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Rush at TIFF: Best racing movie ever? Maybe

Norris McDonald reviews some of Rush's competition

  • Rush

Ron Howard’s film Rush, which will open at the Toronto International Film Festival tomorrow night, has enjoyed a pre-release advantage not afforded other racing movies in previous decades: the Internet.

For the past year, sneak previews of this movie — about the 1976 battle for the World Driving Championship between James Hunt and Niki Lauda — have been posted to YouTube. Stories about this film have been written and published on news sites, complete with links to the online video previews.

To say there is a buzz surrounding this picture would be an understatement. One headline on a story I saw flat out said this: “Rush — the greatest racing movie ever made.”

Let’s hope it lives up to its advance billing, because there hasn’t been a really, really good motion picture made about this sport since the 1960s, when Grand Prix (James Garner) and Winning (Paul Newman) were released. And even those two films, despite magnificent cinematography (particularly Grand Prix), had story lines what were more than a little on the corny side.

Pre-Grand Prix racing movies, however, were somewhat believable and at least one, To Please A Lady, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clark Gable — which is my favourite, by the way — had some basis in fact.

But post-Grand Prix? Give me a break. We’ve had to endure, suffer through (take your pick) a raft of offerings that should never have been released to theatres. (By the way, I don’t consider all the street-racing or fantasy pictures — The Fast and Furious, Death Race, Cannonball Run, Cars and so-on — to be auto-racing movies in the true sense, so they’re not included here.)

Take Bobby Deerfield (Al Pacino). Please. Add to that embarrassment Driven (Sylvester Stallone), Days of Thunder (Tom Cruise), Talladega Nights (Will Ferrell), Stroker Ace (Burt Reynolds), Six Pack (Kenny Rogers) and on and on.

Two movies from the 1970s and one from the 1980s are on my personal bubble, although many purists will maintain at least one of them — Le Mans (Steve McQueen) — was the best of all time.

I found that film to be arrogant and, as I have stated before, the theft of the line, “Racing is life, the rest is just waiting,” from the late Karl Wallenda, who was talking about performing on the high wire, was outrageous, not to mention cheap.

The other two that had merit, although not much, was the little-known and little-seen The Last American Hero (Jeff Bridges), about stock car champion Junior Johnson, although he’s not called that in the movie. The title comes from a short story about Johnson written for Esquire magazine by Tom Wolfe that brought Johnson into the mainstream and put Wolfe on the literary map.

And, in 1983, Heart Like A Wheel (Bonnie Bedelia) told the story of drag racing champion Shirley Muldowney. The show has its moments (Bedelia was nominated for a Golden Globe) but the last scene (in which her ex-husband cheers her victory over the guy who took her away from him) is so hokey, I can’t bear to watch it.

As mentioned, though, there were some fine racing movies made going all the way back to the 1930s. Here’s a quick rundown:

The Crowd Roars (James Cagney) is a good movie that didn’t do all that well at the box office. Released in 1932, it’s the standard prize-fighter story in an auto-racing setting. Older brother races to pay for younger brother to get an education and goes nuts when he finds out younger brother has quit school to also go racing.

In 1939, it was remade as Indianapolis Speedway. Pat O’Brien played the Jimmy Cagney role and most of the dialogue and all of the racing scenes were the same. Several of the characters were played by the same actors in both pictures.

Why the remake?

Cagney was seen by the movie-going public as a bad guy (Public Enemy). His role in The Crowd Roars was meant to invoke sympathy, but it didn’t work. The casting of O’Brien in the remake (he was always seen as a nice guy) turned the trick and Indianapolis Speedway did much better at the box office than the original.

In 1949, the first of a trio of auto racing movies was released that basically had the same message: nice guys finish first. The Big Wheel (Mickey Rooney), To Please A Lady (Stanwyck-Gable) and The Racers (Kirk Douglas) all end with goodness winning the day.

Of the three, To Please A Lady is the best. Loosely based on the Hearst Newspapers’ all-out campaign in the 1940s to have the sport banned, Stanwyck plays the part of a crusading newspaper columnist who goes to a local speedway to check out the phenomenon of post-war midget auto racing and interviews Gable, who’s a driver.

She’s appalled when a racer is killed and Gable shrugs it off as part of the game. She writes a series of columns condemning the sport but is intrigued by Gable and the story goes on from there.

In the end, faced with a choice of winning the Indy 500 at the possible expense of another driver’s life, or crashing himself, he crashes to please the lady.

Will Rush turn out to be as good as To Please A Lady? We’ll find out tomorrow night.

nmcdonald@thestar.ca

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