This weekend, I attended the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s opening night for the re-release of the 1972 documentary “Weekend Of A Champion”, featuring race car driver Jackie Stewart and filmmaker Roman Polanski.
Filmmaker and car racing fan Roman Polanski spends a weekend with his friend and race car driver Jackie Stewart as he prepares for the Monte Carlo Grand Prix in 1971.
On a rainy Thursday in May of 1971, filmmaker Roman Polanski and his close friend, champion race car driver Jackie Stewart, check-in to their Monte Carlo hotel. Besieged by fans seeking autographs and snapshots, Stewart is amiable but distant as his mind is on the race in which he will compete this weekend. Although he is accompanied by his wife, they do not have an opportunity to spend too much time together as city officials and sponsors of the race expect him to attend various ceremonies. Understanding that this is part of the price he must be for his success, Stewart obliges them.
Stewart takes Polanski on a drive through the route of the race, which takes place on the city’s streets. Stewart points out the various risks and hazards along the way, explaining the manner in which he must drive by those spots to avoid an accident causing him to lose the race – or worse, lose his life. Pointing out that the weather forecast for the day of the race is not too promising, he has to keep the possibility of hydroplaning in mind. On top of all of this, he must work carefully with his mechanics, who have to customize his car not only for his driving style but also to optimize it for the route and weather.
After Stewart is seen winning the race, the last portion of the documentary flashes forward 40 years and shows him with Polanski in the present day; they are watching the film in the same hotel room where Stewart originally stayed. They reminisce about their friendship and the period when the movie was shot; Stewart says he is most proud of the his efforts to add safety measures to racing, which has resulted in a dramatic decrease in driver deaths. Perhaps the most surprising part of their conversation is where Stewart admits that he is a dyslexic and to this day, cannot read, write or recite the alphabet.
I did not attend this screening because I am a racing fan. As a matter of fact, I’m not even a car guy. The reason why I was interested in seeing “Weekend Of A Champion” was out of curiosity: Polanski and Stewart seemed so incongruous to me, I thought you might as well cast them in a remake of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple”. Much to my astonishment, it turned out that not only was Polanski a big fan of racing, but also has maintained a close friendship with Stewart for the past several decades. The other amazement was how fascinating the film was, even for someone such as myself, who doesn’t claim much knowledge of the sport.
The only criticism is that the present-day discussion between these two men in their later years was not integrated into the movie more; instead, it appears as an after-thought. Arguably, a better use of this footage would be to edit the movie in such a way as to intersperse the conversation and observations of these two giants throughout the motion picture. As it currently exists, “Weekend Of A Champion” suggests something of a false ending when we see the victorious Stewart at the conclusion of the race; in placing the updated footage afterwards, it is almost trivialized .
An interview with filmmaker Brett Ratner followed the screening. Ratner’s involvement with the documentary is as a facilitator of its distribution. The story behind this – and the inception of its re-release – is this: when the movie originally came out, it was not distributed in the United States; it was only seen in a small handful of theaters in Europe. When the lab processing the print went out of business, they contacted Polanski and asked him if they should destroy it; instead, Polanski insisted they send it to him. After seeing it again, he was inspired to shoot the additional footage with his friend Stewart. Once Ratner saw this version, he knew he had to help get the motion picture seen in this country. “Weekend Of A Champion” is having an extremely limited release, having opened just this past weekend; if you are not fortunate enough to be in New York or one of the few cities where it is playing, then do be sure to look for it soon on Netflix; according to Ratner, it should be turning up there in the not too distant future.