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How Hoosiers Became One of the Best Sports Movies of All Time
The time has come for us to sing the praises of the male weepie. What is a male weepie, you may ask? Well, perhaps you know it by its alternative name: “The Guy-Cry Movie.” Basically, it’s any film that makes grown men drop their guards for two hours and in the process reduces them to sobbing puddles of goo. They’re the movies that put a lump in your throat the size of a Granny Smith apple. There’s no single fool-proof formula for these kinds of films, but more often than not, they tend to be about one of two things: sports or the emotionally-fraught relationships between fathers and sons. If somehow they manage to tackle both, then you’ve got yourself a reach-for-the-Kleenex perfect storm of Cat Stevens-level sniffles.
Hard on the heels of the double-whammy of Brian’s Song and Rocky in the 1970s, the Golden Age of the Male Weepie really snowballed in the ‘80s and ‘90s and would continue until the dawn of the new millennium. Not surprisingly, a book satirizing the prevailing stereotypes surrounding masculinity titled Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche was released around the same time (in 1982 to be exact), and would become an instant bestseller. It was during this era that such male-demo movie melodramas as Field of Dreams, The Shawshank Redemption, Babe, Good Will Hunting, and Saving Private Ryan would turn even the most stoic macho men into taffy. Still, I’d argue that the greatest example of this small boys-do-cry subgenre, is, was, and will always be 1986’s Hoosiers.
Released on this day 34 years ago, Hoosiers tells the story of a gruff and once-disgraced middle-aged basketball coach named Norman Dale who gets a second shot at hard-court glory after accepting a job as the new high school basketball coach in Hickory, Indiana. The year is 1951, and Hickory is the sort of tiny, hick farming town that has more cornfields than people. But what folks they do have there are all rabidly obsessed with basketball in the same way that the North Texas community of Dillon was about high school football in Friday Night Lights. Hickory is a claustrophobically tight-knit place. Everyone knows each other’s business. And everyone has an opinion on whether the new coach should run a man-to-man or zone defense. But whether Dale likes it or not, it might just be the only place left for him to find redemption. Corny? Sure. But stick with me.
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Loosely based on the real-life David-vs-Goliath story of the 1954 Milan, Indiana, high school squad that defeated a much-larger team from Muncie Central in the state championships, Hoosiers is a classic underdog tale. But if you squint just a little, it’s also about Truman-era small-town values, the can-do American work ethic of the time, a slow-rhythm way of life that would shortly die out, and the kind of second chances that only come when you’re about to throw in the towel. And driving the film’s message(s) home is a pair of heavyweight performances that may not be all that subtle, but are still knockouts anyway.
The first comes from Gene Hackman, arguably the most underrated leading man of his generation before he retired from the profession 15 year ago. His Coach Dale is the sort of prickly, principled hard ass who tends to turn up in old WWII films and proceeds to bark at some infantry grunt about their messy uniforms. But Hackman also gives him a frisky twinkle in his eye that lets you know that beneath the hard candy shell there’s a soft chewy center. The second, of course, is Dennis Hopper as Shooter, the town drunk and father of one of Hickory’s players, who, when he’s not getting totally blotto, knows more about Indiana basketball than Bobby Knight. If Hackman is the heart of the movie, Hopper is its soul.
Still, Hackman is the lead. And as great as his performance is (and, for the record, it is undeniably great), greatness was more or less expected of him at that point in his career. By 1986, he’d already been nominated for three acting Oscars and had won one (for 1972’s The French Connection). After Hoosiers, he would be nominated two more times, winning again for 1993’s Unforgiven. Hopper, on the other hand, had a wildly different narrative. Sure, he’d had a storied Hollywood career long before he even made Easy Rider. But the decade leading up to Hoosiers had been a wash out—a mercurial blur of booze and drugs. His Tinseltown stock was in the gutter. But after going through rehab in the early ‘80s, 1986 would be his big comeback year thanks not only to Hoosiers, but to Blue Velvet as well. For Hopper, this little basketball picture really was about outrunning his demons, both on-screen and off. And when you watch him in the film white-knuckling it through the season so he can finally call the old picket-fence play from the bench and make his son proud of him again, it feels like more than just acting. The man had been through some shit.
