Paper Chase, The (1973): James Bridges’ Overwrought, Oscar-Winning Law School Melodrama, Starring John Houseman, Timothy Buttons

The young director James Bridges made a mediocre movie that nonetheless became box-office sleeper out of John Jay Osborn Jr.’s novel Paper Chase.

Grade: C+ (**1/2* out of *****)

The Paper Chase
Poster of The Paper Chase.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Premise:

Timothy Bottoms (who made an impression in the 1971 The Last Picture Show) stars as the Minnesotan Hart, a brilliant but initially naive freshman at Harvard Law School. Like most of his fellow aspiring attorneys, Hart is in fearful awe of his demanding, ego-deflating instructor, Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman in grandly theatrical, overwrought performance).

Narrative Structure:

Based on John Jay Osborn Jr.’s 1971 novel The Paper Chase, it is the story of James Hart, a first-year law student at Harvard Law School, his experiences with Professor Charles Kingsfield, a brilliant but demanding contract law instructor, and Hart’s relationship with Kingsfield’s daughter.

Houseman earned the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as the professor. He later reprised the role in a TV series that lasted four seasons, following Hart (now played by James Stephens), through his 3 years of school.

James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) starts his first year at Harvard Law School in bad way. In his contract law course with Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. (John Houseman), Hart is unaware he was to read assigned case. When Kingsfield delves into the material using the Socratic method and asks Hart the first question, he’s unprepared, humiliated; he throws up in  bathroom.

Hart is invited to join study group with five other students:

Franklin Ford (Graham Beckel), fifth generation of Fords at Harvard
Kevin Brooks (James Naughton), married man with strong memory, but few analytical skills
Thomas Anderson (Edward Herrmann)
Willis Bell (Craig Richard Nelson), abrasive individual devoted to property law
O’Connor (Robert Lydiard)

While out getting pizza, Hart is asked Susan Fields (Lindsay Wagner) to walk her home; she’s uncomfortable about a man following her. Hart returns to her house and asks her on a date. They begin a complicated relationship, she his devotion to  studies, while he expects attention and firm commitment.

When Hart and his classmates are invited to party at Kingsfield’s, he is stunned to realize Susan is Kingsfield’s married daughter. (She is separated from her husband and gets a divorce.) She and Hart break up and reunite several times.

Hart categorizes his classmates into three groups: those who have given up; those who are trying but fear being called upon in class to respond to questions; and the “upper echelon” who actively volunteer to answer.

As time goes on, he moves from the second classification to the third.

Late one night, Hart and another student break into a secured room of the library and read personal notes Kingsfield had written as a law student.

The pressure, as the course nears its end, grows. When Hart gives Kingsfield a flippant answer, the professor gives him a dime and tells him, “Call your mother. Tell her there is serious doubt about your becoming a lawyer.”

Hart calls Kingsfield a “son of a bitch” and starts to walk out. Surprisingly, Kingsfield invites him to sit back down.

Brooks attempts suicide and drops out of school, and the study group is torn apart by bickering. Hart and Ford hole up in a hotel room for 3 days and prepare feverishly.

In its adaptation of the novel, the script adds two elements: Hart’s first name and middle initial (James T.), and his grade in contract law (93, an A).

In both novel and film, Hart makes a paper airplane out of the unopened letter with his grades and sends it into the ocean.

Cast

Timothy Bottoms as James T. Hart
Lindsay Wagner as Susan Fields
John Houseman as Charles W. Kingsfield Jr.
Graham Beckel as Franklin Ford III
James Naughton as Kevin Brooks
Edward Herrmann as Thomas Craig Anderson
Craig Richard Nelson as Willis ‘Liberty’ Bell
Bob Lydiard as O’Connor
Lenny Baker as William Moss, Tutor
David Clennon as Toombs
Regina Baff as Asheley Brooks
Blair Brown as Miss Farranti

Better known as a theatrical and film producer, John Houseman won an Oscar for his first important screen role; he’d played an unbilled cameo in 1964’s Seven Days in May).

The Oscar launched Houseman on a late but successful acting career, playing variations of Kingsfield.

Houseman also recreated the role for a Paper Chase TV series, which first ran on CBS, then on Public TV and on Showtime.

Top production values, especially Gordon Willis’ cinematography and John Williams score, made this rather murky, old-fashioned melodrama more enjoyable and commercial than anticipated (or deserved to be)

Oscar Nominations: 3

Supporting Actor: John Houseman

Screenplay (Adapted): James Bridges

Sound: Donald O. Mitchell and Lawrence O, Jost

Oscar Awards: 1

Supporting Actor

Oscar Context:

The Adapted Screenplay Oscar went to William Peter Blatty for The Exorcist, which also won the Sound Award.

Credits:

Directed by James Bridges
Screenplay by Bridges, based on The Paper Chase by John Jay Osborn Jr.
Produced by Rodrick Paul, Robert C. Thompson

Cinematography Gordon Willis
Edited by Walter Thompson
Music by John Williams
Distributed by 20th Century Fox

Release date: October 16, 1973

Running time: 111 minutes
Box office $3.6 million