“Bakersfield must be destroyed!”
Usually around this time of year, I’ll start watching darker, some would say horrific, fare as the autumn builds toward Halloween. My colleague Tyson in his recent article noted some of them. Beyond that, it’ll be the few Thanksgiving-related films and then on to the Christmas variety. Who knew my viewing habits are so seasonal? [let the record show that my wife has just raised her hand] However, as “... the first leaf of autumn falls forlornly on the ground below”, it’s also football season (or at least our version of that) and has its own priority. It doesn’t really matter, much, that Los Angeles no longer has a pro team. But I’m not bitter :-\.
I also have an historical penchant for being one of the few in a theater for certain movie gems that weren’t successful during their first run (Hickey & Boggs, The Ninth Configuration, The Yakuza, I could go on…), so my motivation should be transparent. Today, some of them have a good following (mainstream or cult) and are better appreciated now compared to back then. Such is the case for taking another look at one of these forgotten films, and a favorite of mine. The Best of Times (1986) was directed by Roger Spottiswoode. More significantly, it was written by Ron Shelton (of later Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup fame). And just because it’s a sports-themed comedy, doesn’t mean it lacked in sentiment or had something to say. Quite the contrary.
“No such thing as luck! Victories for the underdog are an aberration on the order of the universe. That’s why I’ve had damn few losses in my time. The biggest one was the day you married my daughter.” ~ Jack’s father-in-law
One of the better voice-over prologues by comedian-turned-actor Robin Williams brought just the right sense of plain-speaking (“We have the worst goddamn weather in the world.“), geographical location, and local history to set this tale in motion. It firmly conjured for the viewer a world many would choose to forget (or at least push back into the old memory attic).
Raise your hand if you’ve attended every single high school reunion since graduation. If you have, congrats; you’re in the happy minority. It seems many of the things we experienced (or were scarred by) for the first time, happened to us while in that
cauldron upper grade institution. This movie gleefully glanced at that misery. Most of the time, in a non-traumatic manner.
The story The Best of Times told, at times zanily but always with affection, was that of Jack Dundee (played in controlled but wonderfully manic tones by Robin Williams). Though he’s successful as a small town banker years later, he’s never been able to live down a certain point of failure. He’s re-visited that moment continually (via old game footage) because it marked his crossroads. On that day, lead by their local star quarterback, Taft High football team could have played David to Bakersfield’s Goliath and upset (in the rarest of opportunities) the perennial powerhouse of the county.
Comeuppance on the gridiron. For my overseas readers, our high school football games can be nothing short of biblical in nature, especially between bitter school rivals. Of course, the critical moment came down to the last play. And it was Jack, the third-string wide receiver, that miraculously got open to catch the 65-yard hail Mary pass for the winning touchdown as the clock expired.
“But, that son of a bitch dropped it! I, was that son of a bitch.”
It’s that stigma that haunts our protagonist, and those all around him. Shelton’s gift as a writer is that he’s so good at taking those themes and juxtaposing boys/men’s attachment to sport and showing how it has affected their lives (or continues to), even years later in their adult relationships. Fold in traditional sports feuds to boot, and you have a tale bubbling over with emotion (one that we, men, always attempt to hold close for fear of looking weak).
Jack’s drop had the abrupt impact for all in his small town as much as the 70s did. The resulting lethargy lingered on in the decade’s wake. It should be noted that one of this film’s strengths was its 80s pedigree. As I’ve continually mentioned, whatever doldrums and cynicism the decade of Watergate left behind, films of that subsequent period seemed to relish (and happily succeed in a semi-profane manner) in jolting that out of folk.
“We’re going to charge into the deepest chambers, where demons lurk, kick the shit out of the little bastards, and change the miserable past in the bargain.”
Though the real-life Kern County small city of Taft was used as a stand-in for that period in time here, it was the other crucial figure in The Best of Times that represented our own hesitancy to change things. The local football legend, one Reno Hightower, was equally tainted by what happened (probably more so since his knee and sports career were wrecked on that same play).
I’ve said it more than once, I consider Kurt Russell to be one of the most underrated actors of recent time. I don’t know why recognition of this is lacking, in general. Perhaps, among the older crowd all they see is the former Disney child actor. Many younger viewers remember him as one of the all-time best anti-heroes, Snake Plissken, but little else it seems. I, for one, think he plays all of his parts with a natural style, conviction and sincerity, and does it without exaggeration (as others do regularly). Only later do you realize he’s simply done everything extraordinarily well. Anyway, he was tailor-made for this role as the quarterback Reno.
I’ve read some moviegoer reviews state this role needed someone who was an obvious jock. Little did they realize Russell was that. He, in fact, played great Double-A ball for the Angels farm system before injury forced early retirement. The grit on display was genuine. In my opinion Kurt ‘brought it’ in this film with his role as the over-the-hill star living his life under that same dark cloud as Jack. They are the interesting contrast throughout the film, because their lives are intertwined byway of that pivotal play. Reno and Jack are forever associated with each other and those around them.
