Classic Film Review: Nicholson directs a social satire in basketball shorts — “Drive, He Said” (1971)

The mid-60s into the early ’70s were the golden age of film satire, or so my grad school professors insisted. And Oscar-winner-to-be Jack Nicholson was right in the thick of it — “Easy Rider,” “Head,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Carnal Knowledge.”

So it shouldn’t be a shock that the man, a star on the rise, should take his first shot at directing a film during this “Lolita/Doctor Strangelove/Magic Christian/M*A*S*H/The Loved One” heyday.

The meanest take on “Drive, He Said,” a social-unrest-on-campus tale centered around college hoops, is that Jack made a deal with the devil to film it. All those decades of appearances at Lakers games? Atonement for the sh—y basketball the cinema’s favorite reprobate and most beloved hoops fan put on film here.

Jesus, Jack.

The premise is that a star playing for “Ohio” something-or-other university — actually “University of Oregon” because they filmed it in Eugene and used U-O colors — has a sort of existential crisis thanks to the Vietnam War, the “love the one you’re with” open marriage sexuality and the generational values clash he faces as he decides what to do with his life.

Hector (William Tepper) is tall, talented and Jewish, and an older Nicholson might have made some sort of “Great Hebrew Hope” joke about this, as NBA-bound Jewish players averaged about one a generation (aka Larry Brown), even back then.

Hector’s having an affair with a highly-strung faculty wife (Karen Black) whose half-clueless husband is played by a better writer than anybody else involved in this, Robert Towne (“Chinatown”).

And Hector’s got a radical roommate (Michael Margotta) making him question the values system he has to embrace to keep playing a game that could make him rich, sooner rather than later. Roomie Gabriel wears his hair in a headband, Army fatigues in solidarity with those deserting and stages the sort of Political Theatre stunts that would never fly in our mass-shooting-bloodied day and age.

In the opening sequence, Gabriel and his fellow revolutionaries pull a temporary armed and uniformed takeover of the gym, mid-game, and make their statement.

“Clawing your way to the top is but a myth. Also, it’s bad for your fingernails!”

Bruce Dern plays the wound-up, always-shouting coach who is trying to keep his star motivated and us from noticing that this rube’s never watched a game in his life. He might as well be speaking “minion” with the gibberish that comes out as instructions or play-calling that he maps out in the locker room.

“C’mon! This isn’t VIETNAM!”

Improvised? Good guess.

Nicholson, one of two credited screenwriters, can’t quite get this struggle-for-Hector’s-soul dichotomy to work, so he throws a lot of male full frontal nudity — and remember, Karen Black’s in this, so turnabout is fair play — and the odd killer set piece at us to keep us distracted.

“Streaking” was all the rage, back then, remember. Who knew male nudity would disappear from American cinema for generations?

Gabriel’s day at the draft board goes every bit as haywire (sometimes hilariously so) as you’d expect. And that faculty wife fling only has a couple of ways to end. Finding an alternative to those is one of “Drive, He Said’s” many non-starters.

Look for future “Hill Street” Blue Michael Warren as a teammate of the “rah rah game jive” dismissing sort, and a young David Ogden Stiers as an NBA or ABA owner leaning on Hector to sign and make them both some money. Young Cindy Williams is here, just around the time George Lucas was deciding she was “American Graffiti” incarnate.

Towne isn’t the only filmmaker playing a part on camera. Future indie magpie Henry Jaglom plays a student. And the guy playing a game’s broadcast announcer is named “Gittes.” Coincidence?

There’s a very-much-of-its-time gritty, grey vibe about “Drive, He Said” now — whose title has as much to do with driving a car or ambulance as it does with driving down the lane in basketball, a phrase that must have seemed like speaking in tongues to simple, happy, faking-it Bruce Dern. Viewed today, the picture feels off-the-cuff, an exercise in throwing this or that against a wall and seeing what sticks.

Satires of that day occasionally degenerated into that. See “Christian, Magic” or “Duck, Love Lord a.”

But the pieces of that period that endure all have a subtext and a sly cunning about them which this movie, no matter how many sets Nicholson had already been on by then, never manages.

Rating: sex, violence, full front nudity, profanity

Cast: William Tepper, Karen Black, Michael Margotta, Robert Towne, Michael Warren and Bruce Dern.

Credits: Directed by Jack Nicholson, scripted by Jeremy Larner, Jack Nicholson (and supposedly) Terrence Malick. A Columbia Pictures release now on Tubi, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 1:35

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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