The Little Movie about the Big Red Horse that Could

14 Oct

Margo Martindale (l) as Elizabeth Ham and Diane Lane (r) as Penny Chenery in the climactic Belmont sequence in Secretariat. The film’s epilogue features a photo of the real Miss Ham showing that Martindale’ s hat is an excellent match for one sported by the woman who came up with the official racing name of the horse everyone else referred to as “Big Red.”

Well, apparently, ‘I’ll Have Another’ won’t have much of anything.  This year’s much ballyhooed Triple Crown contender has been retired, apparently due to tendonitis, and won’t be running in today’s race at Belmont. No Triple Crown again. On the other hand, we can all still savor the sweet victory of Secretariat, the most legendary race horse of them all; this article was originally published on October 14, 2011, but the movie is still as worthwhile as it ever was…

Last month, the great veteran character actress Margo Martindale won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series thanks to her role in Justified. Her role was that of a despicable maven of a reportedly nasty backwoods clan. Well, I never saw the show, but that appears to be the gist of it. For Martindale, it was a nice break  given that, despite all the acclaim, her character didn’t make it past the season finale. Still, Martindale is one of the most reliable  actresses on the scene with roles in everything from the landmark TV series Lonesome Dove to such popular  big screen entertainments as The Firm (1993) and Practical Magic (1998) as well as prestige, Oscar caliber fare, including Dead Man Walking (1995), The Hours (1995), and Million Dollar Baby (2004). She’s lent her considerable gifts to such diverse offerings as The Laramie Project to Hannah Montana: The Movie; more recently, she was seen in this past spring’s well reviewed Win Win. Additionally, her resume includes a Tony nomination for her featured role as “Big Mama” in the 2003 Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Also on hand for  last month’s Emmy awards was Diane Lane, nominated as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or [TV] Movie. Lane was up for the award based on her performance as Pat Loud in Cinema Verite, an HBO docudrama about the making of TV’s groundbreaking reality series, An American Family. The 1973 PBS production focused on the unraveling of a seemingly average upper middle class family from Santa Barbara, California. Unlike what passes as “reality” on most of today’s glut of such fare, An American Family was real-life unfolding, more or less in real time without a lot of contrivance and narratives dreamed up in the editing process. Among that show’s unexpected turns were Pat Loud’s on- camera decision to divorce her husband, and the more or less coming out story of the Loud’s gay son Lance, who, as the first openly gay series regular on American TV,  became an icon for the Gay Liberation movement (he passed away in 2001). Unlike Martindale, Lane lost in her category, unsurprisingly, to Kate Winslet in the new adaptation of film noir classic, Mildred Pierce (for which Joan Crawford won 1945’s Best Actress Oscar).

Interestingly, though Lane is fourteen years younger than Martindale,  the former has actually been acting professionally in movies and TV a bit longer than the latter. After all, Lane delighted audiences as a teenager way back in 1979’s A Little Romance while, aside from commercials, Martindale’s first actual TV credit is for 1988’s  The Child Saver. Coincidentally, Martindale’s second TV credit (per the IMDb) is the aforementioned Lonesome Dove, which also featured an Emmy nominated performance by none other than guess who? Diane Lane. Also coincidentally, it was almost exactly a year ago that the two women appeared together in Secretariat. Released on October 8, 2010, Secretariat tells the amazing story of the titular colt, the most famous, and most beloved, Triple Crown winner in the history of organized American “Thoroughbred Horse Racing.”  To clarify: the Triple Crown is the honor reserved for horses that win three of the year’s biggest annual horse races, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. Triple Crown winners are rare. There have only been 11 winners since 1919; moreover, there has not been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.  Not only was Secretariat one of the last three horses to bear the Triple Crown (with Seattle Slew on board in 1977), he was the first such champion in 25 years. Additionally, his victories were decisive, especially his triumphant run at the Belmont, an astonishing record that still holds to this day.

It seems odd that it took so long for Hollywood to tell this great story. The film, directed by Randall Wallace (the Oscar nominated screenwriter of 1995’s Best Picture winner, Braveheart), was released by the folks at Disney proper–not one of their many subsidiaries–and in the weeks and months leading up to Secretariat‘s debut, buzz started building that it would be the new-next The Blind Side, the 2009 Sandra Bullock smash hit that earned its star an Oscar and even snagged a “surprise” Best Picture nomination. My guess is all that buzz was generated and/or leaked by someone at, or affiliated with,  the studioFull disclosure: I’m a huge, huge fan of The Blind Side, and for reasons that are probably too complicated to ferret through in the space of this blog. That noted, the  comparison to The Blind Side probably did more harm to Secretariat than good. Allow me to “unpack” that, if you will: first of all, the Blind Side was a Warner Bros’ film, and not a Disney film, so that’s already problematic because by all accounts, even the suits at Warners didn’t know what they had on their hands until it just sort of erupted.

