The Competition (1980) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • The movie centers on a piano competition whose winner is assured of success. It is Paul's last chance to compete, but newcomer Heidi may be a better pianist. Can romance be far away? Will she take a dive despite the pressure to win from her teacher, Greta, or will she condemn Paul to obscurity?


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Paul Dietrich (Richard Dreyfuss) sits in a budget hotel room ahead of a wake-up call from the front desk, preparing for a piano competition in Cincinnati. He showers and changes into a formal suit to perform at a small event in a cramped auditorium. After he places third, he feels there is no point in competing further: he tells his parents that he has applied for a teaching position in the public school system. His father Stan (Philip Sterling) has continued to work against doctor's orders to support Paul's career, but Stan feels Paul has a talent he needs to continue to develop. Paul visits the school where he would teach, and sees his friend Gary (Howard Osias) trying to teach a class of beginners how to play octaves, and the experience discourages him. Returning home, his mother (Gloria Strook) is shocked when he tells her that he wants to take one last shot at competing before he attends the interview for the job.

    Meanwhile, world-class pianist turned teacher Greta Vandemann (Lee Remick) introduces her protégé Heidi Joan Schoonover (Amy Irving) to the idea of entering her first piano competition: the Arabella Hillman Competition in San Francisco, offering a $20,000 grand prize, two years of concert bookings (including a Carnegie Hall recital) and a medal. Since Heidi has never hinted that she is ready to start competing, Greta has submitted an audition tape in which she has imitated Heidi's style, and the ruse has earned Heidi a spot among 12 semifinalists.

    On the plane to San Francisco, Heidi works on a concerto by studying the fingering on her seat tray. Paul drives to the competition from Chicago and takes a room in a budget motel for the week. At the Soviet Consulate, aides are escorting a Russian piano teacher, Madame Gorshev (Bea Silvern) and her student Tatiana Boronova (Vicki Kriegler)--who is a semifinalist-- to their private suite on the grounds. The woman is edgy but tries to put Tatiana, who speaks no English, at ease.

    At the concert hall entrance, Heidi meets hunky semifinalist Girolamo "Jerry" DiSalvo (Joseph Cali) from the Bronx. He tries to attach himself to her, and when she politely declines, he tags along with the next semifinalist to arrive: Mitzi (Elaine Welton Hill), telling her he discovered his piano talent while at the house of corrections. Inside the building, Heidi is pleased to see Paul, with whom she had played a piano duet at Tanglewood years before, but Paul seems to show little interest in her. Paul excuses himself to use the restroom and spends a few seconds there reminding himself--addressing his image in the mirror--that the girl everybody called Joanie might eat into his concentration on the competition. The pianists rehearse for the semifinals. Mark Landau (Adam Stern) from Canada boots Mitzi from a rehearsal room in the concert hall and tunes the piano with his own supplies before he practices. Michael Humphries (Ty Henderson), a former Delaware resident living in Italy, has a piano in a swank hotel room and practices in the nude. At the consulate, Tatiana is frustrated while rehearsing a difficult passage in her concerto and storms away while her teacher scolds her. On the day of the semifinals, Heidi greets Paul again and, when he ignores her, she says that he should show some familiarity with her since they did play together and attended each others recitals. He responds by discussing the competition, and she leaves disappointed.

    Paul plays brilliantly at the semifinal, while Mitzi attempts to distract the judges from her piano playing with her choice of dress, to Michael's amusement. Tatiana manages a smooth performance with her teacher and consulate aides seated in the audience. Principal conductor Andrew Erskine (Sam Wanamaker) announces that Tatiana, Paul, Michael, Jerry, Mark and Heidi have become the finalists.

