The Oscar race is off and running this week when SECRETARIAT jumps out of the gate. Emotional, sweeping, epic, horses, a true story, a strong woman, a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, core values of strength/integrity/determination/competitive spirit, and lots and lots of heart - EVERYTHING that makes Disney, Disney, and Randall Wallace a brilliant filmmaker; and what makes SECRETARIAT the quintessential horse movie. As if the story of SECRETARIAT himself isn't enough of a dream, the film is the stuff that dreams of made of. No one but Disney, Wallace and his amazing team could have made this film and executed it with the level of technical and emotional excellence that appears on screen.
For co-star Margo Martindale, one of the most exciting things about SECRETARIAT is "bringing this to a new generation too young to know the story and who Secretariat was and what he did." For those who don't know, Secretariat was the big red colt that nobody but Penny Chenery wanted. An underdog who, as a two year old colt was named American Horse of the Year, Secretariat came up winning all the roses as the 1973 Triple Crown winner of horse racing, Secretariat's most astounding victory was his 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes, a performance still believed to be the greatest horse-racing performance of all time. That single performance is considered one of the Top 100 sports performances of all time by an athlete and is the only listed performance by a non-human athlete. Secretariat himself is ranked #35 by ESPN's Top Athletes of the 20th Century. A media darling, he had a personality that made paparazzi go crazy and he was often known to mug for the cameras. According to owner, Penny Chenery, "He was a participant. He knew his part. He would hear the click of the cameras and 'smile.' And he loved to run."
But behind Secretariat's greatness was Penny Chenery. Daughter of Christopher Chenery, owner of Virginia-based Meadow Stables, Penny's greatest loves were her father, the farm and horses. Grown-up and married with children of her own, while Penny had stepped away from the family business opting for motherhood and being a housewife, she never lost her zeal, zest and devotion to the farm or her father. On her father's passing, Penny fought tooth and nail with her siblings, who wanted to sell the farm. Penny prevailed and took over management of the 2798 acre farm. And she hinged a great deal of the future success of that farm, and her family, on a little red colt she won in a coin toss; a little red colt she called Big Red and that the world would come to know as SECRETARIAT.
The Best Actress Oscar is Diane Lane's to lose. This is the best performance of her career and barring something remarkable in a film between now and December, she should be Hollywood's golden girl come February 2011. She is gutsy, emotional and strong, just like the woman she plays. Preparing for the role, Lane spent a great deal of time talking with Penny Chenery, giving her untold resources into the story, the character and the horse himself. And her chemistry with the horses playing SECRETARIAT (there are 5), gave me goosebumps. There is an exquisite gentility and love between Lane and her equine counterparts that just emanates from the screen. Simply beautiful. As if fulfilling her childhood dream of having a horse, Lane took a special shine to Longshot, one of the horses playing Secretariat.
When is John Malkovich not excellent? And here as Lucien Laurin he is at the top of his game. With a cocky flamboyance, Malkovich brings a richness filled with color and life to Laurin, a legendary man who is no longer with us and of whom little is personally known. No stranger to working with horses or the story of Secretariat, Malkovich was eager for the role. He also serves as a perfect foil to Margo Martindale's Miss Ham, lending to some absolutely delicious scenes.
I am beyond thrilled over Margo Martindale's performance as Miss Ham. A true veteran, she has always shined brightly in small (and I mean small) roles on stage and screen. After many years, she finally received some more notice with the "Hannah Montana: The Move" playing Hannah's grandma, but now, Martindale finally gets to really play the part of a strong and visible supporting actress. She gives Miss Ham strength and loyalty and walks that old Southern balance between friend/employee with razor sharp skills. Her chemistry with Malkovich is just killer as she can deliver an acerbic one liner with the best of them.
Nelsan Ellis came into SECRETARIAT as groom Eddie Sweat, basically leading a horse around. But as the film progressed, Wallace saw more in Ellis and his relationship with the horses, expanding his role. "He became almost like the spiritual center of the story." James Cromwell and Fred Thompson (in his first role since leaving politics) round out the principal players with pivotal turns as Ogden Phipps, the man whom Chenery bests in the coin toss, and Bull Hancock, Christopher Chenery's oldest friend and confidante, respectively.
For Randall Wallace, it's impossible to find enough platitudes for the excellence of this cast. "[They] lifted each other."
But the most important casting is that of Secretariat, his competitors and the jockeys. Difficult to find a horse the actual size of Secretariat with the personality, ultimately 5 colts were cast to play Big Red. Every day on the set, wrangler Lisa Brown hand painted each of the 5 with the real Secretariat's three distinctive white "socks" and facial white stripe and star. One of those horses, Trolley Boy, was the winner of a Secretariat Look-A-Like casting contest. As for the rest (36 horses in all), according to Randall, "Horses are a lot easier to cast than people and probably easier to direct. We had to have the horses be right. Horses have a primordial energy about them. We knew first and last whatever else we did we had to keep the horses safe and keep the people safe. One of the most crucial decisions was that we want to use real jockeys to play these characters, not actors. All of those decisions combined to, how do we find horses that are going to pass for any of [the real life counterparts]." None of the horses cast had any prior acting experience and their care and handling to the best horse wrangler in the business, Rusty Hendrickson. And every jockey is a real jockey, most notably, Otto Thorwarth who played Secretariatfs jockey Ron Turcotte. Fearless, Thorwarth has as much command of the screen as Secretariat.
