Born to Win

Apr 28, 2022
Web Exclusive

By Austin Trunick

It almost feels as if George Segal plays two characters in Born to Win (1971), the Hollywood debut of Czech filmmaker Ivan Passer, which was recently resurrected from public domain purgatory by Fun City Editions. In his most lucid moments, he’s “J” the charmer: a fast talker with a disarming sense of humor. When his wits are about him, he comes off as clever, and it’s near-impossible to dislike him. The other side of J, though, is J the junkie: a petty criminal who’s given up his marriage, his kids, and his freedom in favor of the heroin needle. This J is angry, unambitious, and only interested in scoring his next hit. Combine the two J’s and we’re left with a sorry creature, neither as charming nor as smart as he thinks he is. He’s a pitiful character whose addiction won’t allow him to catch a break, living a life that could hardly be farther from the “born to win” motto he had tattooed on his arm many years ago.

Born to Win follows a couple weeks or so in J’s life, when there’s a faint glimmer of hope that things could change. While attempting to steal her car, J meets Parm (Karen Black), a freewheeling and wealthy girl who seems to genuinely like him, but can also see through his thick layers of bullshit. There’s some talk of getting clean, but without any real follow-through. In the meantime, he continues to take on two-bit jobs for his pal-turned-dealer, Vivian (Hector Elizondo), and lands himself on a gangster’s hit list when he foolishly rips off his one of his deliveries. On top of all this are two crooked cops who leave J with no choice but to become an unwilling informant. It’s a bad situation that gets more hopelessness the more J tries to claw his way out of it.

From the above description, you might get an impression that Born to Win is all very depressing—and it is, ultimately, but George Segal plays his pathetic dope addict in a way that makes it hard not to get attached to the character. Unlike more dour addiction dramas, there’s also a lot of humor built into the situations J finds himself in. (J’s memorable escape from a gangster’s apartment is full of raunchy visual gags that you’d more likely expect from a ‘70s sex comedy.)

Born to Win might have had a much harder time pulling off its offbeat blend of comedy and despair would work if it weren’t for Segal’s inherent likeability. Thanks to him, the movie’s tonal shifts are almost seamless. It’s also helped that Segal’s surrounded by a good cast, including Black, Elizondo, and Paula Prentiss, billed at the top of the film despite only a few minutes’ worth of screen time. (We also get early appearances from Burt Young and Robert De Niro.) Some of the dealers and druggies that J interacts with throughout the feature were actual heroin addicts found by Passer and the screenwriter while they were doing research for the movie.

Born to Win is also worth recommending for its glorious, oldschool NYC backdrop. Shot on location in the Big Apple, the movie’s full of long-gone storefronts, old billboards, theater marquees, and other advertising. (Given how much of the movie takes place around Times Square, I found myself pausing the Blu-ray to read what was playing at the various grindhouse theaters the characters pass by.) Author Jason Bailey—who wrote a fantastic book on NYC’s many screen roles, appropriately titled Fun City Cinema—teams up with filmmaker Michael Hull for an excellent feature commentary, focusing not only on the movie’s production history, but pointing out many interesting pieces of the city’s archeology, from an extinct chain restaurant to an apartment building that was demolished to make way for Trump Tower.

Altogether, this is another easy recommendation from Fun City Editions—and one that, given the movie’s setting and the disc’s bonus content, really fits the label’s name to a tee.


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