The Betsy

The Betsy
Theatrical release poster
Directed byDaniel Petrie
Screenplay by
Based onThe Betsy
by Harold Robbins
Produced byRobert R. Weston
CinematographyMario Tosi
Edited byRita Roland
Music byJohn Barry
Distributed by
Release date
  • February 9, 1978 (1978-02-09)
Running time
125 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$6 million
Box office$17.7 million

The Betsy is a 1978 American romantic drama film directed by Daniel Petrie, from a screenplay by William Bast and Walter Bernstein, based on the 1971 novel of the same title by Harold Robbins. It stars Laurence Olivier as a retired auto tycoon, with Robert Duvall, Katharine Ross, Tommy Lee Jones, and Jane Alexander in supporting roles.

The film was theatrically released in the United States on February 9, 1978, by Allied Artists and United Artists. Robbins considered The Betsy the best movie adaptation of any of his works.


A fading family-owned automobile manufacturer and its owners pin their hopes for a return to profitability on a new model named for the great-granddaughter of the firm's founder.

The aging Loren Hardeman Sr. remains the titular head of a Detroit automotive conglomerate. (An obvious parallel exists between this fictional character and that of Henry Ford.) His grandson, Loren Hardeman III, now runs the company as president, but has diversified into other fields and is concerned that the auto division is not as lucrative as it once was and might even need to be eliminated.

A young auto racer, Angelo Perino, has been secretly commissioned to develop a groundbreaking fuel-efficient car. He juggles romantic relationships with a British royal, Lady Bobby Ayres, and the young Betsy, who is about to turn 21 and inherit a fortune, including the new car that her great-grandfather is naming in her honor.

Loren Hardeman III bitterly despises Hardeman Sr., who once carried on an affair with Loren's mother. The older Hardeman is not the man he used to be, but he is not ready to step aside forever.



Assembly-plant footage was filmed at the American Motors (AMC) Kenosha, Wisconsin factory. It shows construction and painting of 1978 Gremlin, Pacer, and Concord models on AMC's assembly line serving as the factory of the fictitious Bethlehem Motors. For authenticity, the film's producers learned from AMC about how new cars are developed. The titular car is a slightly modified 1974 Lancia Beta coupe.

The Betsy features music composed by John Barry. It was filmed at Rosecliff mansion in Newport, Rhode Island.

A review by automobile industry expert Alex Taylor noted that the filmmakers did not show believable characters and realistic dialogue. Attempts by Hollywood to capture the auto industry on film, such as The Betsy, have "aimed at realistic drama but wound up with suds."

By 1978 there had been a notable increase in the construction of racquetball courts in the United States, so Petrie chose to shoot a scene in a company racquetball court during the first meeting between the characters played by Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall.


The film opened in 473 theaters and grossed a record opening weekend for Allied Artists of $2,727,084. The film earned rentals of $7.85 million in the United States and Canada.

Most of the reviews of the film were negative. Chicago Tribune reviewer Gene Siskel offered a damning critique of the film:

Of course "The Betsy" is trash. That's what it's supposed to be. That's what its audience wants, the same huge audience that buys every one of Harold Robbins' trashy novels.

An advertisement for the film claims that "the most dynamic, sexy, powerful people are Harold Robbins people." That's a polite way of saying that Robbins books, and the films upon which they are based, serve up super soft-core porn in luxurious surroundings.

How else do you explain the following tasteless scene, which inexplicably occurs in the middle of a saga of an automotive scion's attempt to build one last great car. In action that lasts one minute, the scion's 5-year-old grandson watches his homosexual father blow his brains out in a car. Then the crying kid runs upstairs to his mother's bedroom only to discover that Mom is shacked up with Gramps!

It would be easy to laugh off that scene as just so much tastelessness, yet I can't help but think that some of the upright folks who patronize "The Betsy" for scenes like that are the same people who also complain about the horrible language their children are exposed to in a fine film like "Saturday Night Fever."

Now, if you're thinking that if you caught me in private I might admit that "The Betsy" is a good trashy movie, well, don't bet on it. I did enjoy last year's "The Other Side of Midnight," and it was a good trashy movie. Why? Because there was a joy-of-performing quality to it. By comparison, "The Betsy" characters take themselves too seriously. What might have improved this film is just one character, at some point in all the madness, standing up and screaming, "God, what a sick group of people!"

The Boston Evening Globe correspondent Michael Blowen described it as "a Reader's Digest condensation of a television soap opera." In the New York Daily News, Rex Reed stated that "the temptation to compare The Betsy with the Edsel stretches from here to deadline, but this movie is so bad, so numbingly obtuse, so bloatedly pretentious and awesomely corny, no capsule put-down seems adequate. It's The Damned, set in Grosse Pointe. Or, as Tennessee Williams might drawl, it's about 'a lotta things, honey—greed, lust, vice, homosexuality, incest, suicide, murder, and puttin' on airs.'"

The film appears in a chapter of Harry and Michael Medved's book The Golden Turkey Awards titled "The Worst Films Compendium from A (The Adventurers) to Z (Zontar: the Thing from Venus)". The Medveds wrote that "another Harold Robbins book bites the dust as a wretched, melodramatic film. Lord Laurence Olivier’s attempt at a Texas twang is a hilarious flop, as is his incestuous relationship with his daughter-in-law, Katharine Ross." The film is also listed in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson's book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of the 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.

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