    Erskine has the finalists select their order of play from random slips of paper and instructs them to choose from one of four pianos available to play their selected concerto. When he leaves, Paul asks for everybody's number and finds that not only has he drawn the last spot, but he and Jerry are planning to play the same Saint-Saens concerto. Paul convinces Jerry to swap numbers so Paul will play second and relinquish Saint-Saens to Jerry in favor of Beethoven's 5th piano concerto, "The Emperor." Jerry shows Heidi a newspaper article in which he told the press he was in trouble as a kid, including an untrue reference to reform school. Mrs. DiSalvo (Delia Salvi) yells at Jerry for not earning respect with his playing, but he explains that Tatiana is getting the most publicity and he wants to be visible, too .

    At the hotel, Greta surprises Heidi by showing up in the lobby to help her through the finals; Greta's own teacher has loaned them her private residence in San Francisco for the duration of their stay. As they settle in, Greta explains to Heidi that modern concert pianists must start performing younger than before, and she wants to protect her student. Later, while Heidi is selecting her piano at the concert hall, she finds that her favorite is not properly tuned, but when Paul enters early, she accepts the secretary's assurance that it will be ready for the event. Paul is rude to the secretary while he selects his instrument, but is more receptive to Heidi's presence and explains to her that he feels the need to keep blinders on while he competes. She tells him she thinks it is nice that Paul's parents have traveled to San Francisco to see him in the finals. She also confesses that every time she sees him, she wants to either cry or smack him around. Though this admission stirs Paul, he leaves without settling their conflict.

    During the rehearsal with the orchestra, Paul brings up an issue with Erskine about the concerto, and says he thinks there is a better approach to the rondo portion, which he has figured out while studying it. Erskine is miffed--he has conducted the piece 200 times, while Paul has played it six times-- and calls Paul out to prove his point. Paul astounds the orchestra with simple instructions to the strings and a call for more emphasis at one portion, and then he conducts them through the segment. Erskine concedes, calls for a break and leaves, and the orchestra members acknowledge Paul with applause.

    As Tatiana and Madame Gorshev go on an outing, the teacher asks the consulate car driver to pull over next to a music shop; she gets out but glances about nervously, then suddenly runs to an approaching vehicle and jumps in as it pulls off. The aides must restrain and eventually sedate a hysterical Tatiana, and chaos ensues back in the consulate at the apparent defection. The state department representative involves Erskine in the situation, as Tatiana cannot compete for at least a week. The staff picks up the finalists' expenses during the delay in the finals, but an enraged Paul says that time means more to him than to the others. Paul sees his parents off on a courtesy shuttle to the airport, but not before he talks seriously with his mother about the job and the fact that his father is certain to die soon if he doesn't stop exerting himself.

    Greta has Heidi working on Prokofiev's second piano concerto, saying she should have another piece handy because her career may call for it. Paul arrives at the apartment, and Heidi dishes out some of the aloofness Paul had given her. He apologizes for being rude, offering to do anything she would like. She asks Paul for a driving lesson, since her practicing has taken up the time she would have spent learning how to drive. Greta is not pleased with the new relationship. Paul turns out to be a patient and calm driving instructor, and Heidi is amazed that he could be so cold behind the piano; he says it is the same person. They stop for dinner, make an awkward attempt at dancing and realize that they do not have ordinary lives, but they begin to warm to each other. The night ends in Paul's hotel room where Heidi intends for them to be close without getting involved in sex. Paul confesses that he hated the prospect of ending up like Gary, teaching disinterested children, while Heidi tells Paul that she originally was a cellist, but the cello tickled her nose. She advises him to let his parents love him by supporting his career. They end up in each others arms making love.

    The state department rep visits Erskine at the conductor's apartment, and is surprised to find Mitzi there. Erskine helps him arrange for a secret meeting for Madame Gorshev to explain to Tatiana why she left her and avoid any bad publicity for either country.