Anyone who doesn’t think that Disney had The Blind Side’s success in mind when it came time to promote Secretariat need only compare the DVD cover art of both films…

Let’s backtrack just a bit.  In the fall of  2009, when Warners was preparing its year-end slate of holiday blockbusters and Oscar hopefuls, the movie that reportedly was deemed most worthy of the studio’s consideration was Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, starring previous Oscar winner Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Certainly the combination of Eastwood and Freeman seemed promising, what with the enviable success of the pair’s Million Dollar Baby (2004), which not only took in considerable box office bucks, it also earned two Oscars for Eastwood for directing and producing, as well as one, as previously noted,  for Freeman as Best Supporting Actor; however, the reality was much different because Invictus, which was an incredibly moving film, proved to be a tough sell at the box office though Freeman was deservedly nominated for Best Actor. Meanwhile, the studio was, well, you know, blind-sided by the success of  the Bullock film, which tells the story NFL player Michael Oher who was born into horrifying poverty in Memphis, Tennessee, and was adopted by a loving, wealthy family during his high school years. To clarify, Oher is black, his adoptive mother is white, and she doesn’t like to be told, “no.”  Lord, have mercy. Made for a reported–and measly–29 million, The Blind Side made all of its money back on opening weekend even though it placed second in the weekend tallies (behind one of the Twilight movies), and it just never stopped: 10 weeks in the top 10 (hitting number one only once),  another 10 in the top 20 (often ranking as high as 11 or 12), for a slammin’ domestic gross of over 250 million dollars. Believe me, no one saw this coming. Movies about rich white women adopting under-resourced black youth is not what Hollywood is all about, not with the likes of effects driven spectacles like Twilight, Sherlock Holmes, and Avatar in the fray, which, indeed, were the movies The Blind Side was competing against in the marketplace. In contrast, Twilight: New Moon fell out of the box office top 20 during week 10, and Sherlock Holmes did so during week 11. Both movies made over 200 million domestically, but they also cost considerably more to produce and market than did The Blind Side.

The DVDs of both The Blind Side and Secretariat feature covers that depict silhouetted figures framed against glowing, “inspirational” skies. Likewise, they both sport taglines announcing that each is based on a “true story” that is either “extraordinary” or “impossible.” What’s curious is that the faces of the leading ladies are both obscured, and, as I recall, Sandra Bullock had already won the Best Actress Oscar by the time her movie came out on DVD, so why was her contribution so marginalized?

Again, The Blind Side was a genuine phenomenon, and it was foolish for the people at Disney to even attempt to frame Secretariat in a similar manner–as it would be stupid for any horse owner, trainer, or jockey to up and announce that s/he had found the next Secretariat. That brings me to the second reason that trying to market Secretariat as another The Blind Side showed a lack of foresight. Michael Oher’s story was not one that was necessarily known by millions upon millions of people. It was certainly not history making front page news. In that way, The Blind Side had the advantage of delighting audiences by telling a story that was not overly familiar. Secretariat‘s story is actually legendary. The outcome is already well known; otherwise, there wouldn’t be a story  at all. Furthermore, since the big red horse was never really an underdog in the truest sense of the word, there’s not even a David and Goliath angle to use as a hook.  Of course, movies about historical events often run the risk of being so well known that they can seem anti-climactic, especially in these economically tough times. On the other hand, there are exceptions, one of the most famous being Titanic (1997). To clarify, a movie that tells a true story in which the result is already known is not necessarily a bad thing. It just represents a marketing challenge, a disadvantage, if you will, and I think the people who designed the advertising campaign for Secretariat  miscalculated when they tried to, well, ride the coattails of a movie with only a superficial resemblance.

Now, the question is, other than the fact that big-time studio personnel are often greedy, stupid, and unimaginative, why would the folks at Disney ever think to link their movie with The Blind Side in the first place? Well, for starters, they are both true stories, uplifting stories at that, and they are both set in the world of sports although football and horse racing are miles removed from each other in almost every conceivable way. Plus, they are both set in the South. The Blind Side is set in Tennessee, and much of Secretariat takes place in Virginia. Fair enough. Finally, and most convincingly, both movies include strong female characters played by reliable, likable actresses. Indeed, it is Diane Lane’s appealing performance as Penny Chenery (married name Tweedy), Secretariat’s owner, that gives the movie its twist.

