The rapid decline of model-turned-actress Ali MacGraw’s screen career continued with Players, a misfire produced by her ex-husband, Robert Evans. Having established her inability to deliver emotionally convincing performances in hits (1970’s Love Story) and misses (1978’s Convoy), she attempted the challenging role of a cynical jet-setter whose heart opens when she falls for a younger man. While MacGraw is not as screamingly awful here as she is in some of her other films, she can’t conjure the complexity or heat that any number of her contemporaries could have brought to the role. Which is not to say that if, say, Faye Dunaway or Diane Keaton had been cast in the leading role, Players would have been special. The movie’s problems run too deep. The story, revolving around the MacGraw character’s entanglement with a headstrong tennis player, is clichéd and episodic and tiresome. Worse, MacGraw’s costar, Dean Paul Martin, is even more of a mannequin than MacGraw. So if you want to experience two handsomely photographed hours of tennis scenes interspersed with repetitive and trivial vignettes of attractive people making out and breaking up, then Players is the movie for you. Otherwise, beware.
Martin, the ill-fated son of beloved entertainer Dean Martin, plays Chris, an American tennis player competing in his first Wimbledon championship match. He’s distracted from his game by flashbacks to his on-again/off-again relationship with Nicole (MacGraw). After meeting in Mexico City, they took up housekeeping in her sprawling villa, even though she was engaged to super-rich European businessman Marco (Maximilian Schell). Adopting Chris as a sort of pet project, Nicole guided his transformation from hustler to professional, connecting him with big-time coach Pancho Gonzales (a real-life former world champion who plays himself). Predictably, a love-versus-money crisis emerged when Chris pushed Nicole to choose between their romance and her comfy future with Marco. And that’s basically the whole story, give or take a few sex scenes and training montages.
Players is one of those bad movies that feels very much like a good movie, since the slick plotting—by Arnold Schulman, who gets a fancy playwright-style credit after the opening title—gracefully bounces back and forth between flashbacks and present-day scenes. The production values are beyond reproach, with glamorous international locations (including the real Wimbledon court), impressive celebrity cameos (John McEnroe, Liv Ullman, etc.), and marvelous music and photography. Players has everything money can buy, though what it really needs are the things that stem from organic creativity: compelling characters, narrative originality, real emotion. Some may enjoy this movie for its glossy textures, though most will fade long before the picture grinds toward its inconsequential climax. As for MacGraw, she makes a respectable effort here but, unfortunately, she cannot will natural talent into being, The failure of Players was one more humiliating step toward has-been status, a fate only briefly forestalled by some high-profile TV work in the mid-’80s.