Clobbered as he was by Bakersfield’s defense, the winning pass should have been Reno’s. One play, two distinctly dissimilar outcomes, and legacies, tied together. Jack’s later white-collar success (though tarnished by his and others’ outlook), and Reno’s lack there of, are testament. The latter now a mere garage owner and ‘van specialist’ in a downtrodden company town swimming in oil wells, Reno still holds the undying local admiration for his truncated career and suffering. The pair also manifested that peculiar oddity which most of us can relate to: the rare high school acquaintance that remarkably becomes your friend for life.
When Jack seizes upon the idea for his personal salvation, to change history by replaying the game, who can’t relate to that? Isn’t there a moment we’d all like to play back — be it family, work, or in sport? The tale resonated with this theme. And if Jack overcomes everyone else’s languor in the process (by hook or by crook scheming on his part), so much the better. I’ll admit it, I’m definitely a sucker for stories of underdog salvation. [note: my wife is nodding]
Reno: “I was never great. I was pretty good. I was great for around here. Every year I got better. The people remember me in my prime. The kids always ask me about the 6 touchdown passes against Porterville. Hell, I only threw 3 touchdowns.”
Jack: “It was 7.”
Reno: “I’m not going to argue. I like the idea of 7 better. In a couple more years it’ll be 8. I get better with age. My knees are killing me. I’m slow.”
Jack: “That’s why you didn’t want to play the game.”
Reno: “No. I just… I didn’t want to destroy the only thing I’ve got left, those stories about how great I was.”
While this was an engaging story that attempted to prove author Bernard Malamud wrong, that wasn’t its only asset. The wives of the lead male characters steal just about every scene that they are in. It’s such a kick to watch Elly Dundee (Holly Palance - yes, Jack Palance’s daughter) and Gigi Hightower (Pamela Reed - another undervalued actor) suffer along, fight with, and agonize over their husband’s football wounds and vexations. Add in some absolutely priceless sports-tinged dialogue between the couples and any man (married or not) can surely relate.
Shelton’s screenplay didn’t make the mistake (as so many do) of treating the women in the men’s lives as clueless or uncaring to their mates’ desires or work, in general. Or their astonishing knowledge of sports, in particular. As a writer, Ron’s consistently shown a fondness for scripting strong, quick-witted women — all the while letting them be sexy at it, as well. Elly’s bedroom strip-tease football monologue should be immortalized for all time, IMHO.
Just like in Bull Durham (and Annie Savoy), it’s easy to see why the guys in the story love their women partners. Though Jack periodically drops by working girl Darla’s mobile trailer, it’s purely to dredge his own soul and lament at what haunts him (especially since his demons have become his wife’s demons, by now). It’s even more clear Reno cares dearly for his wife, Gigi. I mean, in trying to win back his estranged spouse, to stand outside her motel room and sing the ’70 Carpenters hit, Close to You (even performing its signature piano chord, a cappella), that’s love.
Add to this a cast littered with some of the most recognizable and wonderful character actors in film and TV. Donald Moffat, M. Emmet Walsh, Kathleen Freeman, etc. gave the film a memorable mix of talent.
Luther: “Hey, who woke you up?”
Reno: “Get on the field and shut up, Luther!”
Luther: “Reno, you’re a prick, and you always were a prick.”
Reno: “Great, great. Now get your ass on the field. NOW!”
Jack: (talking to himself) “When he was a prick, Reno Hightower was the greatest quarterback in the history of south Kern county.”
The Best of Times was one of those forgotten films that didn’t draw much attention when it debuted, but has grown an admiring following among some critics and fans. And though Spottiswoode directed the piece (and was more than adequate, at that), in my mind it’s one more associated with the future director/writer/producer Ron Shelton because of its distinctive gift at creating a meaningful yarn about sport and its athletes. Even some of his throwaway lines could be considered classic dialogue for its snap among the characters. He knows of what he writes, too (being himself a former minor leaguer).
Few writers these days are aware of the significance of white shoes on a quarterback during this period (the Namath reference, if there ever was one). Only someone like Shelton could use it so effectively during the fateful replay game. Though he’s listed as the screenwriter, it was this scribe, in fact, who directed most of the climactic football game in the movie. The Best of Times is now (as Amazon editors now refer to it) a “winning, offbeat classic“. Certainly, the thoroughly 80s movie had its heart in the right place and its priorities straight. It rejoiced in its era of big hair, leg warmers, and shoulder pads (whether on the gridiron or in the stands).
Perhaps, along with that lineage, it enjoyed a certain Capraesque quality that was the secret to its rise in popularity after all these years. Who knows. The film’s yarn of reclamation certainly maintains the power to take me back to those same Friday nights of the Fall, and the football games of my youth. Still, redemption is a powerful thing, and I take solace within whatever absolution it brought movie viewers. Robin Williams and Kurt Russell ultimately delivered both in this little and almost overlooked sports comedy. All I know is I care to screen it during this time every year, and enjoy the Hell out of it because of that.
Jack: “I was so lucky.”
Elly: “No. No you were due.”
Note: for another wonderful take, be sure read Morgan’s review from this summer. Like the film, it’s not to be missed.