Saturday, October 9, 2010

Secretariat finally crosses the finish line

How in the world could it have been 37 years since Secretariat won the triple crown of horse racing, yet we are only just now getting a major motion picture about him?

I'm sure if I delved into it, I'd find a history of some legal wrangling over the rights to the story of probably the most famous racehorse of all time. But it's still very strange to me that it's taken so long, and that we've seen so many other horse stories come to the big screen in the meantime, many of whom were horses we'd never heard of until a movie was made about them. Seabiscuit seems like the most prominent example of this. I don't know about you, but I had no idea who or what Seabiscuit was until the movie came along.

Thirty-seven years seems like a particularly long time when you consider that the most talked-about "period piece" of the fall is The Social Network, which deals with events that occurred entirely since Seabiscuit hit theaters in 2003. Presidents don't even leave office before films are made about them (Oliver Stone's W in 2008). You can no longer afford to let the "appropriate amount of time" pass before delving into a historical event cinematically. If you do, someone else will get there first. Even the highly sensitive events of 9/11, which were once thought to be utter cinematic taboo, only took five years to reach theaters (United 93 and World Trade Center in 2006).

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the most famous version of anything rarely gets an interesting cinematic treatment. In the first month of my blog's existence, I wondered why there had not been a definitive biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. And I concluded, among other things, that there was more mileage in the story of a civil rights figure we did not know quite as much about, namely, Malcolm X, who came viscerally to life in one of Spike Lee's best films.

Similarly, I expect Secretariat not to get the same kudos that Seabiscuit got. Seabiscuit was roundly praised and eventually earned Oscar nominations for its screenplay, sound, art direction, cinematography, costume design and editing, as well as a nomination for best picture. Even with twice the best picture nominees this year, Secretariat doesn't seem like it will figure into that discussion, going just on my impressions of it and some early reviews.

Of course, this argument is pretty specious, because prestigious subject matter does not always get matched up with prestigious filmmaking talent. Secretariat director Randall Wallace, for example, has only two major directing gigs to his credit, the forgettable duo of The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) and We Were Soldiers (2002). Why hand the reins, as it were, of this film to a man who hasn't directed a film in eight years? Only Disney knows that.

Then again, Seabiscuit director Gary Ross had only directed Pleasantville, five years earlier, and doesn't have his next feature coming out until next year -- which will be a similar eight-year gap, but a slightly more surprising one, given that his last film earned seven Oscar nominations. (Though, we should note, none for directing.)

Hollywood can be a mysterious place. I won't even give you the list of terrible directors who have directed a half-dozen films since Ross directed Seabiscuit.

Even if I didn't have a baby at home severely limiting the number of films I can see in the theater, I don't think I'd make Secretariat a priority. Perhaps it's because it seems to have a "been there, done that" quality to it -- which, granted, is a strange thing to say about the biopic of a horse that had been places and done things most horses never had. Perhaps it's because I don't really like sports movies, especially ones where I already know what happens. Perhaps it's because Disney's live action movies are often lacking in nuance or edge, and this figures to be no different.

Too bad, because Secretariat was an exceptional athlete, and really deserves a good film to be made about him. ESPN ranked him 35th on a list of the 100 best athletes of the 20th century.

Then again, have you seen a good movie about the #1 or #2 athletes on that list, Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth? There has been no Jordan movie, and Ruth has appeared as a character in a number of not-very-good movies, most notably Arthur Hiller's The Babe (1992). Muhammad Ali, the #3 on the list, was featured in a well-made biopic that is still not very memorable: Michael Mann's Ali (2001).

In fact, going down that list, the next athlete on the list who's even the subject of a prominent film is Ty Cobb at #20. I found Ron Shelton's Cobb (1994) to be a dynamite sports biopic, one of my favorite of all time. But Cobb is only the sixth highest ranked baseball player on the list, lending more credence to the idea that the best of anything rarely makes the most interesting film. Perhaps that's why there are not prominent films about Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson or Ted Williams, the other four between him and Ruth on the list.

When you consider that the youngest on that list, Hank Aaron, retired in 1976, only three years after Secretariat won his triple crown, maybe 37 years isn't such a long time to wait after all.

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