Monday, November 14, 2011
"There's more to this game than shooting"
By David Gaffen
Though I didn't get on the floor much, I played for my high school's freshman basketball team. If I were to track down any of the players from that squad today, one of their first recollections of that year would doubtlessly be of our coach, who shall remain nameless to protect the innoc — er, guilty. With his bullet-head, close-cropped haircut and a perpetual expression of annoyance, his sideline tirades, often punctuated with the phrase, “Jesus H. Christ Motherfucker!” were enough to blanch even the most jaded of those familiar with high school athletics. Yes, this was the man charged with dealing with ninth-graders. Needless to say, none of us were upset to see him go the following year, collectively relieved he wasn’t promoted to junior varsity coach.
People talk of coaches that you’d follow into battle. He was not one of them. The traditional idea of the "tough coach" is one that has wended its way through popular literature and film, and, at first glance, it’s hard to distinguish one portrayal of this character from another. They’re generally gruff, foul-mouthed and strict, but with a sense of empathy that naturally doesn’t manifest until key moments in the story. In the hands of the wrong actor, he remains a stock character and nothing more, and while it's always fun to watch a grizzled character actor chew on the scenery while barking orders at athletes, it takes an actor operating on a higher plane to make such a character worth something, and thus, worthy of his team's sweat and energy.
In a sense, Gene Hackman is an actor in the John Wayne mold, albeit a bit more rumpled and lived-in, which suited him through the 1970s, when such actors could be considered leading men. He still nabbed some starring roles in the '80s as well, including a memorable portrayal of one of those coaches you'd follow into Hell in Hoosiers.
Norman Dale is a strong-headed coach so intense he alienates most of a small town where he’s been appointed to lead a basketball squad in Indiana, the most hoops-crazy state in the nation. Looking back 25 years later, it’s easy to remember the booming, anthemic score from Jerry Goldsmith, the rich photography and the famous moment late in Hoosiers where Hackman’s character eases his players’ worried minds by demonstrating that no matter how big the stadium, the basketball court’s dimensions do not change.
For his career, Hackman's tallied a surprisingly low number of Oscar nominations with just five, and just two for leading actor — Mississippi Burning a few years after this film, and The French Connection, for which he won. With an additional win for Unforgiven as supporting actor, he has gone two-for-five, which isn’t a bad percentage. Nevertheless, he was passed over for his work in Hoosiers.
What doesn't immediately come to mind upon recollection of Hoosiers is just what a hard case Hackman's character is. We’re introduced to this man who'd been fired for striking a student. He finds a few supporters who agree with his on-court philosophies — constant passing, moving without the ball and other logical tenets of the game — but puts off most others who find him haughty and a bit condescending. And for good reason: he is haughty and condescending. By keeping everyone at arm’s length, he sets himself up for a public hearing where the residents of Hickory, Ind., vote to dismiss him. That he survives at all is only through the sort of divine intervention that happens only in films. The town’s star, Jimmy Chitwood, who until now had refused to play on the team, decides to join the squad, but only on the condition that Dale stays. Dale had given the young, enigmatic man a talking-to earlier in the film where he again asserts his stubbornness, but makes an impression by refusing to kiss the star player's rear end, concluding a short speech by telling Chitwood, “I don’t care if you play on the team or not.”
Tellingly, Chitwood, who had sunk several shots from long range on a small dirt court outside the high school, clangs one off the back of the rim after Hackman's soliloquy. Hoosiers is filled with moments similar to that: quiet conversations where the director, David Anspaugh, resists the temptation to be cloying by letting people speak without syrupy music cues and dreamy, doe-eyed close-ups. (Then again, Gene Hackman and co-star Dennis Hopper didn’t become famous for their devastating smiles, so perhaps that option was unavailable to begin with. It’s something he would fail to heed with Rudy, one of the more bathetic sports movies, with characters of much less import.) Together, Hackman and Hopper have one of the best moments of the film, taking place in the small hovel in the woods where Hopper's Shooter, a former star and now the town drunk, is asked by Dale to be his assistant coach. Shooter was once a god, and now he's a sad reminder of what it means to have too much too soon in life, never able to live up to expectations set by youthful accomplishments. Dale asks that he wear a suit and come to all practices — easy conditions to meet. But then he asks that Shooter be there sober. Shooter throws him out, obviously wounded after being reminded of this flaw by a person he doesn't know. Hopper did end up with an Oscar nomination for this movie — a surprise to him, as he expected it for his mad performance as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. But the Academy went with the warmer, more sentimental role, though it's hard to argue he didn't deserve this nod. Hopper's face is as lived-in and craggy as Hackman's, wearing years of pain drowned by drink.
Hoosiers benefits from the fact that, outside of the major actors and a few well-known character types like Chelsie Ross, many of the actors, particularly the players, were recruited directly from Indiana; some were basketball players, some were not. It adds an air of authenticity that would have been overwhelmed had any of the characters been played by young, well-known stars. (For some, this was their only film.) Indeed, an ESPN article published a year ago that caught up with many of the cast members quotes Wade Schenck, who played the half-pint Ollie, saying he wanted to be in the movie because, “If I got a part, I wouldn't have to work the farm for harvest.” He's still a farmer today. Hoosiers has a deserved reputation as one of the best sports movies ever made, and it's largely because the cast grounds the film by not overplaying. (Another smart turn is having Hopper’s alcoholic character end up in a hospital late in the movie rather than fully redeem him.)
Hackman tends to make his characters easy to sympathize with, though perhaps the movie fails in the way it tells more than it shows. Norman Dale is full of bombast, and is at times self-destructive when it comes to his team (keeping just four players on the court at one moment when a healthy player sits on the bench, getting thrown out of multiple games including once to teach Hopper’s character a lesson) but I’d argue we don’t see the kind of character who'd strike a student as we’re told he did. Unfortunately, Barbara Hershey’s character, a surrogate mother to Chitwood and a rival to Dale for most of the film, also acts as sand in the gears. She’s usually naturalistic, but feels forced through most of this movie.
But these are minor points. The movie is based on a true story about a small squad that, in the 1950s, did win the state championship, and the film's portrayal of the team's late run for the title is full of rousing moments, as is the movie’s last line, heard in voiceover while the camera pans to a latter-day photo of the championship squad: “I love you guys.”