While George Segal, recently-departed mainstay of 1960s and 1970s Hollywood, was never exactly typecast—he played conmen and cops, drifters and businessmen, spies and soldiers—the men he embodied all shared a certain desperation. Nothing ever came easy to them. Like Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Bill in California Split, they were often at the mercy of the stronger personalities with whom they kept company. Like Kelp in The Hot Rock or Charlie in The Duchess and The Dirtwater Fox, they had big ideas for themselves that far outpaced reality—often with perilous results.
Another factor that united Segal’s most memorable characters? Their charm. It was rarely a struggle for them to win someone over; one flash of that twinkly, aw-shucks grin could usually get them out of the stickiest situations.
In Born to Win, J (Segal) is so charming, it seems entirely understandable that Parm (Karen Black) would fall for him as she amusedly observes him trying to steal her car.
“Would you like the key that starts the car, or would you prefer the challenge?”
“I’d prefer the challenge.”
She’s naïve when she meets J, noticing his “Born to Win” tattoo before she does his arm full of track marks, and then not quite sure what they are. Even when he comes clean about his habit, it’s not a deal-breaker for her. She takes him as he is, though she won’t stop trying to get him out of the city—because as J says, “It’s the environment that kills you.”
And still, he keeps being drawn back. J spends Born to Win caught between the cops and his dealer Vivian (Hector Elizondo), manipulated by the former to help them catch the latter, but reliant on the latter for the drugs he needs to get through the day. Throughout the movie, both sides give him tasks to complete that will theoretically keep him out of prison and with a steady supply of narcotics. But however fast he runs between his two masters, there’s an abyss looming right behind him, getting bigger and closer every moment.
Born to Win revolves around J’s see-sawing journey towards oblivion, and it offers a charismatic supporting cast to populate his treacherous world. Karen Black has the most important part as the sole solid ground in J’s unsteady life. She and Segal share a lovely chemistry—their scenes together, loose and natural, have a wonderful improvisational quality. Watching today, it seems a real shame they were never paired in lighter material.
The other main players are J’s pursuers. If you mainly know Hector Elizondo from his cuddly roles in Garry Marshall movies, watching him as soulless drug dealer Vivian will come as a real jolt. He delivers the line “I think the only good addict is a dead addict” with such matter-of-fact malice, it’s genuinely unsettling. Just as dangerous for J are the two cops on his tail, played by Ed Madsen and a pre-fame Robert De Niro—the latter still two years away from his star-making turns in Bang The Drum Slowly and Mean Streets. De Niro has little screen time, and you can really sense him straining against the smallness of his role.
Born to Win barely made an impact upon its release. It couldn’t have helped that the thematically similar The Panic in Needle Park—starring Al Pacino in only his second movie role—was released earlier that same year. The Pacino feature has a more consistent romantic tone, whereas Born to Win can zig and zag between zany comedy (a scene involving Segal running along the street in a feathery pink dressing gown is a highlight), the wretched sadness of J’s situation and his sweet courtship with Parm over the course of five minutes.
For many viewers, including critics like Roger Ebert and the New York Times’ Roger Greenspun, the jagged tonal shifts made it irredeemably messy. Heightening critical disappointment was the widespread love of the director Ivan Passer’s previous film, Intimate Lightning, which was—and is still today—regularly cited as one of the best works out of the Czech New Wave. Born to Win, on the other hand, was soon forgotten.
Almost a half century after its release, though, the movie was saved from obscurity when it was cited by the Safdie Brothers as one of the influences on their beloved hit Uncut Gems, and the influence is clear to see. Both films feature desperate addicts (in Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler’s Howie is addicted to gambling) dashing around the streets of NYC trying to dig themselves out of messes of their own making. In both films, the leads face silly predicaments as a deadly serious net tightens around them. It’s easy to imagine Segal uttering Sandler’s hopelessly hopeful line, “This is how I win!” at various points during Born to Win, as he inexorably circles the drain.
If Born to Win is still remembered on its 50th anniversary, then it’s usually for its influence on Uncut Gems, or as Ivan Passer’s difficult second movie, or as one of Robert De Niro’s last pre-fame projects. But really, George Segal is the reason it doesn’t deserve forgetting. Throughout his character’s chaotic ups and downs, Segal keeps J anchored in recognizable humanity. He’s not an idiot, although he does stupid things. He can sense the abyss at his back as well as we can. But if it’s already too late, why not try to have a sense of humor about the situation? Why not keep trying, anyway? Maybe he can sweet talk himself out of his own self-loathing, even if his silver tongue won’t work on those outside forces anymore.
Segal’s wryly aching portrayal of J’s downward spiral remains one of the great unsung performances of the 1970s, and the pinnacle of an acting career that brought so many complicated losers to vivid, winning life.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI Podcast Review and Paste.