HOOSIERS (1986)

  • Director: David Anspaugh
  • Writer: Angelo Pizzo
  • Starring: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper, Sheb Wooley, Maris Valainis, David Neidorf, Brad Long, Steve Hollar, Brad Boyle, Wade Schenck, Scott Summers, and Fern Persons
  • Accolades: 2 Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor – Dennis Hopper, Best Original Score)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with Subscription on Showtime App or AMC Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

More than halfway through Hoosiers, I was set to say mostly negative things about it. And the thing is, I’m still not sure why I care about any of this, or any of these people, or why I’m supposed to be rooting for this Coach character Gene Hackman is playing, or for this tiny town that does everything it can to push him away. But I am mostly not going to do that, I think. There is a knock on the “traditional” sports movie that holds that they’re basically all the same movie, and to some extent this is true. If you get the music right, and pay at least some attention to the basic structuring, it doesn’t take much. If I’ve heard one take ribbing sports movies for ending in a “big game,” I’ve heard thirty, but honestly, big games are great. I think really the issue is that there’s almost no difference between a good sports movie and a bad sports movie. There are a bunch of things in Hoosiers that it doesn’t need, including a completely pointless romance plot between Hackman and Barbara Hershey’s characters, and it does absolutely nothing to add visually to its actual basketball parts. But either you get goosebumps in the last twenty minutes or you don’t. And I definitely did.

It seemed like an opportune time to revisit Hoosiers given that we are in the midst of the first March Madness in two years, one that is, for COVID-related reasons, being held entirely within the state of Indiana. Some of the games are being played at Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University, both where the movie was shot and the original basketball tournament that inspired the movie was actually played. In reality, the 1954 Indiana State Basketball Tournament was won by Milan High School, a tiny rural high school that didn’t have enough players to make a full team. Most high school sports separate their state tournaments into a series of “divisions” so that large schools play against large schools and small schools against smaller ones, so there are really seven state champions and not one. But in Indiana up until the 1990s the tradition was for there to be one big tournament where schools of all sizes played each other, leading to situations like the one here. The Hoosiers marketing claimed it to be “based on a true story,” but perhaps it would be better to say that it is “loosely inspired” by a true story. None of the people depicted here are actual people, Milan High School is changed to the fictional Hickory High School, and the year, for reasons I am not clear on, changed from 1954 to 1951.

Hackman plays Coach Norman Dale, whose temper got him thrown out of college basketball for attacking one of his own players. An old Navy buddy who is a high school principal in rural Indiana (Sheb Wooley, who in his past lives both sang the novelty song “The Purple People Eater” and is thought to have been the voice artist who did the famous “Wilhelm Scream”) gives him a shot as the school coach after a previous, beloved coach died. In 1950s Indiana, even at a tiny local school, basketball is life. The crowd chants along with cheerleaders through the whole game, the whole town follows the team bus to road games in a convoy, and every random middle-aged man in town has a strong opinion about whether the team should be playing zone defense or man-to-man. They even try to come into the locker room during half time, and for reasons that are not 100% clear to me, take up a “petition” to have Coach Dale fired.

Of course, this does not work, and in the end the team comes together and starts winning all their games. Hackman brings in the local town drunk and star from a couple decades earlier, very randomly played by Dennis Hopper, as an assistant coach. Before too long, the team starts winning all their games, and the last forty minutes or so are all a series of games that the team wins dramatically in various fashions. The Oscar-nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith, which leans into the mid-80s synth despite the moving being set in the 1950s, does an awful lot of the work for long stretches. The movie does not make a particular attempt to do anything visually interesting at any point. There is no attempt to bring us “inside the action” of the basketball game, so to speak. Almost as soon as the final game is over, the movie ends, as most of the best sports movies do. There is no point in doing anything else. There is no denouement.

The director, David Anspaugh, and the writer, Angelo Pizzo, knew each other from growing up in Indiana and going to the University of Indiana-Bloomington together. Anspaugh had moved to California and directed a handful of TV episodes, but the two had to shop the script for years before Orion Pictures bit (though the studio still hardly gave them any budget). The movie was shot entirely in Indiana, with most of the Hickory scenes filmed in the small town of New Richmond. With the exception of a handful of the adult leads, all of the actors were recruited from the surrounding community. Most of them never acted again. A few of the players seen in the movie were low-level college basketball players, who ended up being suspended by the NCAA for 3 games and forced to return any money they made, because the NCAA decided being in this movie counted as getting paid for playing basketball. Don’t get me started on the NCAA. Lacking money to hire enough extras to shoot the climactic sequence at the state finals, Anspaugh talked two large local high schools into moving one of their games to Hinkle Fieldhouse, and shot crowd shots during the game. 

There is an essay to be written, and that likely has been written, about how this movie is basically set in the America people some people wish they were in, rather than the one that actually exists. The Washington Post gave it a positive review that still called it “Pepperidge Farm buncombe.” Coach Dale is the sort of inspirational hard-ass it seems so many men in minor positions of power sometimes aspire to be. He talks about “breaking the boys like colts,” and at one point even benches one of his players to the point that he keeps only four players on the floor (you are supposed to have five a team, for the unfamiliar). He demands strict obedience without, it seems to me, ever actually earning any such thing. That this all works out for him, and that he’s still working after physically attacking a player because his buddy was looking out for him, is perhaps not coincidental with his overly-confident-white-dude schtick. Meanwhile, this is somehow a movie about basketball that I don’t think gives any lines to Black people the whole time. We know that the South Bend team they play in the final is from “the big city” because they have a handful of Black players. It is likely not a coincidence that former Vice President Mike Pence once volunteered to reports that he thought Hoosiers was the “best sports movie ever made.” I just realized he is also from Indiana, so that makes sense, I suppose.

Having found their niche, Anspaugh and Pizzo would collaborate on a handful of other theoretically-inspirational sports movies, the best known of which is probably Rudy. I like this movie waaay better than Rudy (about a small-town Indiana boy played by Sean Astin, who dreams of getting into a Football game for Notre Dame, but everyone tells him he’s too small), which is probably one of my least favorite movies in this genre. Imagine Hoosiers, which is about half basketball, except with most of the basketball taken out and replaced with more hokum. I remember being forced to watch Rudy in High School Health class to “teach us about setting goals.” It may not surprise you to learn that my Health teacher was also the school football coach, just as Gene Hackman half-asses teaching History in this movie. Anyway, the more Hoosiers just did scenes from games, the more I got into it. This is a movie that makes a decision pretty early on that nothing that the characters do or say that doesn’t happen during a game is actually important. You would think that could sink the movie, but actually I think that’s what saves it. If the basketball is all that matters, it means that it’s OK that neither I nor the movie care at all whether Gene Hackman and Barbara Hershey ever get together, or if Dennis Hopper is going to stop drinking. All that matters is whether that final shot goes in.

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