meant as a knock against her leading man in the film, Richard Dreyfuss. It’s just that I have enjoyed Irving in everything I have seen her in and I have only really enjoyed Dreyfuss in What About Bob? (1991) and Inserts (1975).
The cast is everything in a film like The Competition. It’s a romantic drama about rivals falling in love that if you’ve seen it once you have seen it a hundred times. Circumstances may change, but the dramatic beats do not. And that’s alright in this instance because Irving, Dreyfuss, Sam Wanamaker and Lee Remick are all capable of taking two-dimensional characters and suggesting a life beyond what is seen on screen. Performance wise, the best parts of The Competition are those scenes between student and mentor, Irving and Remick.
Writer and director Joel Oliansky brings the workman like precision of his years working in television to The Competition. Most of the time the film looks fine, hitting all of the close-ups when expected and getting ample coverage of all the physical movement. Oliansky, a reputable connoisseur of music, is his most visually inspired during the recital sequences. In these scenes the cuts are quick, the shots highly varied, and the emotional subtext palpable.
Still all of this only makes The Competition a film of mediocre parts with a few good pieces. The Competition is an adequate entertainment that tells its story convincingly, nothing more. A degree or urgency or higher stakes beyond what is already present would be out of place given not just the tone of the film but the plot itself. The characters in The Competition are all well-to-do individuals pursuing a youthful ambition to become concert pianists which isn’t exactly an ingredient for a compulsively watchable soap opera.