' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Best of Times (1986)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Best of Times (1986)

A different Kurt Russell movie, “Swing Shift”, was pegged for this place in my series of August Flashbacks to the Eighties. Unfortunately, the most tragic of circumstances intervened and I re-watched one of my favorite Robin Williams movies, one that happened to co-star Kurt Russell. 

Robin Williams had such a sad smile. I don’t intend to retroactively diagnose the depression that would appear to have just caused him to take his life based on the curvature of his mouth in movies because that’s wholly reductive but the fact remains that even when he found something funny on screen, or was being funny himself, it so often came with a melancholic tinge. The smile is there in films long since made and released and reviewed. He had that smile in movies I did not like – “Dead Poets Society” – and in movies I mostly did like – “Good Will Hunting.” The park bench monologue in the latter is oft-cited as a peak moment in his extensive canon, and worthily so, but I always think of the moment that triggers it – Williams (as Sean Maguire) sitting alone in his house in front of his typewriter with the curtains open and taking a glug of the drink and……smiling. It was a smile that readily acknowledged the rotten, godforsaken past but did it with a good humor. “That's the way the world works,” its droopy features said, and that was the way the world also worked in “Best of Times.” 


That’s the 1986 footballing opus from the pen of noted sports movie savant Ron Shelton (it was directed by Roger Spottiswoode) which features Williams as Jack Dundee, a banker in Taft, California, born and raised, who has never lived down a single moment in high school, dropping what would have been the winning touchdown against their arch rival Bakersfield. This depression has only compounded in adulthood because he has, as he must, gotten married to the daughter of Bakersfield’s old coach (Donald Moffat). His wife Elly (Holly Palance) is lovely and loves him, and he knows it, and when he looks at her, he seems to emit waves of guilt that he can’t let go of the guilt already plaguing him over the dropped pass. That’s two layers of guilt. He locks himself in his office and re-watches the play over and over on an old reel to reel recorder. Then he gets a cockamamie idea – why live in the rotten, godforsaken past when he can re-write it? Why not re-play the game?

Let’s not forget the guy who threw the perfect pass that Jack dropped. He’s Reno Hightower, once the best quarterback in the county, now a broken-down “van specialist” with a marriage of his own that’s on the rocks. This is also the story of his miserable past and his shot at redemption. He is played by Kurt Russell who develops an easygoing chemistry with his co-star. There is a theory that Williams muddled around as an actor for the most of the 80's, tamping down his frantic style because the movies didn't know how to harness it, until “Good Morning, Vietnam” broke the code. There's truth to this but I also think it undersells his ability to modulate. He occasionally falls into voices here (including an utterly eerie McConaughey-esque “All right, all right, all right”) but mostly plays a timidly nice man enveloped in a morose metaphorical cloud of sadness, like Charlie Brown if he'd been a wide receiver instead of a placekicker.

“Best of Times” has always been my favorite football film because it captures something essential and problematic about the sport, how its glory is fleeting yet its memories persist. John Ed Bradley, a one-time LSU Tiger, wrote an entire book exploring this idea, how he became determined not to be one of those guys who can’t let go of the past and then became one of those guys who couldn’t let go of the past. “I’ve seen them, the real sad ones,” said Myrna Fleener to Coach Norman Dale in “Hoosiers.” “They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old.” Of course, what adds the extra layer of substance to “Best of Times” is that, to Jack Dundee, there really were no glory days, no Best of Times. His dropped pass was the worst of times, and it still is. 


The film has a substantially sentimental air, yet it also – perhaps unintentionally – evinces the terrifying influence a mere sport can hold. It is not just in the main plot but in a side story set up with Williams’ opening monologue wherein the film connects the economy, the livelihood, the self-worth of Taft directly to sports, and so Taft vs. Bakersfield 2.0 becomes a way for the town as much as Jack himself to pull itself out of the doldrums. If football can hold such sway, perhaps it’s time to examine our relationship with it? And “Best of Times” almost does, if not quite.

At halftime of re-staged game, Bakersfield leading Taft by the seemingly insurmountable score of 27-0, Jack and Reno have a fairly fierce locker room tete-a-tete, and in that moment you can see the scars football leaves behind. If you everything you are is based on who you once were, as is the case with Reno, then who the hell is he? It’s an intense question and Shelton’s script, almost unbelievably, brings the film right to the precipice of answering it. Instead a comeback is spurred and Reno throws another last second pass and this time Jack catches it and Taft wins and Bakersfield loses (and only then does Jack’s father-in-law seem to respect him which……O.M.G.) because as Jay Gatsby once opined of course you can re-write the past, old sport. Of course you can. (Can’t you?)

Sports is very much about the moment. We know it’s about the moment because it’s those moments – for better or worse or much worse – that linger. I fear the revised moment will linger just as much for Jack because, seriously, having caught the pass, what now? (WHAT NOW???) So it goes. Still, on the night Robin Williams passed, it was nice to see him carried off the field, a smile on his face that for a blessed few seconds wasn't so sad.

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