Goldengirl (1979) – A Review

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A review of the 1979 sports drama Goldengirl, starring Susan Anton, James Coburn, Curt Jurgens and Robert Culp, about a woman who is engineered to be the perfect Olympic athlete

Curt Jergens is a Neo-Nazi doctor who believes he can create the perfect athletic human being. He has gone about to prove his theory by making his adopted daughter Goldine (that’s Anton) his test subject.

Since she was a child her father has injected her with hormones, vitamins, steroids and she has undergone intense physical training. She has also been conditioned to perform in simulated press conferences and interviews to give the perfect answers. Goldine’s mind has been manipulated just as much as her body. She has been created to be the perfect Olympic champion. 

Now grown into this superior athlete, ‘Goldengirl’, which she is affectionately known, she can embark on her historic Olympic victory by winning three gold medals in three individual races. 

Goldengirl-1979-Curt-Jurgens-Susan-Anton-sports-dramaBy achieving this impossible victory surely money can be made from it. That’s the job of PR agent James Coburn, who will parlay this beautiful runner into a beloved brand where she can be the spokeswoman for running sneakers, endorse airline companies, have her own clothing lines and have her pretty face on Wheaties boxes!

Before she can get into the record books and be this worldwide recognized athlete, two questions are yet to be answered – can Goldengirl win all three races? And how else has all this conditioning by her father and psychologist Leslie Caron affected her?

Before I get to the film, I think it would be good to step back and remember who Susan Anton was. I doubt most under the age of 40 are too familiar with her and don’t realize just what a popular figure she was during the 1970s.

Susan-Anton-Collage-poster-fan-club-muriel-cigar-1970sAfter having been Miss California, in 1976 Anton really caught people’s attention when she beat out 400 hopefuls and became the spokeswoman for Muriel Cigars. The 5’11 blonde with her wide white smile appeared in a series of commercials where she sexily sang the company jingle while looking gorgeous. Appearing on television and in print ads with the tagline “Where there’s Muriel smoke, there’s fire”, the campaign was a huge success for Muriel and catapulted Anton into the spotlight. 

From there Anton appeared on talk shows, singing on variety shows, performing on Bob Hope specials and was featured in her own pinup posters that would adorn the bedroom walls of teens.

Dudley-Moore-Susan-Anton-dating-tall-height-differenceIn 1979 Time Magazine listed her as one of The Most Promising Faces to keep an eye on. Later she would regularly pop up in the gossip columns thanks to the romances in her personal life, dating Sylvester Stallone and notably 5’2 comedic actor Dudley Moore. The tabloids loved to feature photos of the diminutive Moore and the towering Anton together on red carpets.

For the the two years they dated, Moore and Anton were one of the most popular Hollywood couples. They were on magazine covers, did interviews together. They would get press attention everywhere they went. Her relationship with Moore is probably one of the main things most people remember most about Anton today.

Anton never really had a break-out project. Sure she was recognized from TV commercials selling cigars and Serta mattresses, guest starring on TV shows and her pinup posters were a fixture during the 1970s. People knew who she was, but not really from anything specific. She wasn’t a Charlie’s Angel or anything like that.

She did try to parlay her recognition and attention she was getting into projects, but they never really took off. She had a short-lived variety show that ended very quickly. She was more of a general ‘entertainment personality’. There was no real singular successful ‘Susan Anton Project’. 

Susan-Anton-Goldengirl-1979-movie-posterThat about brings us to Goldengirl. It seems like it was a film that was eager to capitalize on her popularity at the time and would help cement Anton as being the next ‘Farrah’.

It would be her film debut where she would play the title role. Her statuesque striking beauty would be an essential part of the story. The film would even feature her singing on the soundtrack.

Goldengirl would be an Olympic-themed sports film made even more timely by coinciding with the upcoming 1980 Olympic Games. A four-hour version of the film would premiere on NBC and air over the course of two nights on NBC during its Olympic coverage. It was also even potentially positioned to be a pilot movie for a weekly series.

I’m not exactly sure what type of television series NBC thought of making out of Goldengirl. I imagine something like a Six Million Dollar Man or The Bionic Woman, an action show with Goldengirl hired to go out on special missions every week and outrun bad guys, catch them and hand them over to the police. It’s just a guess.

It was a all planned to be an event film that would have done the job of associating Anton with a high profile project and the public would forever associate her as ‘The Goldengirl’. They surrounded Anton with a notable cast of experienced actors – James Coburn, Curt Jurgens, Robert Culp, Leslie Caron, Harry Guardino. It would be helmed by veteran director Joseph Sargent (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) and a score by composer Bill Conti. It all sounded encouraging. 

Goldengirl-1979-sports-runner-movie-Susan-Anton-athlete

Unfortunately, the promise of Goldengirl being a big successful film event starring Anton fell apart. Ironically, the story behind the film is much more compelling than the film itself. Learning how this ‘event film’ from 1979 was hoped to be, today only exists in a truncated 104 minute cut. But I’ll get back to that.

