Method and the Madness: Playmaker (1994)

Dave revels in the unusual union of Jennifer Rubin and Colin Firth, who combine to make one of the most spellbinding films of the ’90s video store era.

Rumour has it that producer Peter Samuelson was driving through Hollywood, when he encountered two people standing on a street corner holding a sign that read “looking for money for a movie”. Ever the entrepreneur, the man who helped bring Revenge of the Nerds (1984) to the screen pulled over, listened to their roadside pitch, and bought the idea.

Re-writes ensued – including one by Michael Schroeder, the prolific filmmaker from Idaho who’s knocked out essential fare like Mortuary Academy (1988), Out of the Dark (1988) and Dead On: Relentless II (1992). But with Samuelson still not satisfied, the picture landed on the desk of Yuri Zeltser, who already had a degree of notoriety after penning the story for Andrew Fleming’s Bad Dreams (1988).

For PLAYMAKER, it was the star of that movie that Zeltser turned to, casting Jennifer Rubin as the lead character of Jamie Harris, a jobbing actress whose ambition is being stifled by bit parts and rejections. However, a chance encounter with a barkeep (John Getz) leads to the recommendation of an acting coach by the name of Ross Talbert (Colin Firth) who, for the hefty fee of five grand, promises a one-to-one seminar at his mansion that will guarantee success. Jamie gathers the cash and heads into the San Fernando Valley for what should be a career-defining getaway, but what she’ll be subjected to in the coming days, will change her life forever…

“My son happened to be in Los Angeles at the time,” recalled a clearly embarrassed Firth to a British tabloid in August 1994. “It was a three-week job and it paid extremely well. It’s a silly story about an acting coach who trains an actress by psychologically torturing her. I knew it would be complete rubbish and I sincerely hope no one ever sees it.”

I’d hedge my bets that the Oscar-winning actor is probably more red-faced about repeatedly showing his bare arse in the film, rather than the actual content itself. And as such an admirable progressive in terms of politics and human rights, then I’d question his shame over what’s essentially a rollicking tale of female empowerment.

Playmaker is an excellent movie, aided immeasurably by the angular grandiosity of the spacious mansion where it’s shot [1]. It has a peculiar façade which makes the unconventional techniques of Talbert’s teaching seem almost standard. The piano-wheelchair-red wine torture sequence is near the summit of such insanity, and it’s also one of the many moments that harbour an understated eroticism that bubbles throughout the movie. Despite his disdain for the project, Firth is excellent in his portrayal of this brash, arrogant, and controlling monster, and Rubin has never been better as the strong female who discovers that something is very much amiss.

Playmaker made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1994 before shuffling into video stores twelve months later, after which it was rarely seen again. And that’s a real shame.

USA ● 1994 ● Erotic Thriller ● 91mins

Colin Firth, Jennifer Rubin, John Getz ● Dir. Yuri Zeltser ● Wri. Yuri Zeltser, from an earlier screenplay by Michael Schroeder, and a story by Kathryn Nemesh and Darren Block

[1] The house used for the filming location lies north of Los Angeles in Chatsworth, CA. It sold for only $1.8 million in 2013, after being on the market for six years with an original listing of $9.5 million.

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