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Made for TV, the 1983 version of "Svengali" tells the tale of Zoe Alexander (Jodie Foster) being discovered singing at a night club in New York City. The talent scout invests in her by giving her free singing lessons with Anton Bosnyak, a top-of-the-line singing coach (Peter O'Toole). He's difficult and demanding, but he's the best at what he does and Zoe eventually experiences success, but she also falls for her singing coach, even though he's 28 years older than her! The ages of the characters pretty much match the ages of the actors, since Jodie (Zoe) was 20 and O'Toole (Anton) was 50 at the time of filming.
Some people criticize this film as unintentionally funny because Jodie does her own singing and it doesn't really change that much over the course of the film (in fact, she sounds best at the beginning with the bar band) and also because of O'Toole's over-the-top performance. It didn't strike me as funny, however, because it's all about the characters, the story and the acting, not how good Jodie sings or how eccentric Anton is. Besides, it's a made-for-TV movie for crying out loud.
I'm not a big fan of either Foster or O'Toole -- I can take 'em or leave 'em -- but who can deny their acting skills? These are acting giants and here they pull off two very tough roles. With difficult parts like these everything has to be right; if the written dialogue is bad the actors won't be able to make their characters believable, but I found both Zoe and Anton believable. In fact, Anton's a great offbeat character. What's more, I enjoyed Anton & Zoe's relationship arc and I didn't think what ultimately happens was going to happen. So the film's not predictable, which is always good.
On the downside, Zoe's hit and the style of music her band plays are too bland to be believable. So what else is new? (In other words, if the songs/music were really that awesome they wouldn't be using them for a TV movie; they'd be real-life hits).
BOTTOM LINE: This 1983 version of "Svengali" is a solid drama and better than similarly-themed theatrical releases like "The Rose." Foster and O'Toole pull off two tough roles and make their characters come alive. O'Toole in particular is outstanding. Plus, the topic of falling for a too-young woman or too-old man is always a fascinating subject.
The film was shot in New York City and runs 100 minutes.
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