Since the story of Secretariat is so well known, screenwriter Mike Rich, borrowing from the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack, shifts much of the focus on Mrs. Tweedy, a so-called “housewife” who made the decision to “split”  her time with her husband and children in Denver in order to oversee her incapacitated father’s Virginia stables rather than sell the business, which she was actually encouraged to do by family members; the movie gets at this almost right from the beginning when Lane is wedged between two actors named Dylan telling her what to do: Dylan Walsh plays her husband Jack (a lawyer), and SMU alum Dylan Baker as her brother (a Harvard economics professor). Penny’s story is one of the most intriguing aspects of Secretariat. Keep in mind that in 1973, the women’s movement was taking hold as women all over the country were having their consciousness raised. Penny’s story is a perfect metaphor for the times as evidenced by the fact that she breaks generations of social taboos when she disregards the “No Women Allowed” policy at a fancy, old moneyed men’s club where one of her father’s associates is eating lunch. I don’t know if this event actually happened, but I’m sure someone does; however, I did recently read a report in which Chenery was singled out as being one of the first women to be admitted to the fabled Jockey Club, and that was as late as 1983–a full ten years after Secretariat won the Triple Crown. Additionally, the movie gets a few more historical details right as it shows the Tweedy’s teenage daughter Kate involved in a protest against the Vietnam War, a startling, yet welcome, reminder of a time in which even high school students spoke out against an unpopular war.


Diane Lane in Secretariat: the challenge of playing opposite an animal, a thoroughbred no less, while wearing a bouffant hairdo and the sensible yet elegant wardrobe of a Nixon era wealthy white woman.

Kate’s activism is a fitting contrast to Penny’s reticence early in the film. Though Kate wears her sense of right and wrong on her sleeve, Penny doesn’t necessarily agree with or even understand her daughter’s need to be outspoken. The mother doesn’t dissuade her daughter’s interests, exactly.  Mostly, she’s mystified more than anything else. In contrast, Chenery’s style is much more reserved than her daughter’s, yet she’s no less opinionated, and that’s kind of the point. Once Penny, a college graduate, rediscovers her twin passions for horses and for running a business, her consciousness is raised, and she learns to speak out for what she believes–and does so eloquently–just like scores of other women from the same era; however, none of that changes who she is as a person. It’s not a radical transformation. She does not burn her bra, let her hair go “natural,”  and turn into either Norman Rae or Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1979). Even so, Lane navigates the subtle shifts in Tweedy well; moreover, given Penny’s unfailing poise, Lane is not afforded many opportunities for Hollywood grandstanding, but this game actress  is completely captivating as she shows Penny trying to juggle multiple roles: wife, mother, daughter, sister, female interloper, business woman, and animal lover.  There’s also something amusing about seeing this normally earthy screen goddess a bit, well, reined in, as she conducts all of her business sporting a bouffant hairdo and the sensible yet elegant wardrobe of a Nixon era wealthy white woman. Once again, Lane has not been “drabbed down” too severely, but she is definitely ” in character,” and she looks more mature than what her actual age suggests though in actuality she’s only about 5 years younger than Ms. Tweedy was back in 1973.

Lane shines in a number of sequences. My favorite are those in which Penny holds her own against the male establishment during heated press conferences. She chooses her words carefully, never loses her composure, and even manages to be slightly self-deprecating. There’s also another scene in which Chenery struggles to set aside a crushing loss during a late night phone call to her daughter. It’s a short scene, barely more than a flicker, but it packs a solid punch. It hardly hurts that the scene is smashingly photographed through a rain splattered phone booth, carrying with it all the attention to composition and palette that brings to mind an Edward Hopper painting. She also has the challenge of acting in a handful of scenes opposite only the horse, and she does so with just the right amount of conviction. She’s also asked to breathe new life into a scene that’s basically a retread of Scarlett O’Hara’s “With God as my witness” speech, which she does with aplomb. Plus, she’s positively exultant when she echos her father’s sentiments as she exclaims,  “Let him run, Ronnie, let him run” during the climactic Belmont race.

