Sarah Norton (Tatum O'Neal) is a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who wishes she were older and more mature, so to that end she and her best friend try to sneak out of their classes to visit porno theatres and catch as much of the blue movies as they can. One afternoon, she attends such a film and in between gawping at the screen, she notices an older man sleeping in the seat in front of her but doesn't think much of him until she accidentally wakes him up by bumping him. As fate would have it, they meet later on when she is trying to avoid her ex-boyfriend Paul (Michael Wincott) who she has no time for now, and this man introduces himself as Ashley St Clair (Richard Burton), the painter...
Of all the great screen couples, Burton and O'Neal seem destined to be excluded from that romantic bracket, and though Circle of Two has its fans, they were not exactly numerous for the feeling watching this was more, "what the hell was everybody thinking?" rather than "aw, how sweet!" It was based on a novel by Marie-Terese Baird, which again appealed to a particular demographic that director Jules Dassin presumably thought he could draw, along with their parents who wanted to see what that great actor Richard Burton was getting up to now, but in effect the film was not what either of them wanted to see, as while there was no real sexual element, the reaction was "nope."
Sarah expresses surprise that Ashley is sixty years old, but only we assume because he looks about ninety - you're not fooled by the scene where he goes jogging, probably thanks to noticing his hands shaking with the D.T.s in a previous scene. Burton had been a hopeless alcoholic for decades now, and this informed his performing as while he retained that rich, full voice, he looked a shell of his former self, a battered old suitcase of a man whose best days were behind him. It was little wonder this would be his last but one film, and a matter of relief that his actual final screen appearance would be in Nineteen Eighty-Four where he managed to conjure back some of his previous magic.
Back at this, you tended to feel only embarrassment for him as his supposedly sophisticated character lapsed into ruminations on great artists to bolster his place in the story as a real aesthete, and hence perfectly fine for him to be hanging around with a fifteen-year-old; Sarah turns sixteen during the plot, but that doesn't make this any more palatable, never mind believable. They're like chalk and cheese, and if O'Neal thought she was going to use this as a platform to more grown-up roles, well, everyone at the time thought of her as the girl from Paper Moon or The Bad New Bears, and that's largely why she's still known today, a marriage to tennis star John McEnroe notwithstanding.
So if Tatum was tabloid-friendly at least, nobody pays too much attention to her acting career despite her sticking with it with some dedication for decades. Back at Circle of Two, you could offer in its favour two things: that Ashley and Sarah don't end up in bed together, and that everyone around them is horrified that this is precisely what had happened, and at the very minimum this relationship is inappropriate (her supposedly open-minded parents find those minds closing like steel traps). Nevertheless, because this apparently wasn't uncomfortable enough, O'Neal was still required to perform a topless scene which tended to go against the theme that she was not being exploited by an older man, and as it was shamelessly designed to drum up publicity, was far from laudable.
Well, it got the film a Golden Turkey Award nomination at any rate, if that counts as publicity, and for once the snark was well-deserved. Mostly Circle of Two was desultory when it was not risible, you were never convinced for one nanosecond that this romance was anything but a contrivance of the screenplay, and needless to say the two stars had zero chemistry with each other, Sarah coming across as if she was carrying out a charitable act for an older gentleman than any deeply felt emotional bonding. Kate Reid showed up as a psychiatrist to counsel the girl once the truth came out, but that had been triggered by Paul (remember him?) spying on her and seeing her stripped off in front of an aghast Ashley, which drives him in his outrage to an attempted rape when she leaves (she fights him off by knocking him out with a rock). Suddenly you think you're watching a giallo, but then it returns to the moping. Not the greatest idea for a film ever made, then. Music by Bernard Hoffer.