why the long face?
Hollywood has put horses out to pasture and the days of the great equine role seem to have passed. Joe Queenan mourns the disappearance of Hollywood’s mane players
At a certain age, actors – both men and women – start to complain that they’re no longer offered the roles they once were, that the scripts they’re sent by their agents aren’t equal to their talents. But isn’t that even more true of horses?
Horses used to be prominent figures in films, rearing their glorious heads and shaking their magnificent manes in everything from Fort Apache to Ben-Hur, not to mention idolatrously horsecentred motion pictures such as The Man from Snowy River and National Velvet. But the arrival of a new movie such as Secretariat drives home the point that horses no longer occupy the position of power in Hollywood that they once did, that a movie featuring a horse is now a rarity, that horses are no longer in the driver’s seat.
What’s more, when Hollywood does make a serious effort to produce a movie that specifically focuses on horses, it usually falls short of the mark. That’s because the industry can no longer tap the resources of horse-loving directors who know how to make a proper horse film, just as Hollywood can no longer make a good western because the only person alive who still believes in the western as a genre and has the chops to deliver a finished product is Clint Eastwood. As a result, horse films are generally unsatisfactory. And, much as we’d love for it to be otherwise, films such as Secretariat just kind of limp toward the finish.
Secretariat is a heart-warming film about the beloved stallion that came out of nowhere in 1973 to win America’s legendary Triple Crown of horse racing: the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby. (His times for the Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby have never been surpassed.) In doing so, the horse captured the imagination of a nation; when Big Red (Secretariat’s nickname) died in 1989, Americans of all stripes mourned.
True to form, there’s never the slightest chance that Disney’s hagiographic film will have anything other than an uplifting finale. The good horse will beat the bad horse. The good jockey will beat the bad jockey. Children will beam proudly at their parents, who will beam right back. Carefree members of ethnic minorities will sing catchy tunes, happy just to be alive, happy just to see “That Lucky Old Sun” rise in the morning. And Secretariat, feeling his oats all the way, will bring home the bacon.
The horse in the film does a perfectly good job of snorting and neighing and cantering and hurtling toward the finish line, putting on a top-notch performance in the way that charismatic, photogenic animals – be they chimpanzees, golden retrievers or baby elephants – so often will. But that’s not enough to carry a two-hour film. The problem is that the movie isn’t really about the horse. It’s about the horse’s owner, one Penny Chenery (Diane Lane),