Can 'Secretariat' Blindside Oscar Favorites?

This same time last year, no one was seriously considering the awards prospects of a little Deep South sports-themed movie called The Blind Side. Not even after I saw the film at a small screening on the Warner Bros lot and wrote in early November 2009 that I thought Sandra Bullock  would, against all expectations at the time, become a major Oscar contender. Instead, commenters and bloggers vilified my prediction. Of course, she not only went on to win, the film received a Best Picture nomination. Now everyone in Oscar punditry is looking for the “next Blind Side” with many eyes focused on the feel-good Disney sports drama, Secretariat that was sneaked last weekend to pump up word of mouth and tracking before its Friday opening. In many ways, the comparisons are apt. Both are true stories about one woman’s singular cause: taking an athlete  from rags to riches. In this case, though, that athlete is a horse and the woman is owner Penny Chenery played by Diane Lane who, unlike Bullock at this point, has already made several  potential Best Actress nominee short lists. And, with 10 nominees to pick for Best Picture,  the “Blind Side slot” for an old-fashioned feel-good movie the Academy falls for as much as the general public, even if critics don’t, is not out of the question for a crowd pleaser like Secretariat. Providing it is first able to achieve hit status at the box office. Its Rotten Tomatoes rating currently stands at 63% fresh and Roger Ebert has called it “a great movie” although the basic critical consensus is mixed, just as it was for Blind Side. Hip factor and critics aside though, the Academy has already shown a predilection for this particular type of “stand up and cheer” movie by nominating Universal’s Seabiscuit for 7 Oscars including Best Pic in 2003 and that was when there were just a measly 5 nominees.

Secretariat director Randall Wallace has previous Oscar experience: he was a screenwriting nominee for the 1995 Best Picture winner Braveheart and is not drawing comparisons. “The Academy has a mind of its own. It’s interesting the whole notion of what makes something Oscar-worthy,” he told me in a phone conversation yesterday. “I’m in the Academy and my criteria has to do with how it affects my heart and whether something is authentic. I don’t know whether Braveheart was thought to be a frontrunner or a dark horse, but you don’t make these movies with the idea of winning awards. You win awards for making a powerful movie.” Wallace is confident his new movie will find an audience wherever it’s shown, pointing to research he says Nielsen did after last Saturday’s sneaks. “The scores we have gotten have not been equaled  except by 2 or 3 movies in the entire history of the studio. However we open, we open. But I believe word of mouth is gonna be real satisfying.”

Secretariat, of course, is the inspiring story of the 1973 Triple Crown winner now considered to be the greatest racehorse who ever lived, and is the first project Wallace has been part of that he didn’t originate as a writer. His other two previous directing credits are The Man In The Iron Mask (1998) and We Were Soldiers (2002), but the saga of Secretariat had a message he wanted to tell in these tough times. “I loved the unmitigated joy of this story. I think that is rare in our world today. I know I need a sense of celebration in a movie, and I was thrilled to find that in this one,” he says. Making it all work was another matter since Wallace’s goal was to put the audience right in the thick of the races, not an easy task. “That meant we had to shoot this story in an original way. We had to make an original sound design. I had to cast real jockeys instead of actors pretending to be jockeys. And all of that  made for high adrenaline for me,”  he says. To insure this was all state-of–the-art, his team started with half-millon-dollar cameras but found they weren’t good enough. What they finally settled on were little “consumer cameras” that cost about $800 each and that anybody can buy at their local store. “That’s what we used for this unbelievable horse racing footage that’s making audiences stand up and scream ‘Go! Go!’ in races where they already know the outcome.”

What Wallace wanted to avoid as much as possible were a lot of CGI effects. “I am singularly unmoved by cartoon pixel figures flying around in capes, spitting fire, and having bullets bounce off their chests. That to me is not a hero. I wanted to see flesh and blood of horses and humans in a powerful setting — and that just generated a necessity to take this realistic approach.” He singles out Oscar winner Dean Semler’s (Dances With Wolves) innovative  cinematography  and the sound work of Kevin O’Connell and his team. O’Connell is a 20-time Academy Awards loser, aka ‘The Susan Lucci Of The Oscars’, and whose curse could be broken this year if Wallace has his way. “My prediction is he deserves it for this one and maybe this time he gets his due because he did an unbelievable job.”

Wallace also is hoping for good things for Diane Lane this season whom he had never met before setting up a lunch to woo her. On his way there, he stopped to buy a dozen roses and, when he presented them to her, he says she just lit up . “The first thing I said to her was, ‘When you win the Kentucky Derby, you win roses. And these are the first roses you’re going to get for Secretariat. Diane said, ‘You had me at hello’”

  1. I just saw the first trailer of Secretariat and looks great. I agree will be uplifting and a crowd pleaser. Lane is underrated and like the roses story at the end. Many might confuse with Seabiscuit, but looks like it can stand on its own. Both stories are compelling (Seabiscuit is a great book as well).

