Thursday, October 07, 2010

Secretariat was essence of greatness

Thursday, October 07, 2010
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Secretariat, with regular jockey Ron Turcotte races into history by winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. (Photograph by Bob Coglianese)

This year would mark the 40th anniversary of the birth of Secretariat, which is as near as I can come to any kind of why-now explanation for the movie about the one-and-only Virginia thoroughbred that opens tomorrow night.

Maybe it's not so much a why-now question as a what-took-so-long reaction, since who would have thought that when a major studio finally got around to putting the life of the horse they called "Big Red" on the big screen, we'd have Diane Lane and John Malkovich cooking up the typically ultrarich Disney formula 37 years after the fact, the still-astounding fact all the same?

Secretariat swept horse racing's Triple Crown events in 1973 with a blur of equine brilliance unseen before or since. You didn't have to be a fan of horse racing to be mesmerized by this singular animal, which is why, the week before the Belmont Stakes that June, Secretariat was not only on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but on Time and Newsweek as well, in addition to, I think, The Economist, Men's Health, and Popular Mechanics.

But that was the whole essence of Secretariat's story -- it couldn't be exaggerated. He was his own exaggeration, running to his own outlandish standards, to achievements not thought possible inside the sport of kings or out. His Triple Crown performances were rare historical cadenzas that can still raise gooseflesh, even that far back in the mind's rear view.

And thus the film is highly necessary, and highly successful in the delivery of Secretariat's thundering aura. That requires a certain capacity for cinematic art, including a resounding score and inspired sound editing. That it includes a pretty fair narrative is, I think, a bonus, but even there, Secretariat and his peeps were thoughtful enough to have arranged an intact true life drama from which to proceed.

In one scene, the horse's owner (Lane), trainer (Malkovich) and groom (Nelsan Ellis) are discussing in somewhat hushed tones Secretariat's lack of appetite before the Kentucky Derby, when Lane finally says, "Let me have a moment with him."

In 1,001 other films, this exact scene exists, but the working line of dialogue is, "Let me talk to him."

There is little doubt that among the reasons this particular superstar athlete is so beloved is that Secretariat never said anything stupid. Yet somehow I don't assume for a minute that Secretariat would have answered questions with the grace and humility of a Lou Gehrig, who finished only one slot higher (at 34) when ESPN ranked the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century.

I always thought that Big Red, if he could talk, would bring it like Muhammad Ali.

"I'm a baaaad horse!"

Like Ali, Secretariat was a heavyweight with unmatched speed and grace amid an evident playfulness, all things that can create outrageous confidence and a not insignificant social burden. As Ali explained, "It's hard to be modest when you're as great as I am."

Ali didn't have to wait as long as Secretariat for his defining cinematic tribute, as Will Smith brought him to the screen in 2001 with a performance that some veteran Ali students thought was too brooding. Still, a New York Times review at the time referred to the fighter's trademark braggadocio as "an enchanting lack of humility."

Secretariat had that same essence, I thought, that of a four-legged, nearly 1,200-pound Muhammad Ali, with accomplishments so unforeseen they made it too hard to be humble. When he won the Derby, his quarter-mile times were successively better right to the wire. In other words, when he finished in a record-breaking 1:59 2/5ths, he accelerated for 1 1/4 miles. When he beat his alleged rival, the horse named Sham, in the Preakness, he won by the same 21/2 lengths, and when Sham finished dead last in the Belmont, well, Sham looked like the only horse in the five-horse field with a lick of sense. After all, what was the point? Secretariat was running 11/2 miles in a world record 2:24, winning by 31 lengths, something still so astonishing that it actually seems comforting that this film reaffirms it.

The movie also includes repeated scenes of prerace news conferences that seem frightfully similar to Ali weigh-ins. We see the competing owners and trainers trade polite jabs, but, to me, those scenes begged for Secretariat in a speaking part.

"Sham's so ugly, I don't know if he's comin' or goin'. If he even dreams about beatin' me, he better wake up and apologize."

Maybe this is why my screenplays never go anywhere.

Gene Collier:

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