June 9, 1973, Belmont Park: When Secretariat was already ahead by a dozen lengths, announcer Chick Anderson historically proclaimed, “He is moving like a tremendous machine!” Secretariat went on to win by a staggering 31 lengths, capturing the Triple Crown in the process. Jockey Ronnie Turcotte’s response was, “I finally had to turn to see where the other horses were. I know this sounds crazy, but the horse did it by himself. I was along for the ride.” In the DVD featurette, actress Diane Lane lavishes praise on Turcotte for being as “one with Secretariat in that moment” and calls the jaw dropping finish, “archetypally untouchable.”

Besides Lane, the best reason to see Secretariat is….Secretariat, a horse so singular it takes 5 other horses to play him in the movie (per the IMDb). I was junior high age back in 1973, and while I certainly remember all the talk about Secretariat and the Triple Crown, I didn’t know enough about horse racing, or even wanted to know enough about horse racing, to appreciate this magnificent creature’s record breaking streak. For example, not only did he set the record for the best time at the Kentucky Derby, a record that still stands (1 minute: 59 + 2/5 seconds), he ran every quarter-mile at an increasingly faster speed. Then, there’s the Belmont, the last of Secretariat’s trio of amazing finishes: a mile and a half in 2 minutes and 24 seconds–and by a margin of 31 lengths ahead of his nearest competitor.  The movie’s recreations of the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes are thrillingly filmed, edited, and scored. Maybe the next best thing to actually being at the races. The Preakness is represented by footage of the actual race  as Penny’s family watches on TV back in Denver, and that’s a nice touch. Of course, not everybody is a fan of horse racing, and I’m sure it’s tantamount to cruelty in some quarters. I don’t know about that, but I do know that by all accounts, Secretariat was well-loved by every member of his team. One of the best things about the DVD is the documentary that features interviews with people, including Penny Chenery, who speak about their own experiences with the horse that ESPN honored as number 35 on its list of  North America’s 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century. All the testimony indicates that Secretariat loved to run, loved getting attention, and was generally cognizant of all the fuss he created. Of course, it’s truly impossible for a human to know exactly what an animal thinks (or what another human thinks, for that matter); however, it’s also possible that animals are far more intelligent than humans would sometimes like to admit. The story of Secretariat works as well as it does because the people who surrounded him were in awe of him.

The real Eddie Sweat and Secretariat: a picture is truly worth a thousand words. Sweat died of Leukemia in 1998; he is played in the film by Nelsan Ellis, a SAG nominee and Golden Satellite winner for his work on TV’s True Blood.

Randall Wallace has assembled  a solid cast and crew to help him bring this story alive. Of course, there’s the great Martindale, who plays Elizabeth Ham, the real-life secretary who once worked for Chenery’s dad and came up with the great red horse’s stage name. In this version, Ham exists only to be a tireless supporter of Penny Chenery. It’s not an especially demanding role, but it allows Martindale to deliver a few zingers, and she plays the role with equal parts piss, vinegar, warmth and grace, all wrapped up in a Southern accent with a dollop of relish.  No doubt the most colorful figure in the movie, literally and figuratively, is the trainer Lucien Laurin, played with full tilt quirky bravado by John Malkovich. Critics of the movie, including people who knew the real-life Laurin, complain that the costumer goes overboard with Laurin’s loud outfits; however, a photograph in the epilogue, along with other images found on the Internet, shows that Laurin was indeed a flashy dresser as were many men at that time. Wallace also elicits credible work from actors who seem well chosen to play the WASPy men (good and bad) in Penny’s life: James Cromwell, as Ogden Phipps, “the richest man in America” who becomes Penny’s ally in spite of himself; Fred Dalton Thompson, the real-life lawyer-actor-politician  as Bull Hancock, the man who facilitated the legendary coin toss; Scott Glenn as the senior Chenery, a kindly man who has moved from the twilight of this life into the fog; also, the aforementioned Dylan Baker, who plays Penny’s brother, an esteemed economics professor in his own right. Not surprisingly, Baker plays a thankless role, that of an educated man whose scholarly instincts  stifle his imagination and repeatedly put him at odds with his sister’s ability to strategize and think outside the box. Luckily, Dylan Baker is so expert at playing these kinds of twits that he could do it in his sleep. The key role of Eddie Sweat, Secretariat’s groom, is played by Nelsan Ellis, best known for his highly acclaimed work in the TV series True Blood.  Ellis goes for broke and plays the role with such enthusiasm that it’s easy for audiences to believe that Sweat and Secretariat have genuine affection for one another. Of course, some critics scoff that Ellis veers toward something akin to playing Sweat as an Uncle Tom; however, the facts show that no human spent more time with  the legendary horse than Sweat, so I’m inclined to give the filmmakers–and Ellis–the benefit of the doubt.  The last important role in the film is that of  Ron Turcotte, played by jockey turned actor Otto Thorwarth, who seems to be having a great time portraying a racing legend. Three other key team members are cinematographer Dean Semler (an Oscar winner for 1990’s Dancing with Wolves), editor John Wright (an Oscar nominee for 1994’s Speed) and composer Nick Glennie-Smith. Though not a household name, Glennie-Smith has been honored three times by his peers in the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers: The Rock (1996), The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), and We Were Soldiers (2002).