Written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, Hoosiers would become the first film for both of them. And it began as as much of a Cinderella story as the kids in crimson and gold playing for Hickory. The pair shopped their script for two years before finally getting their first nibble, which would come from Hemdale Entertainment and Orion Pictures. During the mid-‘70s, the team that would go on to run Orion had had a miraculous run at United Artists, releasing the winner of the Best Picture Oscar three years in a row with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, and Annie Hall. But by 1985, those hot hands had turned ice cold. Orion was coming off a disastrous year at the box office highlighted by the embarrassing flame-out of its high-profile Indiana Jones/James Bond wannabe Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. Needless to say, when Remo Williams got butchered by critics and audiences steered clear, the beginning of the adventure ended right there and then. Orion’s big hope for a franchise was dead on arrival.
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When Orion signed on to distribute Hoosiers, it didn’t fool itself into expecting too much from this little, $6-million slice of feel-good heartland nostalgia. After all, it was a sports movie, and sports movies rarely performed commercially. Even Hackman, who only got the role of Coach Dale after Jack Nicholson and Robert Duvall both turned it down, told reporters that he thought the film would be a “career killer” and go straight to video. But at the time Orion desperately needed to fill out its 1986 slate—a slate that would also wind up including Hannah and Her Sisters, Back to School, Something Wild, The Three Amigos, and Platoon. Next to these big-ticket movies, Hoosiers was little more than an afterthought.
What few inside or outside of the studio knew was how deeply Pizzo and Anspaugh got small Midwest towns like Hickory. Pizzo had attended the University of Indiana and Anspaugh had grown up in the state not very far from Milan playing varsity high school basketball. “Every coach in every small town would drag out the 1954 Milan story to try to inspire you,” Anspaugh later told Sports Illustrated. These two men understood not only who the characters in their film were—the way they spoke to one another at the barber shop and farm-supply store—but also how much basketball meant to them. They knew them in their marrow.
Watching Hoosiers today, that familiarity is palpable. Whether it’s in the gymnasium pep-rally scene before the season’s first big game, or the montage of long twilight bus rides to neighboring schools along single-lane roads lined by cornstalks, or the film’s most famous scene of all…you know the one. It comes before the regional playoffs, when Hackman gives what is probably the most inspirational pre-game speech in the history of sports movies:
Forget about the crowds, the size of the school, their fancy uniforms, and remember what got you here. Focus on the fundamentals that we’ve gone over time and time again. And most important, don’t get caught up thinking about winning or losing. If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says. At the end of the game, you’re going to be winners!
Cue the players slow clapping….and good luck trying to hold it together after that.
When Hoosiers finally hit theaters on November 14, 1986, critics fell for it hard. The New York Times and The Washington Post both raved about it. And in The Chicago Sun-Times, fellow Midwesterner Roger Ebert wrote: “Hoosiers works a magic in getting us to really care about the fate of the team and the people depending on it. In the way it combines sports with human nature, it reminded me of another wonderful Indiana sports movie, Breaking Away. It’s a movie that is all heart.” Suddenly, the little film that had started and been released as an afterthought would take on a life of its own, making $28.6 million at the box office and subsequently becoming a home-video smash. Hoosiers would even become an unlikely part of that year’s Oscar conversation after Hopper was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Jerry Goldsmith’s music (which admittedly hasn’t aged well) was nominated for Best Score.
Still, none of Hoosiers’ glory in the moment compares to the long tail it’s had since then. In April, the Associated Press released a list of the Greatest Sports Movies Ever Made, with Hoosiers landing at No. 1 followed by Bull Durham, Rocky, Caddyshack, and Slapshot. Meanwhile, Hackman’s famous ‘you’re-going-to-be-winners’ pep talk continues to play over stadium and arena jumbotrons whenever the home team needs to rally down the stretch. As for the two little-known architects of what would become the ultimate male weepie, Pizzo and Anspaugh, well, they would never really go on to become household names. But seven years later, they would reunite for another little tear-jerker about an Indiana underdog who went by the name Rudy. Rudy!!! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to wipe something from my eyes.
Chris Nashawaty is a writer, editor, critic, and author of books about Roger Corman & Caddyshack.
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