Well, it’s March Madness time of year, so I thought I’d review a basketball movie today. Since I have already reviewed the very solid “Blue Chips” and really don’t think of “White Men Can’t Jump” as much of a hoops film, the only good one left (at least that comes to my mind right now) is “Hoosiers.” It is very classy and much superior to the previously mentioned films and while it doesn’t have a Larry Bird cameo (like “Blue Chips” or the same schoolyard feel of “White Men”), it is Indiana and is worth every minute of your time to watch it – or watch it again. Gene Hackman puts all his considerable talent on display in this one and a solid supporting cast makes sure “Hoosiers” is a winner.
(1986; 114 minutes; rated PG; directed by David Anspaugh and starring Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper)
A SIMPLER DAY, A SIMPLER TIME … BUT A TIME-TESTED STORY
It’s almost difficult to believe that “Hoosiers” will have its 30th anniversary next year. Being a period piece at the time of its release (1951 in the movie and 1986 for the film), you don’t get the feel that it’s a 1980s movie. At the same time, you can celebrate its wonderful pace (not frenetic) and the time it takes to properly develop characters and spinning out its plot.
“Hoosiers” is another example of a star who doesn’t get an Oscar nod (a worthy supporting cast member does) most likely because of the ease of his acting. The actor is Gene Hackman as high school basketball coach “Norman Dale.” Hackman is the consummate professional and knocks out wonderful performances on such a regular basis that his exceptional talent doesn’t always get recognized – but he has won two Oscars and was nominated for three others.
Of course “Hoosiers” is the story of a rural Indiana high school team that against all odds makes it to the state championship game. It is very loosely based on a factual story (click here to read about what really happened) and is one of a man’s redemption as he tries to mold a team’s character. It tells its story against the backdrop of small town U.S.A. Hackman, who has a somewhat shady past (then it was about his mysterious problems coaching a college team; today, he’d be in the witness protection program), forces people to look at things a little bit differently.
The film has wonderful interplay between Hackman and the female lead, Barbara Hershey as teacher “Myra Fleener,” although it does try to force the relationship early before settling in. As to Hackman and the team, they work together like a well-oiled machine. The young men look like they’re right off the farm and living in 1950s America and their relationship with the coach just comes off as natural as to the circumstance.
Here’s a rundown of the major cast members:
- As already noted, Hackman is just his usual excellent self here. Although a man with a past and a seeming final chance in sport, he’s not a pushover and does a wonderful job of showing great strength without having to put down those who would tell him his job. I don’t believe there are too many more ways to laud Hackman’s performance here. He has also been great in films from “The French Connection” (click here for my review) to “Runaway Jury” (click her for my review).
- Oscar nominee (“The Portrait of a Lady”) Hershey plays the teacher who stands ready to protect the school’s best basketball player not only from being pressured into returning to the sport before he is emotionally ready after the death of his mentor, but also to make sure he succeeds in life. She wants to be at odds with Hackman, but becomes a supporter. Hershey does the right thing here and doesn’t let the character go over-the-top, although her work appears a little forced in the beginning. She was also solid in “Black Swan” and was borderline terrific with Robert Duvall and Michael Douglas in “Falling Down.”
- The redoubtable “Easy Rider” co-star and two-time Oscar nominee Dennis Hopper is truly good here and deserved his nomination for the role of town drunk and basketball fanatic “’Shooter’ Flatch.” Hopper does great work with his character’s emotions bouncing around in the alcoholic world he lives. Hopper was superb as the bad guy in “Speed” as well as “Apocalypse Now.” If it wasn’t for Hackman, it would be an easy call to say Hopper did the best work here.
- Chelcie Ross plays “George,” who is a townsman filling in as basketball coach and doesn’t take kindly to Hackman being hired. Ross, who has a nice resume of a number of roles playing cretins, does a wonderfully unrecognized job as the frustrated coach. You’ll recognize him from a variety of supporting roles, but he’s probably best remembered as aging pitcher “Eddie Harris” in “Major League” and was also a bad guy in “Ri¢hie Ri¢h.”
- Fern Parsons plays “Opal Fleener” and the character is Hershey’s irascible mother. Parsons does a really nice turn here as the strong-willed farm woman who knows how to cut through the noise. Parsons was also in another iconic sports film: “Field of Dreams.” She was also in “Class.”
All the actors who portray the team’s players are similar in one way: they are effective. Each stands out for a moment but doesn’t manage to take charge and elevate his character. The lead player, “Jimmy Chitwood” played Maris Valainis, is stoically good, but not great (he was in “Casualties of War” in a brief career of only four credits) and could have handled the role better.
You don’t have to guess which team wins the championship game.
It’s simply pathetic that “Hoosiers” was only 35th with $28.6 million at the box office in 1986 while the Sylvester Stallone stinker “Cobra” was 15th with $49 million and the misery that was Brigitte Nielsen, according to Box Office Mojo (the source of the numbers, not the comment). The No. 1 film was Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun” wit $176.7 million. Other films from the year that I have reviewed include Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School” (sixth with $91.2 million – click here for my review), “Ruthless People” (ninth with $71.6 million – click here for my review) and the disappointing “Tough Guys” with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (43rd with $21.4 million – click here for my review).
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- Casting decision that wasn’t: Jack Nicholson was originally slated to play the “Norman Dale” role, but he wasn’t available and told filmmakers to sign up another actor if they couldn’t wait on his schedule. Whew! What a break. I couldn’t ever imagine Nicholson in this role.
- The cast member with the most interesting name and link to the real events on which “Hoosiers” is based is Bobby Plump. He has an uncredited role as a “reporter” and in the real championship game did the assist to the game-winning shot.
- Director David Anspaugh has been primarily a director of television programs (“Hill Street Blues” and “ Elsewhere”). “Hoosiers” is so good that I’ll forgive him for the crap he shoveled out via the simply pathetic “Rudy.”
- Directly from IMDb.com: “For the scene where Dennis Hopper walks onto the court drunk in the middle of the game, Hopper wanted a ten-second notice before calling action. At the ten-second notice, he spun around in circles until action was called, allowing him to stagger onto the court in an awkward fashion in order to appear drunk.”
© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015.
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