As he has exhibited time and time again with his scripts, Randall Wallace is a consummate storyteller. Stepping behind the camera with "The Man in the Iron Mask" back in 1998, he showed his visual acumen for epic splendor that matched his written words. With "We Were Soldiers" he nailed ever detail and emotion to perfection capturing not only the horror of war, but the honor and integrity and the spirit of the human condition. Now, with SECRETARIAT, everything comes together in a legendary yet intimate form. Although the film is based on SECRETARIAT, the core story centers on Penny Chenery and her heart, conviction and strength. It has long been said, behind every great man there's an even greater woman. Behind SECRETARIAT is Penny Chenery.
Based on William Nack's book, "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion" screenwriter Mike Rich (no stranger to true life sports drama and emotion thanks to "The Rookie" and "Miracle") had to be careful not to turn the film into a documentary. Writing from fact but taking some liberties, he gives life and breathe to the "vivid majesty of myth", melding truth with emotion. Championing strength, conviction, dedication, courage and heart, Rich, together with director Randall Wallace, devotes the bulk of the story to the relationship between Penny and "Big Red" and the backstory of from whence he came, surrounding them with the people who were most instrumental to the success of Secretariat - Elizabeth Ham, Lucien Laurin, Bull Hancock, Nelsan Ellis and a persistent journalist named William Nack - balancing that with Penny's own personal triumphs as a woman.
Hand Dean Stemler the Oscar now for Best Cinematography. I was impressed earlier this year with Ayananka Bose's work in "Kites", but I have to say, Stemler has beaten Bose by a nose with SECRETARIAT. Talk about lensing! Talk about framing! And the contrast that he shows - the gentility and serenity of a misty daybreak on a cool Kentucky morning and then the bright, energetic excitement of race day, complimented with quiet intimate moments of subdued color and light. Simply beautiful. And how about some special Oscars for camera operators! WOW! That footage of the races and training is phenomenal. We've got jockey head cams, hoof cams! Incredible camera work. And all is seamlessly edited by John Wright with archival footage and "regular" lensing. Exquisitely done. Unfortunately, over the past few years, the industry seems to look to CGI films for technical awards. This year, all eyes should be on SECRETARIAT because this is where the real talent and execution lies.
Particularly notable is the costuming and hair. It wasn't lost on me that costumes for the film were duplicated from old photos and films of the various players - for example, Margo Martindale's Secretariat Blue dress with the white rick-rack trim and the white hat. Identical to an outfit of the real Miss Ham that she wore to most of Secretariat's races. And just look at Malkovich's period perfect disco 70's while Diane Lane's hair and costuming right down to the shoes, more than resembles Cheneryfs own look. And for real authenticity, thatfs the actual silver Triple Crown trophy on loan from the Kentucky Derby Museum that is presented on Secretariat's winning the Belmont. If there's ever another Triple Crown winner, they will receive that actual trophy.
For the most part, Nick Glennie-Smith's score was sweeping and served the film well with transition, but it was also a bit over the top. Secretariat's story in and of itself gives the film all the oomph, drama and heart necessary without a score as predominant as this one. Combine the story with the acting and quite honestly, you don't even need a score.
Important is that you stay for the credits as you will see a glorious epilogue unfold, not to mention a shot of Penny Chenery herself who appears as part of the crowd during the unforgettable Belmont Stakes race.
What isn't included though is a little story about what was learned after Secretariat's death in 1989. As written by William Nack in an article for Sports Illustrated, ""The colt came to it [The Belmont Stakes] with more than the winds of history at his back. Secretariat was a prodigious eater -- he was devouring 15 quarts of oats a day during his Triple Crown season -- and he needed extremely hard, fast workouts to burn this off and keep him fit. He was a morning whirlwind. Working out eight days before the Belmont, he bounded a mile in a sensational 1:34[4/5] and galloped out nine furlongs in 1:48[3/5], stakes-race time. Clockers were checking their watches with each other. . .What was going on here? The definitive answer would not come until 16 years later, on the day Secretariat died, when Dr. Thomas Swerczek, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, removed the animal's heart while performing the necropsy. Normal in all other ways, Secretariat's heart was about twice the size of the normal horse's pump and a third larger than any equine heart Swerczek had ever seen." Secretariat's heart, the largest Thoroughbred heart on record, weighed close to 22 pounds, while the average Thoroughbred heart weighs 9 pounds.
Penny Chenery always said Big Red was all heart. She was right. This weekend, fill your heart with SECRETARIAT.
Penny Chenery - Diane Lane
Lucien Laurin - John Malkovich
Miss Ham - Margo Martindale
Nelsan Ellis - Eddie Sweat
Ronnie Turcotte - Otto Thorwarth
Directed by Randall Wallace. Written by Mike Rich based on the book by William Nack, "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion."