Monday, July 28, 2003

Seabiscuit Syndrome

You guys have gotta give me a minute here. Lemmie sit down and put my head between my knees for a sec.

Okay, I’m back. I think I can type now. I wanted to put off a Seabiscuit review until I had a couple days to digest it so as to avoid Episode I Syndrome, in which I was so blown away by 1) the fact there was an entirely new Star Wars movie now in existence and 2) Ewan McGregor that I came out of the theatre shrieking, “OH MY GOD THAT WAS SO AWESOME WHEN CAN I SEE IT AGAIN HOLY SHIT THAT JUST RULED I FEEL LIKE I NEED TO THROW UP, THAT IS HOW MUCH I LOVED THIS MOIVE” and then, upon a second viewing, I was horrified at 1) the fact that certain aspects of this entirely new Star Wars movie sucked so very, very much and 2) Jar Jar Binks.

I didn’t want this to happen with Seabiscuit, which I’ve been anticipating with a vigor approaching something like the return of Jesus Christ. You kids know how I feel about the book, (best thing since The Right Stuff, long live creative nonfiction, blah blah etc etc) so I was frantic to see how the movie version would treat the story. This, I knew, would lead to disappointment; and it did, in some ways, but there were a few lovely surprises along the way. Namely:

1) Real-life jock Gary Stevens as George Woolf. The fact that he pops up first should tell you something. I was more hyped over the movie itself than seeing him in it, so it was a shocker for me to have his name pop up as the first thing out of the gate while discussing it. But I was sitting there during the previews when I was suddenly seized with a horrible fear: What if he sucked? I started to panic. "Please, God, don't let Gary Stevens suck. Please don't wipe away three Derby wins in two hours. Please. Don’t let this be another Boomer-Esiason-appears- on- All My Children-and-I-couldn’t-watch-the-Bengals-for-weeks catastrophe. I could never look Gary Stevens’ televised face in the eye again if he sucks. Please, Lord, if You love me, he shall not suck." And... (this never happens, for Cincinnati residents) Gary Stevens did not suck. He was great. Seriously. He was. Those of you who emailed me with visions of Kazaam: Let not your horsey hearts be troubled. Gary brings it.

I say this setting aside his very first appearance in the film, in which he is dressed like Roy Rogers on meth, and his truly herioc hairpiece, which deserves its own mention in the credits. (If you’ve never seen Stevens without a helmet… okay, this is not what he looks like.)

Ross left in one of the best lines of the whole book, from turf writer David Alexander: “Better to break a man’s leg than to break his heart.” Gary says this through shaving cream. Through shaving cream, people. Through shaving cream. Well done, Jockey Stevens. It was truly the best acting through a toiletry I have ever seen.

Gary is instrumental in the highlight of the film, the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race, the one in which Seabiscuit makes War Admrial his bitch. I (heart) the match race scene. The entire theatre broke into cheers and applause (I know, I don't understand this either-- um, THE HORSE CAN'T HEAR YOU) when George Woolfe says, "See ya, Charley!" and blows on by. It was just luminous. It made me feel good. Few things make me feel good these days. You could tell Stevens, Chris McCarron, (who played Charley Kurtsinger, the opposing jockey), and even the horses were just having a blast. (I called one of my friends about this on the drive back to the Blonde Bachelorette Pad and he said: “I’ll bet. I saw an interview of Stevens telling the story of that moment, and he was grinning just talking about it.") Also, let's all have a big hand for McCarron for his magnificent acting debut, which consisted of the following pivotal line: "George."

(Historical note: Have you seen the actual footage of that race? Have you seen the AFTERMATH of it, just past the finish line, when George Woolfe lets Seabiscuit start to wind down and then turns around and yells something back at Kurtsinger? He covers the side of his mouth facing the camera with his hand, so you can't read his lips, and if anybody knows what he said I haven't heard it. Wouldn't you just love to find out? Knowing Woolfe, it was probably something horribly wonderful and inappropriate, preferably ending with "and the horse you rode in on, pal.")