Secretariat has a few unfortunate lapses. Much of the dialogue is expository, that is, dialogue too stagey to be truly conversational, especially in the early sequences when all the characters are being introduced, and the episode of the famous coin toss is being explained.  Without going into a lot of detail: before he was even born, Secretariat became the property of Ms. Chenery as the result of a longtime ritual involving her dad and another breeder. The coin toss itself only takes a few seconds, but getting there takes a lot of talk.  I also think director Wallace and his team overplay the mythic/spiritual/gospel angle. The opening of the film features narration by Lane as she goes all the way back three thousand years to the book of Job, and, to clarify, she literally uses the words “three thousand years.”  What’s so bad about that? Well, I was taught in the hallowed halls of the prestigious private university wherein I majored in English, to avoid lofty opening statements such as “Since the beginning of time…” and “For thousands of years…” I think Secretariat’s story is spectacular enough on its 0wn terms that it doesn’t need to be heralded as a continuation of some holy, ancient myth–even if that myth includes an equine analogy. The repeated use of “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins singers (1969) also seems a bit much at times; however, since the song is so closely identified with the film’s era, it’s almost–almost–perfect . Regrettably, an update in the closing credits paint a misleadingly sunny portrait of the Tweedys’ marriage; it was not a total success, but, I guess that really doesn’t have anything to do with what’s on screen.

When Secretariat opened last fall and didn’t immediately draw crowds as big as those that flocked to see The Blind Side a year earlier, cynics were too quick to dismiss the film, but the movie held on at the box office for several weeks in spite of all the negative comparisons to the Bullock offering: five weeks in the top 5, and another five in the top 10. Secretariat continued to play in theatres until February of this year, earning a total of 59.6 million. For a film with a budget of 35 million, that’s not a stellar return once marketing and distribution costs are considered. On the other hand, Secretariat has an impressive second life on home video. It currently ranks number 27 on Amazon’s list of best selling “Kids and Families” movies,  which is none too shabby considering that it was released on DVD in January of this year (yes, while it was still playing in theatres).  I have to say I found this movie in every possible way much more agreeable, much more entertaining, than  2003’s horse racing movie Seabiscuit, which snagged 7 Oscar nominations including Best Picture (winning exactly 0, to clarify).  Given the Academy’s bent last year for recognizing actresses playing thoroughly unpleasant roles (a possible reaction to Sandra Bullock’s still fresh win in an unapologeticly feel-good film), it’s no surprise that Lane was overlooked as a Best Actress contender, but, once again, the editing, cinematography, and score are certainly worthy of awards’ consideration. The movie wasn’t completely forgotten as it was nominated for some minor awards such as a Golden Satellite (a Golden Globe knockoff) for Semler’s cinematography.  Finally: when Secretariat died in 1989, an autopsy showed that his heart was double the size of an average horse. Some fans see that as a metaphor for his great big generous spirit while some experts use that fact to explain away his astonishing victories. Who knows what’s what? I like this quote from George Plimpton I found on one of the ESPN pages as the last word: “He was the only honest thing in this country at the time. This huge magnificent animal who wasn’t tied up in scandal, wasn’t tied up in money, he just ran because he loved running,”

Thanks for your consideration…

On your mark, get set, go!

Go to the official Secretariat website with archival Q & A column by Penny Chenery, details about her work with retired thoroughbreds, and bios on all the key members of Team Secretariat:

See the official ESPN list of the 20th century’s greatest athletes; click on Secretariat’s name for a bio featuring quotes from Penny Chenery and jockey Ron Turcotte:

Penny Chenery discusses the movie and divorce:

Saturday Post article about the coin toss, Eddie Sweat (the horse’s groom), and Ron Turcotte’s magnificent ride at Belmont:

Penny Chenery, one of the first women elected to the Jockey Club, ten years after Secretariat’s record breaking year:


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