BRIAN’S SONG (1971)

  • Director: Buzz Kulik
  • Writers: William Blinn, based on the non-fiction book I Am Third by Gale Sayers and Al Silverman
  • Starring: James Caan, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Warden, Shelley Fabares, Judy Pace, Bernie Casey, David Huddleston, and Ron Feinberg
  • Accolades: 4 Emmy Awards
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent of Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

We tend to think that big movie stars showing up on TV is a new phenomenon, because HBO Max won’t stop telling us to watch the new drama where Kate Winslet plays a detective (or maybe that’s just me), but in reality this has been going on to various degrees ever since TV has been a thing. I considered skipping Brian’s Song, despite its oft-high ranking on lists of people’s favorite sports movies, as well as lists of movies “guaranteed to make dudes cry,” simply because it was a made-for-TV movie. But honestly, a movie’s a movie, and if I wouldn’t hesitate to look at Roma or Nomadland, if they were eligible, then I should look at Brian’s Song. In fact, it was such a big hit on its initial airing on ABC, receiving a completely insane by 2021 standards 48 share (meaning that 48 percent of TV sets on at the time were watching it), that it did receive a theatrical release shortly thereafter. For reference, this would have made it, by far, the most-watched TV program of 2020, way more than last year’s Super Bowl.

Brian’s Song is billed as a sports movie, but it definitely does not end in a “big game.” It is, for all intents and purposes, a “bromance” between two football players, who are forced to become roommates and then become best friends. That people took this very seriously is partly a product of a couple very good performances, but is also a product of the greater themes involved here (especially when this movie came out in 1971) where one of the players is Black and the other is white. Yet the fact that it’s a true story, based on the autobiography of one of the people involved, allows it to “get away” with greater specificity than it otherwise would. While the idea that these were “the first interracial roommates in the NFL” is probably the reason it got made, it’s not a story about two guys who are feeling that crushing weight. There are long stretches of this movie where race doesn’t get mentioned at all.

The two real-life players at the center of the story are Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams, many years pre-Lando) and Brian Piccolo (James Caan). The two enter Chicago Bears training camp the same year as rookies, are competing for playing time at the same position, and have contrasting personalities. So at first they don’t get along, but after they are put together as roommates (explaining his reasoning, one coach notes that, “It’s 1965”) they grow closer. The next season, Sayers badly injures his knee, and Piccolo replaces him. But Piccolo doesn’t want to win the starting job by default, and helps Sayers through his rehab. The season after that, they are put together as starters in the backfield, but it becomes apparent Piccolo keeps losing weight no matter how hard he works out. It turns out he has cancer. Sayers assists him through the illness, but he gets worse and worse before eventually dying in the emotional climax of the movie.

I did not come up with the idea that Brian’s Song may basically have been intended as a version of 1970’s Love Story that was socially acceptable for manly men to watch because it was ostensibly a football movie. The latter movie, one of the biggest hits of the prior year, was a romantic drama in which a guy and girl get together, but then she gets sick and dies at the end. Roger Ebert once referred to this filmic phenomenon as “Ali McGraw Disease,” after the female lead of Love Story, describing it as “a disease where the symptoms include getting more and more beautiful until you die.” This is almost the same movie, down to the blatant emotional manipulation, but, somehow, I did end up tearing up a few times.

For the actual football scenes, Brian’s Song takes the interesting short cut of just cutting in NFL Films footage of the actual Sayers and Piccolo playing for the Bears. This works because everyone in football has to wear helmets, obviously, so you can’t see their actual faces. This is intercut with scenes of the actors, helmets off, on the sidelines. For added verisimilitude, these shots were done during games at Soldier Field (though the Bears hadn’t moved into Soldier Field at the time of the events actually depicted in the movie, but fine). The one shot of one of the actors actually playing is the moment of Sayers’ knee injury, which is played so over-the-top as to be comical. As they said on the Unspooled podcast episode about this movie, the message of the music, slow-motion, and expression on Billy Dee Williams’ face is not just that this is serious, “it is so serious that he may die, all the players might die, and all of us in the audience might die.” Almost all of the rest of the Bears were played by the actual players, to the point that the credits, after individually crediting Dick Butkus, just say, “The Chicago Bears as themselves.”

I get the impression that TV movies in 1971 were still a relatively new thing, so it’s interesting that the two leads, in particular, were such sought-after roles. Burt Reynolds, one of the biggest stars in the world at the time, wanted to play Piccolo, but was turned down on the basis that “you wouldn’t cry when Burt Reynolds dies.” Honestly, that’s maybe the best insult I’ve heard in my life. As it is, Caan and Williams each give what I’d describe as “mannered” performances. Caan does a thick southern accent even though Piccolo was originally from Massachusetts (perhaps originating from the fact that he played college football for Wake Forest), and in his death scene, for me, is playing the part so hard that he’s impossible to understand without subtitles. I have seen Williams in other things, but here he’s almost unrecognizable as the reserved and terse Sayers, who Piccolo very gradually pulls out of his shell.

In reality, Piccolo died, not of “Ali McGraw Disease,” but of testicular cancer. Somewhat bizarrely, even in the context of drawing attention to a deadly disease, you couldn’t say “testicular” on TV in 1971, so he is given a sort of generic, vaguely cancer-y illness. Even weirder from a 2021 perspective is the fact that, at the same time, you apparently could just say the “N-word” like 20 times in network primetime. This leads to what, for me, is perhaps the most interesting scene in the movie, when Piccolo uses the slur to describe Sayers in an effort to make him angry so he’ll work harder during a rehab work-out. Knowing his friend is not serious about this, Sayers bursts out laughing, and soon both of them are cackling hysterically. When Sayers’ confused wife (Judy Pace) comes downstairs to see what’s going on, he tells her, “Brian called me a N*****!” She furrows her brow and heads back upstairs. In another scene, in order to distract Sayers before the two of them are about to race in practice, Piccolo tells him he and his wife are expecting, and if it’s a boy he plans to name it after Sayers. After Sayers congratulates him, he comments just as the gun is about to go off that he is worried that the kid will be made fun of after he names it “Spade Piccolo.” It’s interesting because this is just the relationship these two guys have, and apparently did have, but it’s one I really haven’t seen and don’t think would be acceptable in a modern movie.

Brian’s Song’s initial popularity has, in fact, helped it survive down through the years, including a middling 2001 ABC remake starring Mekhi Phifer as Sayers and Sean Maher as Piccolo. It remains an acceptable “guy cry” movie, despite the fact that the sports is never anything other than ancillary to the relationships. It steadfastly refuses to have a “big game.” In one memorable scene (which I did tear up at, I admit), Sayers, who we know dreads public speaking, addresses the team to inform them of Piccolo’s illness, saying they should win the game they’re about to play for him. Cut to several of the players, including Sayers, visiting Piccolo in his hospital room, where he chides them for losing the game. “It’s not ‘lose one for the Gipper,’” he jokes. Honestly, I’m not complaining. If we can stealth get a couple more guys in touch with their emotions through football movies, let’s do it.

One thought on “BRIAN’S SONG (1971)

  1. In my family, in 1971, football was life and we were among the 48% of folks who tuned in to this film that night. Not only because of the football theme, but also because Brian Piccolo was a Fort Lauderdale hometown hero and even though he played for the Bears, he was still revered in our house. This one had all of us bawling.

    Like

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