Saturday, April 19, 2014



Madame Rose, my publicist, has been working very hard to get me a magazine cover. She thinks my career is heating up again and that the younger folk, having tired of Jennifer Lopez and her old window treatments masquerading as haute couture, might just be ready to embrace a more mature and sophisticated diva. She was positively cackling when she saw the weekend grosses for "Giggly" or whatever that film is starring la Lopez and her latest swain, the one who looks like a drunk fraternity brother. Madame Rose thinks Vanity Fair is a possibility, with Horse and Hound as a back-up. 

The pilot script for the new musical sit-com, Hoosier Daddy, has gone back to the writers for some tweaking. I was very dissatisfied with the scene where the Harold Hill character, supposedly my loving husband, was supposed to mount and ride my character, Marian, all over the kitchen. It was supposed to be horseplay, I suppose, but it sounded awfully uncomfortable and a bit out of keeping with my family friendly image, especially the bit about the riding crop and spurs. They still have not come up with satisfactory casting for Harold. The networks last suggestion, Ozzy Osbourne, was simply incapable of retaining that many lines. 

As horseplay was very much on my mind, I was feeling somewhat restless so I called Tommy, my new Jungian therapist and masseur and asked him to esquire me to Seabiscuit at one of the Westwood Cineplexes. I had heard good things about the film through my friends at the Studio Kids social hour. June Allyson, in particular, seemed thrilled by it, but she must have missed half of it; she always rushes to the toilet when racehorses are mentioned. 

Seabiscuit is the true story of the 1930s racehorse of that name; well known in his day and now a Trivial Pursuit answer. Author Laura Hillenbrand resurrected his story in her best seller a few years ago, using the story of Seabiscuit and the men involved in his training and success, as a way to comment on the social history of the 1930s. Actor Tobey Maguire saw a way to expand his resume and abilities with the role of Seabiscuit's jockey, Red Pollard, and so an unlikely summer film was born. (I had heard about Tobey's project and suggested that I might be ideal in the title role - provided there was a tap number. I received no reply.) 

The film is constructed as the story of three men, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a young man too large to be a jockey and bedeviled by personal demons and health problems, who is found to be the perfect temperamental match for his horse; millionaire Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), mourning the death of his only son in an auto accident who, as he starts to feel alive again on meeting his second wife (Elizabeth Banks), gravitates from cars to horses; and trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a free spirit ex-cowboy with a knack for horses and an unorthodox approach. These three men are introduced, along with the social context of the roaring 20s and the crash, in a leisurely prologue, before they run into each other at a track in Tijuana. 

With a certain amount of psychological affinity for each other, the three go looking for a special racehorse and find him in Seabiscuit, a bad tempered colt too small to be a champion; his owner is more than happy to sell him to Howard for a fire sale price and off they all return to California to create a champion. That they do despite the odds and, as the time is the late 30s, as Seabiscuit starts winning, he becomes the hero of the common man and woman, beat down by the depression, and their entry into the 'sport of kings'. Seabiscuit, the underdog who shouldn't win, becomes a populist phenomenon and soon, a challenge match is on with the triple crown winner, War Hammer, the epitome of east coach snobbishness and exclusivity in the racing establishment. The outcome of the match is not in doubt as, if War Hammer had won, Seabiscuit would not have been long remembered. The story doesn't end there, there are additional tragedies and triumphs and a comeback of amazing proportions before the final reel. 

Writer/director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Dave, Big), takes a leisurely approach to his subject. He tries to let the story stand in context and cuts away to period photographs, radio broadcasts, and the stentorian narrative tones of David McCullough to keep it firmly anchored in a thirties reality. He's aided by a flawless production design by Jeannine Oppewall and some ingenious special effects that carry such locations as Santa Anita back seventy years. He also is fairly adept at keeping Seabiscuit's character strictly in horse territory, and not over anthropomorphizing or sentimentalizing in the nature of bad Disney films. 

The human element does relatively well with their roles. Jeff Bridges, one of our most underrated actors, gives Howard a surprising depth in what could be a one note role. There are moments when he seems to be channeling his performance from Tucker, but it could be worse. Chris Cooper is a laconic Smith; quiet and sure of himself. I'm not sure about the platinum Dutch boy hairdo though. Tobey Maguire has even worse, albeit historically accurate hair, sort of a red pompadour. His Pollard is the least successful of the three. He just doesn't move like a jockey, even a large one. This is made painfully obvious in his scenes with George Woolf (Gary Stevens - a three time Kentucky Derby champion). Stevens has an easy physical grace and fluidity that Maguire simply lacks. The biggest problem with the film comes from Ross's third grade symbolism and parallels between characters. Howard's coming to regard Pollard as a surrogate son or Pollard's untamed nature being compared to Seabiscuit is telegraphed in awfully broad strokes. 

Still, there's much to admire in the film. It's carefully crafted, uplifting, and recreates a story and a world well worth remembering. In this summer of dull comic book fantasies and limp sequels, it's nice to find something that might appeal to the more mature amongst us film goers. 

Salvaged American literature. Disassembled Stanley Steamer. Symbolic sunken toy truck. Even more symbolic pocket game. Gratuitous Mexican brothel. Pimlico racetrack. Fat financier. Horse dragging. Shattered legs. Shattered lives. Bad coffee. 

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