Paul Dietrich is a concert pianist who has never been a top-placing winner in competitions. At the age of 30, he is about to throw in the towel. His aging father can no longer help pay the bills. Phil enters the Hillman Competition in San Francisco convinced he will find out once and for all whether he has what it takes to be a concert pianist. The prize consists of $20,000, a debut recital at Carnegie Hall, and two years of recitals throughout America.
The twelve entrants are whittled down to six finalists: Paul, a Soviet girl, a Bronx womanizer who dreams of replacing Liberace on the Las Vegas circuit; a black wheeler-dealer; an arrogant perfectionist; and Heidi Schoonooer, a protégé of Great Vandemann, a pianist who traces her bloodline to Beethoven. Each must perform a concerto with the orchestra conducted by Andrew Erskine and then play a selection of their own choice.
Although this film by Joel Oliansky deals with the tension and gamesmanship of an international piano competition, it is really an illuminating portrait of one individual's struggle to come to terms with his understanding of personal achievement and his capacity to love. When the semi-finals are postponed for a week due to the defection of the Soviet girl's tutor, Paul and Heidi strike up a relationship. At first he rebuffs her overtures, trying to focus all his energies on the performances. But then he caves in to feelings of guilt about disappointing his father and indirectly causing his physical debilitation. Paul turns to Heidi, and she comforts Him.
Their attitudes toward the competition are diametrically opposed. For him, winning is everything; for her, playing well and feeling good about herself prove sufficient for inward validation. Their blooming relationship faces its deepest threat during her performance when Paul realizes she is a better pianist than he can be. Can he follow through on his promise of their union as "a corporation of two" if she wins first prize?
The Competition is another excellent contemporary movie revolving around the changing values in male-female relationships. Thanks to riveting performances by Richard Dreyfuss as Paul and Amy Irving as Heidi, the film's thematic probe of the conflict between work and love is thought provoking and emotionally textured. Lee Remick as Heidi's witty and chilly tutor, and Sam Wanamaker as the maestro are well realized secondary characters.