A Movie A Day #68: Hoosiers (1986, directed by David Anspaugh)


I’m back!

Even though it has only been a week since I last did a movie a day, I feel like I’ve been gone forever.  Thank you to everyone who commented or messaged me while I was gone.  It turned out that I just had a bad sinus infection.  It was painful as Hell but, with the help of antibiotics and the greatest care in the world, I’m recovering.

Last week, I asked if anyone had any suggestions for what the 68th movie a day should be.  Case suggested Hoosiers and so it shall be.

In 1951, Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) arrives in the small Indiana town of Hickory.  He is a former college basketball coach who has been hired to coach the high school’s perennially struggling basketball team.  Emphasizing the fundamentals and demanding discipline from his players, Dale struggles at first with both the team and the townspeople.  When he makes an alcoholic former basketball star named Shooter (Dennis Hopper) an assistant coach, he nearly loses his job.  Eventually, though, the Hickory team starts winning and soon, this small town high school is playing for the state championship against highly favored South Bend High School.

For many people, Hoosiers is not just “a basketball movie.”  Instead, it is the basketball movie, the movie by which all other sport films are judged.  Hoosiers is inspired by a true story.  In 1954, small town Milan High School did defeat Muncie for the Indiana State Championship and they did it by two points.  Otherwise, Hoosiers is heavily fictionalized and manages to include almost every sports film cliché that has ever existed.  How good a coach is Norman Dale, really?  Almost every game that Hickory wins is won by only one basket.

Why, then, is Hoosiers a classic?  Much of it is due to director David Anspaugh’s attention to period and detail.  Some of it is due to Gene Hackman, who gives a tough and unsentimental performance.  Whenever Hoosiers starts to cross the line from sentimental to maudlin, Hackman is there to pull it back to reality with a gruff line delivery.  Even his romance with the one-note anti-basketball teacher (Barbara Hershey) works.  Hickory feels like a real place, with a real history and inhabited by real people.

And then there’s Dennis Hopper.  Along with Blue Velvet, Hoosiers was Hopper’s comeback film.  After spending twenty years lost in the Hollywood wilderness, better known for abusing drugs and shooting guns than acting, Hopper had just come out of rehab when he was offered the role of Shooter.  Amazingly, he turned the role down and told the producers to offer it to his friend, Harry Dean Stanton.

According to Peter L. Winkler’s Dennis Hopper: Portrait of an American Rebel, this is what happened next:

Stanton (who, ironically, was also considered for Hopper’s role in Blue Velvet) called Hopper up and asked, “Aren’t you from Kansas?”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t you have a hoop on your barn?”

“Yeah.”

“I think you may be the guy that David Anspaugh’s looking for.”

Harry Dean Stanton was right.  Dennis Hopper, still very much in recovery, totally inhabited the role of the alcoholic Shooter and gave one of the best performances of his often underrated career.  Both Shooter and the actor playing him surprised everyone by doing a good job and Hopper received his only Oscar nomination for acting for his performance in Hoosiers.  (He had previously been nominated for co-writing Easy Rider.)

You don’t have to like basketball to enjoy the Hell out of Hoosiers.

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2 responses to “A Movie A Day #68: Hoosiers (1986, directed by David Anspaugh)

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