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

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - Film -

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),

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