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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Greatest Inspirational Speech In The Locker Room

I'm hoping to finally indulge in the long-anticipated (for me) Ernie Davis biopic "The Express" this evening and having glimpsed the previews wherein Dennis Quad delivers what will clearly be the Inspirational Speech In The Locker Room, I, as I must, got to thinking. What epitomizes the most quintessential of all Sports Movie scenes?

When I first had this thought I simply assumed I'd be writing about Gene Hackman's pep talk at the end of "Hoosiers". (By the way, my favorite movie-watching moment so far of this year occurred the Monday before the start of the NCAA Tournament when I re-watched "Hoosiers" with my friends Dave, Matt and Trish. It was beautiful, just beautiful. I had one too many scotches and still felt like I could have run five miles once it ended. The ironic note was the end of the film nearly parralleled the end of Drake University's Tournament game five days later. Much like Hickory High found itself in a tie game as the clock ticked down to zero with the ball in the hands of its star player Jimmy Chitwood, Drake found itself in a tie game as the clock ticked down to zero with the ball in the hands of its star player Adam Emmenecker. And as this was happening Matt was grabbing hold of me and yelling, "It's just like Jimmy Chitwood!" But there the comparison ends. Jimmy Chitwood made the shot. Adam Emmenecker didn't. And then Western Kentucky stabbed Drake fans in the heart with that heave. Remember the conclusion of the game Hickory wins to get into the championship? Ollie makes the two free throws and then the opposing player heaves the ball from half-court? Well, the heave in the movie almost goes in. Really. Watch it. Well, imagine if the heave had gone in and how Hickory would have felt. That's what it felt like when Western Kentucky made their heave.)

So I fired up the "Hoosiers" DVD and skipped to the scene before the championship game and found that the Inspirational Speech In The Locker Room isn't really there. In fact, Gene Hackman actually says, "It's way past big speech time." Instead he has the other players talk before the pastor who doubles as the team's bus driver reads the David and Goliath passage from the Bible and then Gene Hackman tells his guys he loves them. Moving, moving stuff, but it actually goes against the grain of the Inspirational Speech In The Locker Room.

My mind then drifted somewhere else, specifically to Oliver Stone's over-stuffed, over-zealous 1999 professional football opus "Any Given Sunday". If you recall, this film had a massive, sprawling cast (and when I say sprawling, I mean it - imagine Charlton Heston as the league commissioner and Ann Margaret as the team's owner's mother and even Elizabeth Berkley as a young woman who makes a living, shall we say, "turning tricks") over which Al Pacino as head coach Tony D'Amato lorded. Now in his twilight years the esteemed Mr. Pacino has gained a reputation - not unfair - of doing nothing more than yelling, of turning up the volume regardless of scene and situation. My friend and colleague Brad so accurately noted that in the third act of "The Devil's Advocate" Pacino "essentially scream(ed) an entire conversation." The Inspirational Speech In The Locker Room, however, practically begs for extravagant theatrical showmanship. Whether it was intentional or not, I don't know, but Stone found the perfect actor, given Pacino's late career propensity for hollering.

The other two staples of the Inspirational Speech In The Locker Room are hyperbole and cliches. Gobs of it, rolling like moss off trees in Savannah. But in this particular situation its at once forgivable and necessary. Why? The Inspirational Speech In The Locker Room's roots are in reality. Sort of, anyway.

I assume they started long before Knute Rockne became head football coach at Notre Dame in the teens and twenties but the one real-life Inspirational Speech In The Locker Room that probably even non-sports fans know is Rockne telling his team the dying words of the great George Gipp (immortalized in the film "Knute Rockne, All American").

"Sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper."

(Note: This speech, of course, was parodied wonderfully in "Airplane!" by Leslie Nielsen when he implored Robert Hays to "get out there and win just one for The Zipper").

But was Rockne even really at The Gipper's bedside as he claimed to be in said speech? Were the words Rockne used truly spoken by the dying Gipp? History indicates nay on both charges. And it's also a known fact that Rockne did not have a sick child, which he also claimed during another Inspirational Speech In The Locker Room. So there you go, real-life Inspirational Speeches In The Locker Room were born of lies, cliches and hyperbole. That's why when Oliver Stone uses them in "Any Given Sunday" it's perfect.

