' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Hoosiers (1986)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Hoosiers (1986)

On Sunday night I indulged in the latest ESPN 30 for 30 documentary chronicling perhaps the greatest “Cinderella” NCAA Basketball Tournament run of all time, the unheralded North Carolina State Wolfpack (“The Cardiac Pack”) of 1983 downing the vaunted “Phi Slamma Jamma” Houston outfit and their two future NBA hall of famers. What struck me most, though, were two lines near the very beginning spoken by star guard Dereck Whittenburg, the man who would loft the infamous last second airball that transformed into the dunk that slayed the dragon. "There's a saying, as athletes get older their accomplishments get greater and greater as the years pass by,” he said in voiceover. “But the truth is they just get further and further away.”


As chance would have it, the following night I attended a special event at the Music Box theater here in my Chicago neighborhood featuring a big screen showing of “Hoosiers” (1986) hosted by the Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips and sports columnist David Haugh. Chelcie Ross, the great character actor whose face you know even if you don’t recognize the name, who played Gene Hackman’s antagonist in the film, also attended and was probably the best part. (Did you know that Buddy, the gum-chewing defensive ace, was meant to be Ross’s character’s son? I didn’t either. And don’t fret because Ross confessed he also had no idea when or why Buddy re-joins the team after being kicked off in an early scene. Some mysteries are meant to remain mysterious.) I thought of “Hoosiers” when I heard Whittenburg’s line.

More specifically, I thought of Gene Hackman. A few years back the notoriously private and individualistic Gene Hackman was interviewed in GQ and when asked for his thoughts on “Hoosiers” he said simply: “Passed me by.” When asked to elaborate he said this: “I took the film at a time that I was desperate for money. I took it for all the wrong reasons, and it turned out to be one of those films that stick around. … I never expected the film to have the kind of legs it's had.”

That line always seemed to have such a brutal honesty. And, in fact, at the screening Ross confirmed that not only Hackman but co-stars Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey seemed to have no inkling of how beloved the movie they were making would turn out to be. Phillips recalled the tale of Hopper, expecting a 1986 Oscar nomination for his terrifying work in “Blue Velvet”, being flabbergasted when his Oscar nod came via “Hoosiers” instead. (Hopper played Shooter, the down-on-his luck alcoholic assistant, a stock character he gives a real pulse. His work in "Velvet" is fantastic, too, but was probably tougher to digest for the Academy.)


Phillips also made sure to single out the performance of Hackman. This seems like such an obvious detail and yet, surprisingly, it’s not. When “Hoosiers” acolytes recollect the film, they think of Jimmy Chitwood and Ollie and running the picket fence and measuring the court at Hinkle Fieldhouse (which makes me tear up just thinking about it) and Jerry Goldsmith’s gorgeously rousing score and Coach Norman Dale playing with four instead of five (“My team is on the floor”). You think of Coach Norman Dale – the character – but not necessarily of Hackman, which is a good thing. Did you know that Jack Nicholson was the original choice to play the Coach? Well, that would have been a garish disaster – it would have been Jack coaching the Hickory Huskers, not Norman Dale, and the tone would have been more Hollywood and less Norman Rockwell.

Hackman, as he so often does (did – is he retired?) vanishes into the film’s fiber, fusing with the character, calibrating his own personality (he is famously temperamental), to perfectly mesh with Norman Dale’s. It’s riveting but also, on appearance, effortless, even if we know it required scads of effort – Ross explained during the Q&A that Hackman kept editing his own dialogue from paragraphs to sentences, again and again.

Gradually, quietly Coach Dale’s backstory is revealed to show that he has come to Hickory many years after his successful run as a collegiate coach in upstate New York came to an end for hitting a player. Barbara Hershey’s character, Myra Fleener, a teacher at the high school, uncovers this but never really presses the matter. It is pointed out, but she leaves it alone. Hackman himself easily could have portrayed his character as either being consumed with the guilt of this action but, gracefully, he forges something else. The memory clearly lingers – how could it not? – but we also sense that as the years have passed the further he has gotten away from it.


If “Hoosiers” was made today the likelihood is high that we would have been forced to endure some sort of insipid flashback to this incident. But director David Anspaugh never shows it to us. We receive a few words, an admittance, Norman Dale says a little about it but not much more. It’s always there and, yet, somehow, it’s not. He remembers, he does not forget, but the more years pass, the more it fades into the background. This is what Hackman conveys with his restraint – how perhaps we cannot always make peace with our sins only to have time grant us some semblance of sanity.

During the Q&A Haugh pointed out that in the modern day media feeding frenzy there is no possibility of a coach running anywhere, regardless of how remote, to escape his past transgressions. There would probably be a GIF of Coach Norman Dale slugging his player. At the same time, in discussing the real life 1954 basketball team on which “Hoosiers” was very loosely based, he noted how 60 years ago the story would have remained regional whereas today it would likely explode into something national. We have reached a point where technology is so prevalent and, in a way, so out of control that nothing is ever past (evidence always exists in the iPhone age) even though everything passes so quickly. With turnover on, well, everything life has to offer at an all-time high it is more and more difficult to latch onto the good memories as they happen and then cultivate them.

It’s why I was so saddened to read Gene Hackman admit that the filming of “Hoosiers” had passed him by. Presumably, though, this is how it is for the making of all movies, a notion Phillips underscored when he rhetorically asked Ross of the film’s eventual success, “You never really know, do you?” No. You don’t. How could you? We bumble through life, trying desperately to glom onto anything that might last.


With each passing year the more poignant the end of “Hoosiers” becomes to me. Jimmy Chitwood has made the shot and Hickory has won the state championship (spoiler alert!) and we see an Indiana field awash in an orangey dusky light and then return to the interior of Hickory’s gymnasium, a young boy shooting hoops, the bouncing ball echoing to the rafters, and then the camera drifts……up and to the left. Up and up and up, and we find a large framed photo of the Hickory team whose triumph we have just witnessed, posing and smiling with their championship trophy. That’s all it is now – a framed picture over an exit sign, a memory, voices of the past heard in a ghostly whisper.

Memories - they feel like yesterday, but they only get further and further away.

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