There’s a lot of compelling elements within the story that can be explored. You have this radical genetically altered body and mind conditioning. Profits being made exploding this woman who is trained to smile, pose and always be charismatic when she’s in front of reporters. The high demands from her adopted father she feels obligated to fulfill.

Goldengirl-1979-Olympic-sports-drama-Susan-Anton-runnerThere’s the questionable ethics of doing all this? The dangers? A chance to satirize the partnerships between sports and business and the commercialism of athletes. And the fact Goldengirl has had no real choice in the life she now exists in.

Based on the book by Peter Lovesey, Goldengirl sounds like it could be a pretty intriguing sports tale! My mind would go racing with what awaited me. I started to imagine Ivan Drago in Rocky IV and all that intense scientific training the Russians used on him to make an indestructible fighting machine. We wondered, how did poor Ivan really feel about his life.

It’s a good premise, which makes it even more disappointing when you discover that Goldengirl barely scratches the surface of any of those interesting questions and settles into being quite a drab sports drama.

It’s a shame too. The opening credits show Goldengirl being electronically shocked and ordered to continually sprint into a wall. It’s a great tease. The visual is intriguing and makes me want to learn more about the reasoning as to why she is being made to do this tortuous training and the thinking behind it. We never find out. 

One of the most interesting things is Jurgens being so focused and driven in perfecting his Aryan daughter athlete. He dismisses any questioning of how its affecting Goldine mentally. It’s pretty rich terrain to start to explore. His whole background and the ethics of this experimenting he’s done to her is glossed over and barely registers.

Goldengirl-1979-sports-drama-Susan-Anton-Curt-JurgensYou might think, by trying to create this perfect beautiful Frankenstein of an athlete, with all this meddling with the mind and body, there would be some major hiccups and physical risks to Goldie. Mysterious physical ailments do start occurring to her and clearly there begins to be something wrong.

But it doesn’t really factor in or become much of a challenge for Goldengirl to overcome and continue to rack up her wins on the track. There is never any real dramatic repercussions to Goldengirl or guilt by those around her.

There’s no suspense, excitement or exhilaration as Goldie gets closer and closer to achieving her historic three wins. It’s odd. We get word that sponsorship offers are being made and reporter Culp has taken interest in her story, but there’s no sense of a media frenzy over what should be a headline making athlete. There’s also very little turmoil or tension unfolding to the characters in the back locker room.

It’s like they thought of this premise for the story, but forgot to include any drama on the road to getting this historic victory. 

Then there’s a trite romance between Coburn and Goldengirl – and it’s not the least bit convincing. It’s not given any emotional weight and breezes by so quickly it barely registers. I had to keep reminding myself in the second half of the movie, “Oh yeah, I guess those two are in love now”.

James-Coburn-Susan-Anton-Goldengirl-1979-sports-dramaCoburn appears to have a conflict of conscience of whether all this exploitation of Goldie is right and considers whether he should pull out of this deal and not have any part of it. It’s another interesting dramatic road the film has the opportunity to go down. When do his morals kick in and trump his desire to profit from this woman?

However, that conflict of conscience withers away and he’s back again and again rooting for her to win the races. It’s rather confusing.

There’s a lot in the film that plays out very strangely. Goldie arrogantly ordering Coburn to kiss her feet after winning her first medal is very odd and seems to come out of nowhere with her abrupt attitude change. It kills any sympathy she’s built up to that point.

There’s no mysteries to be revealed or left turns the story takes. There is a ‘twist’ as to how all this conditioning has affected Goldie, but it doesn’t end up becoming much of a hurdle in her race for her third gold. It begins to look like it’s setting up for a tragic, ironic finale, which could have left an impact. It doesn’t though. The ending is as unmemorable, as most of the rest of the film. 

Without even knowing of the longer version of Goldengirl existed, the film feels like there’s a lot missing from it. And in its current short version Goldengirl is not very good. It very much plays like a standard, subpar, ‘movie of the week’.

Whatever happened to that epic 184 minute two-night version of Goldengirl? When the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games in protest over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, NBC had to cancel all it’s Olympic programming. Suddenly, featuring a film about an enhanced blonde bombshell of an athlete trying to win the Olympic gold at the Moscow games seemed pointless to air.

Goldengirl-1979-movie-film-poster-Susan-Anton-James-Coburn-Robert-CulpA shorter version of Goldengirl was given a theatrical release. It’s unclear whether this was part of NBC’s original overall plan, but more likely it was a way they thought they could salvage some money from their costly investment. It didn’t much help though, since Goldengirl bombed at the box office.

Apparently NBC did end up eventually airing a longer cut of Goldengirl sometime in January 1981. From the website Ultimate70s.com, it has the television schedule for January 8, 1981. According to the television listing on their site, NBC did air Goldengirl in a three-hour time slot. The ‘Two-night Goldengirl event’ went down to a single night showing.

