How does one pay tribute to a magnificent horse, let alone the most famous racing champion of all? “Secretariat,” Randall Wallace’s movie about the horse whose exploits in May and June 1973 remain unequaled until today, does it in words and moving pictures – and by moving, I also mean in a touching and uplifting way.
The film’s citation from Job 39 (the New International Version) at the start sets the tone and style in telling the story of Triple Crown winner Secretariat and how his owner Penny Chenery Tweedy beat the odds. The last line in the biblical passage — recited as the film’s thoroughbred soars in slow motion toward a finish line — seems to echo the traditional fanfare signaling the start of major U.S. derbies:
In frenzied excitement he eats up the ground;
he cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.
The film’s tone is one of reverence to the real-life facts and its style is elegant to a fault. The movie’s strengths and flaws flow from Mike Rich’s unsubtle yet colorful screenplay, “suggested by” the book by sports journalist William Nack. On the production side, its exultant mood comes from director Wallace’s realistic approach that captures the joy that breeders, trainers, jockeys and punters greet every victory, trophy, garland of roses and cash winnings. I can’t see how else Wallace could have depicted such moments but in an old-fashioned, celebratory manner. He must also be credited with buttressing Diane Lane’s outstanding performance, one of the dazzling acting feats in the movies this year.
The horseracing world that the screenplay and direction of this movie present to us is, however, sanitized. It avoids the G-word and the F-word. Gambling is not even hinted at and there’s no sign of race fixing, two failings the horseracing world had been and can be notorious for. What we do get wind of is the corruption in the lower ranks and none of the possible dubious dealings of owners. In an early scene, Penny (Lane) sacks the trainer at The Meadows family farm for conspiring to sell four of their remaining horses at half the rightful price as Alzheimer’s disease grips her father, Chris (a believably hamstrung Scott Glenn).
What this movie educates us about is the business dealings that are part and parcel of raising horses for profit. Horse racing is simply not for the faint-hearted. That’s what we learn after Penny takes a brave stand to put the family stables back on track. The money quoted seems to be always in the millions: the horse ownership shares, the cost of running the stables, as well as the potential losses from sales and on the balance sheets.
“Great colts come from great sires”
Amid the liquidation, estate and inheritance tax issues that Penny has to sort out is the ritual of “coin toss day.” That’s how she comes to own the chestnut brown colt that is to be called Big Red by his groom, later Secretariat to the world. We get a close look at the real-life Penny’s business acumen as she picks the colt that none of her father’s business friends wants, an offspring of Something Royal and Hasty Mathilda. She knows that “great colts come from great sires” but the old boys have not done their homework as well as she had, if indeed they’ve done it at all.
The turning point in Penny’s own little business “restructuring” comes after the collapse of her idea of selling breeding rights. Soon after, with the grudging help of Bull Hancock, a family friend, she finally syndicates Secretariat for $6.8 million, sending shock waves through the horseracing world. At this point, “Secretariat” takes an exciting as well as inspirational turn.
As Secretariat starts to win one race after another to cop the title Horse of the Year, so do the lessons of keeping faith in oneself during adversity, standing up in the world, racing against oneself to excel, and doing what is right. Several golden sunsets enhance the messages. It’s as if the writer, Rich, had doubts about the moviegoers’ ability to glean the lessons for themselves and, worse, over the built-in charismatic quality of Penny Chenery’s life story.
Nothing to fret about: the sentimentality is hardly offensive and apparently reflects the ideals of the feisty lady who was thrown every conceivable barrier to success, from personal tragedies to the chauvinist attitude of the men who called the shots in the world of horseracing at that time of the Vietnam War, hippies and the modern feminist movement. Some tried and true cinematic tricks help, not the least of which is Wallace’s handling of his actors and his sure grip on sight and sound to enthrall us down to the joyous end.
