The Champ (1979)
Although Franco Zeffirelli's The Champ must be said to be uneven, few can deny that when it comes to emotional output, this cross between Rocky and Kramer vs. Kramer was and remains second to none. The recipe is two-fold: (1) The remarkable Ricky Schroder in the role of T.J., and (2) Zeffirelli's impudent inclination and ability to exploit said talent. A talent that was not only based on Schroder's singular output of tears, but also on his genuine compassion for Voight, and the 8-year-old's wonderful ability to communicate this compassion. Ricky Schroder's T.J. ranks up among Jackie Cooper's The Kid and some of Elijah Wood's early work as some of the best child performances in film history.
On their way, a dimmed Jon Voight and an inhumanly stiff Faye Dunaway battle it out as a rather unappealing odd couple. The problem is largely Dunaway's part. The contrast between the somewhat unmotivated aloofness of her past and her sudden emotional awakening seems constructed for the plot, and Dunaway doesn't have the sensitivity to make her Annie believable in these circumstances. Her caresses and affection seem unnatural - possibly because Dunaway still wasn't a mother herself at this point.
Still, Zeffirelli's film is beautiful and poignant at its best. The relationship between father and son is heartrendingly portrayed, equalling Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry from the same year. The Champ isn't as potent a social comment as Kramer vs. Kramer, but it competes well on the sentimental impact. The skilled Italian in the director's chair knew exactly which buttons to push, and he had the most perfect tool for it in young Schroder.