I can hear what you’re thinking: “What, another horseracing movie?” Surely there can’t be that many famous horses worthy of a feature film. (The Black Stallion was fictitious, right?) It turns out there’s a serious gap in my horse sense. If anyone was deserving of a good story telling along side Sea Biscuit and Phar Lap it was Secretariat. Opening today is Disney’s tribute to “Big Red” and his inspirational owner Penny Chenry Tweedy. But will audiences think the filmmakers are just beating a dead horse? It’s a run for box office roses. (Oh yes, the horrible puns shall continue!)
Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is a typical Colorado housewife with four kids and a traditional husband, Jack (Dylan Walsh). Tragic news reaches her that her mother has passed away in Virginia. Taking the family East, Penny is overwhelmed with memories of her childhood spent at Meadow Stables where her father Chris Chenery (Scott Glenn) raised thoroughbreds for racing. The farm is in serious decline, much the same as her father’s health. The first inclination of her brother Hollis (Dylan Baker) is to sell the land and horses and be done with it. But Penny digs in her heels to protect her father’s legacy. Despite her complete inexperience with horse racing she puts a tremendous amount of faith in her instincts regarding one particular foal; the little thought of but determined “Big Red”. Penny gathers a loyal team around her: her father’s longtime secretary Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) and larger than life trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovitch). Against all odds and assumptions made about horse and owner, Big Red – professional name Secretariat, leaves his competition and the records in the dust to be the first horse in 25 years to with the Triple Crown.
Diane Lane truly shines in this film (and I’m not just talking about that blonde wig). She plays Tweedy with a quiet grace, class and determination. And she looks fabulous in those late 60’s/early 70’s clothes. That’s not an easy look to pull off. Speaking of rockin’ polyester – John Malkovitch may have had too much fun coordinating Laurin’s outlandish outfits with costume designer Michael Boyd. The real life French Canadian former jockey (though Malkovitch is much taller) had a fiery personality that was realized in his dazzling wardrobe choices. As Malkovitch continues along with his enviable career his choices of late have leaned more towards light, comedic turns – Secretariat being an example of one. Don’t be fooled though, just because it’s funny doesn’t mean it’s also not important. Malkovitch is absolutely the right actor to accomplish both.
There are quite a few faces from TV rounding out the cast: Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette from True Blood), Margo Martindale (too many to list but most recently Hung and Dexter), Dylan Walsh (Dr. Sean McNamara on Nip/Tuck) and Kevin Connolly (Eric on Entourage). Nelsan in particular takes a marked departure from the Lafayette character. Those of us who’ve seen him in other projects are already aware of his talent but newcomers will be impressed with the dignity and heart he gives Eddie Sweat. I just love Margo Martindale in anything this does. She never disappoints and playing the plucky Miss Ham is no exception. Trivia time: Miss Ham was the one to give “Big Red” the name Secretariat. Hopefully that will help you out, should you ever be someone’s “Phone a Friend”.
I’m a sucker for these kinds of movies so I thoroughly enjoyed Secretariat. In addition to being about an incredible horse who sparked the imagination of the nation it’s an uplifting story about a woman who is breaking through long standing prejudices about women and their roles outside the home. It’s appropriate that this takes place at a time in our country’s history when social change was happening everywhere. There is a nice correlating storyline where Penny is inspiring and in returning being inspired by her oldest daughter Kate (played by AJ Michalka) who is protesting the war in Vietnam that reinforces the importance of what Penny was accomplishing. So take it straight from the horse’s mouth Secretariat is a good way to spend some time at the movies this weekend.