(Note: It is generally believed former Nebraska Football Head Coach Bill Callahan gave The Worst Inspirational Locker Room Speech of all time prior to his team's 41-6 loss to Missouri in 2007. He is reported to have said the following: "Hey, guys, a lot of people don't think we can win this one. Frankly, I don't either. Who knows? None us really know anything. Do we? Nope. We don't. Life, she's a mystery. Sort of like my gameplan. Which I accidentally left on my table at Applebees last night. Boy, those mini bacon cheeseburgers were dynamite. If you can play as well as they tasted, well, guys, we can win this game. Maybe. Again, I don't want to say anything definitive. So let's go play.")

D'Amato is the coach of the Miami Sharks in whatever fake football league Stone conjured up and they have, of course, had a rough season. Quarterback controversy, team owner breathing down coach's neck to inject "new life", James Woods running amuck as a morally corrupt trainer, stock footage of "Ben Hur" and storm clouds rolling in, the list goes on.

The speech starts: "Now either we heal as a team, or we're gonna crumble. Inch by inch, play by play -- till we're finished. We're in hell right now, gentlemen. Believe me. And we can stay here....or we can climb out one inch at a time."

Football is what, boys and girls? A game of....inches!!! That's right! It's verbiage straight out of the Cliche Manual, which, as we've established, is a good thing in this scenario, but delivered for maximum effect by a (stunningly) restrained Pacino.

It continues: "Now I can't do it for you, I'm too old. I look around I see these young faces and I think, I've made every wrong choice a middle aged man can make. I pissed away all my money, believe it or not. I chased off anyone who's ever loved me. And lately I can't even stand the face I see in the mirror."

Now he injects a bit of the personal hocus pocus. Like Rockne using The Gipper and his own son as mere motivational tools, D'Amato is using himself.

"In either life or football, the margin for error is so small....one half step too late or too early and you don't quite make it. One half second to slow or to fast, you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us....on this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch! We claw with our fingernails for that inch! Because we know when we add up all those inches that's going to make the difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!"

Now the Pacino we know turns up! Voice raised, spit flying, eyes terrorizing, screaming like hell hath no fury! (Note: For months after I saw this movie in the theater I would, for no good reason, every now and then scream at my roommate Chad, "We claw with our fingernails for that inch!" I think he enjoyed it.)

"I'm still willing to fight and die for that inch! Because that's what living is! The six inches in front of your face! Now I can't make you do it! You gotta' look at the guy next to you....I think you're gonna see a guy who will go that inch with you! You're gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows when it comes down to it, you're going to do the same for him! That's a team, gentlemen, and either we heal now as a team...."

At this point, Pacino, still yelling like Buddy Rich at his backing band, suddenly stomps on the brake and dials it way back in a split second to conclude.

"....or we will die as individuals. That's football guys. That's all it is. Now, what are you going to do?"

In nearly every other scene in the film Pacino is the twilight years-Pacino, ranting and raving. But in this scene it's almost as if he's once again....(gasp!) acting. He's like, dare I say, a once-brilliant football player who has lost "it" but suddenly regains "it" at a crucial moment in a key game. It's like Oliver Stone said to Pacino right before the cameras started rolling, "Hey, Al, dial it up. Yell as much as you want." To which Pacino replied, "I'll be damned if you're gonna' tell me how to act!" and so, to show Oliver who was boss, he did the opposite.

I think Pacino is missing a golden opportunity to rake in some more dough with this whole thing. Sports teams should hire his services. Seriously, watch this scene and tell me the man wasn't born to deliver Inspirational Speeches In The Locker Room. If you want to give one, you have to indulge in at least a few cliches. If you want to indulge in a few cliches, you have to froth at the mouth to make them convincing. If you have to froth at the mouth, well, sorry, but you and no one else can froth at the mouth like Al Pacino.

(Watch the speech here.)

1 comment:

Wretched Genius said...

I'm one of Any Given Sunday's defenders. Sure, it was overly ambitious and the cast was way too big, but as an insight into the world of American professional sports it was a success. And who the hell knew that Cameron Diaz could hold her own against Pacino in their scenes together? Lawrence Taylor gives a surprisingly poignant performance, and this was one of the first signs that maybe Jamie Foxx was more than just that guy who used to be on In Living Color.

Underrated, is what I'm saying.