#328) Hoosiers (1986)

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#328) Hoosiers (1986)

OR “Hackman Fever”

Directed by David Anspaugh

Written by Angelo Pizzo

Class of 2001

The Plot: Loosely based on real events, former college basketball coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) arrives in the farming town of Hickory, Indiana to coach the high school team. His methods are unorthodox and he clashes with the townspeople, but ultimately his coaching leads to the Hickory Huskers’ surprise winning streak and a place in the finals.  There are obstacles along the way, including one player’s alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper), and an intelligent schoolteacher (Barbara Hershey) with information regarding Norman’s past.

Why It Matters: Another brief synopsis from the NFR, the only descriptor being when they call the film “at times bleak and at others inspiring”.

But Does It Really?: The best movies are powered not by logic, but rather by emotions. “Hoosiers” is the textbook example: the plot points and character development are rudimentary at best, but once you understand what is at stake in these basketball games, you feel for these characters, and that emotion carries you all the way to the end. “Hoosiers” has its flaws, but its inspirational spirit and love of the game is flawless. I think the NFR jumped the gun a bit on its induction (the film had only been eligible for five years), but “Hoosiers” is definitely preservation-worthy, and one of the greats of the feel-goods.

Everybody Gets One: Director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo both hail from Indiana, were in the same fraternity at Indiana University, and later attended film school at USC. The idea for “Hoosiers” originated in their frat days when they were discussing the 1954 Milan High basketball team and their surprise win at the state championships.

Wow, That’s Dated: I know it’s an intentional juxtaposition, but Jerry Goldsmith’s use of synthesizers in the score always sticks out to me. The rest of the movie is relatively timeless, so hearing electronic music out of nowhere seems anachronistic.

Take a Shot: Amazingly, despite Indiana being officially nicknamed the Hoosier State for over 150 years, no one definitively knows the origin of the word “hoosier”.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Hoosiers” played a one-week Oscar qualifying run in December 1986, and quickly expanded once it received two Oscar nominations. Dennis Hopper was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (though he believed he should have gotten the nod for “Blue Velvet”), but lost to an overdue Michael Caine in “Hannah and Her Sisters”. Jerry Goldsmith’s score was also nominated, losing to jazz legend Herbie Hancock for “’Round Midnight”. Notable among its precursor nominations, “Hoosiers” was up for the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, and lost to Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It”.

Other notes

  • As if having two Hoosiers as director and writer wasn’t enough, the entire film was shot on location in Indiana. Production headquarters were set in Indianapolis, and scenes were filmed in Ninevah, Knightstown, Danville and Lebanon. Also worth noting: there’s a city in Indiana named Lebanon.
  • Oh great, Norman and Myra’s meet-cute is not only a “we hate each other for now”, but also an expositional dump. The relationship doesn’t get much better (more on that later).
  • Only one of the Huskers basketball players was an actor (David Neidorf). The rest were all locals who were selected after an audition/basketball game. These are definitely basketball players who do their own acting, and not the other way around.
  • How many scenes in this movie are going to be townspeople telling Hackman that they don’t like change? And why are these guys getting confrontational with Hackman? Don’t mess with him, he’s Lex Luthor!
  • Shooter Flatch is not Dennis Hopper’s greatest performance, nor his most iconic, but it’s an effective performance in one of his rare forays into a quote-unquote mainstream film. And no matter what movie he’s in, something about Hopper’s acting style always makes me ask, “What the hell is he saying?”
  • Barbara Hershey’s performance in this movie is 50% clunky dialogue, 50% looking disappointed in the bleachers. Several additional scenes were filmed that showcased a more dimensional Myra, but Orion wanted a 2-hour movie, and this subplot suffered the most. Neither Hershey nor the filmmakers were pleased with these cuts.
  • This is another movie that would have been significantly shorter if these characters had the internet. One Google search of “Norman Dale” would have revealed everything about his past.
  • The slow clap may be one of my top five favorite movie scenes. I get a big smile on my face every time I see it.
  • The first half of this movie has a lot of set-up, but once we hit the second half, the payoffs start coming and you find yourself rooting for everyone. It’s the equivalent of having to eat your least favorite vegetable before getting to the tastiest dessert.
  • Why do the Huskers cut every game so close? The score is always tied in the fourth quarter. Didn’t they ever play the Indiana equivalent to the Washington Generals?
  • This film’s drinking game is every time Gene Hackman does his quick chuckle that he sneaks into most of his movies.
  • I freely admit the scene where Shooter takes over as coach makes me cry every time.
  • What I wouldn’t give to see Norman Dale go toe-to-toe with Gene Pingatore (aka the “Hoop Dreams” coach).
  • The final game was shot at Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, the site of the 1954 Indiana state championship game that inspired this movie. I can only imagine how insane it must have been to coordinate a staged basketball game with hundreds of extras.
  • That final shot is what I call a “Reverse Shining”.

Legacy

  • Anspaugh, Pizzo and Goldsmith reunited to do the other great inspirational sports movie based on a true story: 1993’s “Rudy”.
  • The gym used as Hickory’s home court is still in operation. Now known as the Hoosier Gym, the site is a popular tourist attraction, hosting several games throughout the year.
  • Steve Hollar (Rade) came under hot water with the NCAA after “Hoosiers” was released. Hollar was playing basketball at DePauw University, and college players are not allowed to receive payment for playing basketball. After an investigation, it was determined that Hollar was paid for acting in the movie, not playing basketball. He did however, have to give 5% of his payment to DePauw, and he was suspended for three games.
  • “Hoosiers” fandom has grown over the years, and it consistently ranks among the best sports films. Vice President (and former Governor of Indiana) Mike Pence recently called the film “the greatest sports movie ever made”, which may be the only time I agree with our Vice President on something.

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