For example, he surprises us by setting two key scenes amid the rousing rhythms of the soul and gospel hits, “I’ll Take You There” by the Staples Singers and – oh happy choice – “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. And his frame-by-frame accounts of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes are exercises in seamless storytelling, from the horses’ nervous trot to the starting gate, through their pounding strides on the dirt tracks and to the drama at the finish line. Wisely, Wallace avoids tedium by showing the highlights of the Preakness Stakes through real-time video clips from 1973, giving us a glimpse of the real 3-year-old Secretariat in all his chestnut beauty and trademark white star on his forehead.
The old boys network of conservative Virginians who give Penny a hard time is an example of shrewd casting. They are led by two towering actors: James Cromwell as the testy Ogden Phipps; and a former U.S. senator from Tennessee, Fred Dalton Thompson, as the dour Bull Hancock. Margo Martindale makes a meaty comic turn as the loyal secretary Miss Elizabeth Ham, listening in to private conversations, pissing off the mighty (“His name is Secretariat, and he’ll make your horse take dictation,” she puns), and just being agreeable in general.
Malkovich as trainer, a fashion disaster
And how can John Malkovich as the sought-after trainer Lucien Lurin not win a nomination as the wardrobe disaster of the year, with a citation for best American curser in French thrown in? One needs 3D glasses to fully appreciate Lucien’s taste in style: a garish checkered hat, a salmon-pink shirt matched with a strawberry-colored tie, and a red Chevy to boot. (“Superfly” is how Hancock describes him.) But his performance is a serious and intelligent character study of the person who can claim a lot of credit for Secretariat’s triumphs. Lucien first comes out as an irascible retiree who had tired of “dealing with horses as stupid as their owners.” Later, he becomes the astute employee who knows the virtue of keeping a horse’s natural gait and in admitting his mistakes, as when he fails to notice the faltering prize colt’s gum abscess.
As portrayed with studied elegance by Diane Lane, Penny comes to life neither as a saint of family values nor a feminist martyr but as a woman who is her father’s daughter, and a shrewd businesswoman who must juggle her energies between two families: her fading ancestral clan whose traditions are threatened with extinction, and her own brood of four children who still need motherly attention. “That’s my girl” would be the accolade she would receive from her father Chris. But as a wife and a mother, she gets a failing grade from her husband, though her kids continue to love her unconditionally despite the times that they have to be left on their own.
Lane multitasks Penny’s many roles beautifully. Thrust among a band of no-nonsense businessmen, she keeps her emotions in check and her language civil, but strikes back imperiously when provoked, such as when she dresses down a startled Lucien: “Don’t tell me that it’s none of my business. Every bit of THIS is my business!” When Penny finally laughs after months of mounting pressure over Secretariat’s first major race (over Lucien’s hat), she does it so heartily and with cathartic abandon that we feel like laughing with her.
Every emotion seems to be Lane’s business, too, and she curls her lips, glowers and mobilizes her hands to convey every bit of them. When Penny misses a daughter’s stage debut in a trite hippie play, she emotes the despair over not being present as promised while jubilating over her child’s achievement. “It’s art, baby,” she sobs over the phone, her body crumpled in bed. “It’s art!”
And in the most eloquently acted moment of the movie, Penny visits Secretariat in the stable on the eve of the running of the Belmont after Lucien declares that “tomorrow, he will have wings!” Horse and woman stare in each other’s eyes. Secretariat barely moves his head. Lane is tight-lipped but seems to be whispering something, just letting her eyes do the talking….
With an impeccably coiffed hairdo (one gets curious as to how blonde Penny would look with her hair down), Lane gets a no-compromise wardrobe that speaks of wealth and influence, highly sophisticated costumes designed by Michael T. Boyd and Julie Weiss. The question of what the actress’ clothes will look like in the next scene — a tweed jacket, embossed cotton blouse, an alpaca woolen poncho and another printed silk scarf? – provides some of the missing suspense in the film. But it should be added that from the word go, “Secretariat” didn’t really need to be suspenseful. Plain uplifting and enthralling would do.