    Heidi and Paul rehearse her concerto as a duet in the apartment, but Heidi plays a joke on Paul and turns it into a two-person rendition of everyman's piano composition, "Heart and Soul." Greta returns and, after Paul leaves, she admonishes Heidi for not using competitive edge to distance herself from her opposition. She also reminds Heidi that there is always somebody in the business like Paul, and a relationship like the one they have can be an emotional drain. Heidi disagrees, but learns that Greta speaks from experience, though she refuses to elaborate. Meanwhile, Paul calls his friend Gary and asks him to withdraw the job application, saying he doesn't want to hedge his bets by having something to fall back upon.

    At the press reception for the finalists, camera crews swarm around Tatiana as she rejoins the competition. Paul is furious and tears out of the hotel in his car with Heidi. They stop at the wharf and Paul tells Heidi that the contest has become a vehicle for Tatiana and nobody else has a chance of winning. As they walk along the dock, three French sailors ogle Heidi and a frustrated Paul picks a fight with them; Heidi makes an excuse for his behavior using her limited command of French and saves them both. He storms off and she follows, hollering at him for not watching out for her. Paul shuts down, saying that they have no relationship and nothing other than the competition matters to him; an upset Heidi leaves in a cab.

    At the finals, Mark Landau performs and Paul plays his last competitive concerto with Erskine leading the orchestra under Paul's vision of the rondo. Heidi watches from the audience in a heartsick daze, confounding Greta. Tatiana finishes the evening with a tense performance.

    Later that evening, Heidi considers pulling out of the finals, as it means so much to Paul that he wins. Greta tries to refocus her student by telling her that she will be older and more desperate to win like Paul someday, and a man would not pull out of an event for her. Heidi thinks Paul can play better than she can, but Greta will not discuss her chances of winning against Paul.

    The next morning, Paul visits the apartment to apologize, only to find that Heidi has left and Greta does not know where she is. She tells Paul he has done well in getting rid of the only competitor he truly has. He leaves and finds Heidi watching an acting troupe outside the concert hall and tells her not to pull out thinking she is doing him any favors because he is not afraid of her. He then realizes what he is doing is alienating them both, and he confesses that now he realizes how important she is, compared to the competition. They decide to consider themselves a corporation in which either of them can win.

    Michael performs, and then Paul supports Heidi from backstage as she prepares for her performance. Onstage she begins her Mozart concerto only to find that an important key on the piano she selected has gone bad and she stops seconds into the performance. Erskine tells her not to panic while they get another piano. She decides to change concerti and play the Prokofiev, which Erskine rejects until Greta appears. With Paul lending his support they spar for her right to change concerti, and when Greta loses her temper and makes a mildly insulting remark to Erskine the tension breaks and he relents. As Heidi begins again with the Prokofiev, Paul realizes that she is far more talented, and he listens in amazement as she performs the difficult piece unrehearsed and with feeling and precision. Paul goes for a walk outside the concert hall to clear his mind, and he returns to join Greta backstage. Jerry plays his Saint-Saens to finish the event.

    The judges decide the winners with little delay; Michael Humphries earns the bronze medal and $2500, and when Paul becomes the $5000 silver medalist, he and Heidi lock eyes but neither can see their true emotions. Erskine then announces the winner of the competition is Heidi. Greta disappears out the stage door and has a private moment of unbridled exultation.

    Backstage Heidi gets Paul alone and begins discussing their corporation and plans, but then she realizes that he is not sharing her enthusiasm. He tells her levelly that she is going to have a great launching of her career as a world-class pianist. When she tries to bring up his position of power as a silver medalist he scoffs, telling her to revel in her victory and that some things cannot be shared. He admits he had never considered that she could play better than he could, and that he is not sure he can handle their relationship in that way. He tells her he plans to join the party at Michael's apartment after he calls his parents, but she tells him she knows he will walk out on her. He leaves, calls his mother and tells her the results were fair, then checks out of the motel.

    At the party, Heidi sulks away from the others, and Greta comes over to tell her that she will eventually find the perfect man, encouraging her to go to the dance floor and join who is available. She again attempts to dance but feels empty until she looks up and sees Paul has arrived. After a few silent, awkward moments, they reconnect and begin to dance together.

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