(Book Note: Recently I paged through the children’s book “Seabiscuit Vs. War Admiral”, which has wonderful illustrations. One of them made me snort-laugh right in the middle of Barnes & Noble, though: The text was talking about how the jockeys had two or three rein-outs on the walkup start until the race finally started, and how all this was making the high-strung War Admiral nervous. The accompanying picture showed War Admiral shimmying all over the place in a blur. It’s the first time I’ve seen what it might look like if a horse had the DT’s. )

Bottom line, I left the theatre giving Gary the old Notre Dame Five-Clap Cheer (“GA-ry STEV-ens! Clap-clap-CLAPCLAPCLAP!”)

2) Racing Scenes: They’re everything you’ve heard and more. Fantastic. Fast. Exciting. More jockey ass in the air than any other movie you’ve ever seen. It’s like you’re in the race.

3) Keeneland as Pimlico: You’d never know.

4) Scenes depicting Pollard and Seabiscuit’s dual rehabilitation before the ’40 Big Cap. You guys, this is going to kill you. It’s gorgeous. Trees drip with pink springtime flowers; Tobey converses with the Biscuit as they limp around the farm. Wait 'til you see Tobey meet Seabiscuit when they van him in from the track. He’s got a cast, and the horse has a cast, and Tobey gets up off the porch, and the horse comes trotting at him, and Tobey is all, “No, no, Pops, I’ll come to you!” and he throws away his crutches and he hops over to Seabiscuit on one foot and he kisses him and oh, oh, oh! Tears!

5) There are several very funny parts that I shall not divulge here. One involves a goat, so you know it’s quality. Any movie featuring projectile livestock is good for the soul.

Some quibbles:

1) The book--as God has ordained it--was better.

2) I am going to take some heat for this, and I refuse to get into it with you guys, but there were a lot of inaccuracies. A lot. Granted, you’re going to have to squish the story here and there to make a sit-throughable movie, but Ross did it in a way that made me sigh very loudly. The original story is so fascinating and compelling, but Ross changes some things that frankly don’t need changing. Such as: De-aging the son who was killed in a car crash from a teenager to a little kid. So that makes it more sad now? Shut up, Gary.

3) Macy: God his character was annoying. He was. A few funny lines, but not the laff-o-rama the reviewers are making it out to be. Ross balled up all the sportswriters into “Tick Tock”, which, again, I understand doing, but man a lot got left behind. I missed Tom Smith dodging all those handicappers. None of that is here.

4) Even though the “break a man’s heart” line was left in, two wonderful, wonderful quotes from Pollard were left out: His “We had four good legs between us” and “Among the hootin’ owls, we both got well again.” Gary? When somebody lays two gems like that on the chair of your writing desk, YOU PICK THEM UP.

5) Okay, this should have been number one, but it’s so huge I had to gear up for it: I hate—I hate—what this movie does to Red Pollard. Tobey plays the part the way it’s written extremely well (Two words, ladies: Brothel. Scene.) but oh my God. This Pollard is a Pollard-lite. They sucked the humor, the profanity, the life right out of him. He’s written as this, like, fourteen year old who’s barely been trotted around a track before, even though he’d been riding a full decade by the time the movie takes place. You can really see it when baby-face Tobey stands next to Stevens, who was all of thirty-nine when this was shot and, as all jocks, looked at least a decade older than that.

I know I said I wouldn’t go into the specific inaccuracies here, but here’s a for-instance: Pollard never asked to be put back on Seabiscuit after his spill. I think that says a lot about his character and the way he operated. But here, we’ve got Red whining after Howard about it constantly. He’s like, “It’s the Santa Anita!” and Howard goes, “This is different, Red” and Tobey is all, “Yeah! This is REEEALLLLY different!” and you totally want to smack his freckles off. (As always, this has made for an excellent inside joke with the Blonde Possie. Whenever one of us wants to do something that another doesn't want to do, we'll bust out the "But it's the Santa Anita!" This made the whole thing worth it, in my opinion.)

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