Goldengirl-1979-film-NBC-tv-air-date-1981This was the shorter 117 minute cut of the film, much shorter than the original planned two-night, four-hour version. Somewhere along the lines this television version of Goldengirl vanished and it got cut down even further to a truncated 104 minute version, which today is now the only available version you can get of Goldengirl today.

Goldengirl-1979-Olympic-sports-movie-Susan-AntonAny longer version of the film seems to not exist anywhere. Even Kino Lorber, which recently released a DVD of Goldengirl – the first time it was made available on the format – is the shorter 104 minute cut.

Director Sargent would later say the full extended cut of the film addressed the Nazi affiliation of Jurgens. It also had the scenes with Jessica Walter (who is the cast list), but is nowhere to be found in the shorter cut. 

Unfortunately, I haven’t found anyone having the longer cuts of Goldengirl – and honestly, I don’t think anyone is really looking for it. The film doesn’t have a lot of fans, so there’s not a lot of outcry to ‘Release The Extended Cut of Goldengirl‘. I’d wager it’s probably not very likely the extended version of the film will ever come to light. 

My best guess is that the longer cut of Goldengirl would have explored and opened up the story more. The ninety minute abridged version really feels like it was cut down and a lot of the more dramatic elements that were intended was lost. It feels like exactly as it was – a choppy, cutdown version of a longer more complex tale. Watching it, you quickly get the sense that there was something more here.

Susan-Anton-1979-Goldengirl-Olympic-sports-drama-athleteNow, I’m not saying extended cut of Goldengirl probably made it a great film. Actually no one knows. But I would guess it had to have improved some of it and explained things better. As it stands now, the version of Goldengirl that we can watch today, is not very good and there’s little in it that kept me engaged.

There’s no question that Anton is incredibly good looking and the film is keen on highlighting how good she looks. There’s a cheesy montage of Anton running and training with her singing the title song ‘Slow Down I’ll Find You’ . Fans who decide to watch it just to gawk at Anton will be rewarded. She does look great and there’s plenty of scenes of her wearing her short running shorts showing off her long legs with her blond feathered ’70s do flowing in the breeze.

Susan-Anton-in-Goldengirl-1979-tv-movie-sports-drama-Olympic-athleteIt’s not a star making performance she gives though. Some of her scenes play unintentionally comical. Other than her physical appearance, I don’t think there’s much else she offers in Goldengirl

You have to swallow pretty hard to accept the romance between Anton and Coburn. Aside from their age difference and the visual of them together, they don’t have any kind of chemistry. In fact, Anton doesn’t really generate any kind of sparks onscreen. She might be a terrific live performer, but acting on film was not her strong suit. Some of Anton’s scene’s where she’s acting hysterical or angry she isn’t very convincing.

By the way, it is somewhat jarring to see Coburn in his ’70s threads and feathered hairstyle. It’s funny to see some of the middle-aged actors during the 1970s trying to hip up their looks and try to pull off the gaudy styles that were prevalent in the 1970s. They usually look so awkward when they did that.

You’ll catch Michael Lerner and Culp showing up as a sports reporter. Seeing him in such a thankless small role is kind of surprising. I figured he would have better things to do with his time, but maybe it was just an easy gig for him. Or perhaps in the extended version of the film he had more to do and most of his scenes were cut, like Jessica Walter’s role got removed.

Goldengirl is not a ‘so bad it’s good movie’ or could be categorized as a guilty pleasure. Despite my curiosity about the longer version, I doubt it was ever a film that would have been great. Maybe if it’s ever found it could help the film reach cult status, but that’s questionable even.

Maybe it needed more scenes like Anton ordering Coburn to kiss her feet. More of those kind of strange scenes might’ve elevated Goldengirl to becoming a cult classic. Maybe the film probably should’ve leaned more into that kind of stuff. As the version of Goldengirl stands it’s just rather….drab. 

I think mainly the ones who would be interested in watching Goldengirl today are those who grew up during the ’70s, were enamored with Anton in their youth and had her pinup posters on their bedroom wall. At the very least, Goldengirl offers up some beautiful images of Anton and gave some new posters for her teen fans to buy and stare at. 

Susan-Anton-actress-model-singer-sexy-1979-Goldengirl-movie-pinup-posterAnton would never be the star in another film. She would continue to act, sing and perform in movies, TV and on stage, but never got the big opportunity that Goldengirl offered her.

Today most audiences remember her from her role in Cannonball Run II (alongside Catherine Bach driving the red Lamborghini Countach LP 500), her recurring role on Baywatch and for being on the arm of Dudley Moore.

Goldengirl could have been a fun time capsule film. A point in time when Anton was the en vogue showbiz personality, television events were the rage and 1980 Olympics was making headlines. Instead   Goldengirl has become a forgotten television movie of the week.

But at least Anton looked great wearing her golden short shorts!

 

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