  2. I think it will make some money, but it’s not going to be a blockbuster hit.
    People don’t own horses anymore & don’t give a shit about them either.
    Horse racing is a dying business, it has little future in this country.
    Add to that, that at least 90% of the races are fixed. Who wants to go to a track or OTB to gamble, when you can go to a casino & just put coins into a slot machine!

    1. Secretariat is a true story that is inspiring one to say the least. And….that’s what going to the movies is all about!

    2. Okay, come clean. How much did you lose on a horse race, how close were you to hitting the big bucks, and why haven’t you let it go yet? Thoroughbred racing isn’t fixed. You just can’t handicap a horse, and you’re convinced everyone’s out to get you.

      People do love horses, and they love Secretariat in particular. They’ll come for themselves and bring their children to show them a fond memory of their own youth during the turbulence of Vietnam, and they’ll come because most of them (men and women) have a mad crush on Diane Lane. I’m only concerned about how Disney we’re talking here. I did find out out what they changed from history, and I agree that it had to be done to make a viable movie. After you see the movie, go check out the horse Riva Ridge. He’s the one that really saved the farm, but he didn’t win the Triple Crown and wasn’t as photogenic.

      Good luck pulling the kids away from the movie with the pretty horsie on the poster. He was on the cover of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated at the same time. This is not just a movie about a horse, it’s a movie about an icon that a housewife won with the toss of a coin.

      1. I’ve never lost a cent on a race because I had a neighbor that was a bookie & he said never bet on a horse race, they’re all fixed!
        We already know that all harness racing is fixed, there’s been so many “scandals” over the years about it. But the thoroughbred tracks & owners have more clout & have managed to keep it underground.

        What this will have is a lot of teen & pre-teen girls the first weekend, going for all the Freudian reasons & then a huge dropoff.

    3. I had the privilege of seeing this movie Wednesday night at a pre-screening for press because of my daughter. And to say it’s a movie about a horse is far off the mark. It’s a movie about a woman who showed unmitigated courage to follow an impossible dream. She did this against the odds while battling both her husband and her brother to do it. This began in Denver in 1969, a time when it would take enormous courage for a housewife to do what she did. Without giving it away, there was an easy solution, but she chose not just the harder way, but what for 99.9% of us would be beyond unattainable.

      The horse was a champion, but she was the true hero of this story.

      The characterization, of not just Mrs. Sweeney, but everyone; her father, the housekeeper, the groomsman, the jockey, and the trainer, was sublime. It was on the mark, no filler. I expected John Malkovich to deliver a stellar representation of the trainer, Lucien Laurin, but he far exceeded my expectations. I hope he gets a best supporting actor nod.

      I was blindsided by Margo Martindale who portrayed Miss Ham, the housekeeper and so much more to the people in her life. I’d love to see her nominated for best supporting too.

      Nelsan Ellis who played Eddie Sweat, the groomsman did a bang up job! I want him to have a supporting actor nom as well. Do you see a pattern here?

      At first I thought Diane Lane was a little old for the part, but she won me over fast. She became Penny Chenery and ran with it…another Oscar worthy portrayal.

      And from the first screen, in was a visual delight. The little details warmed my heart; like the jade Fire King cups Mrs. Sweeney and Miss Ham used in the barn. It was a little thing…but perfect. Did I say the costumes were great…another oscar nod?

      The audience cheered loudly over and over throughout the screening and I LOVED it. And to the comment about it looking boring…my daughter thought the same thing when she got the email asking if she’d attend and blog about it. She was blown away too.

      1. Diane Lane is only 45. Why would that be “too old”? I believe the woman she portrays was older than that when the actual events took place.

        Actresses hit 40 and people want to put them out to pasture.

  3. Secretariat is just basically The Blind Side, but with a horse instead of a big black guy. It’ll probably make a shit load of bread, and be an “uplifting” holiday movie. Whoopdie-freakin doooo!!

  4. I absolutely adore Diane Lane and hope she gets nominated but I have to say that this movie’s TV spots, the trailer and everything else about it just seem a little cheesy, more than charming so I find it hard to see it in the Oscar line up. Ultimately, I kind of feel like the triumph over adversity slot/sports/all heart slot seems like it’s going to go the way of THE FIGHTER. But nothing would make me happier than seeing Diane Lane getting nominated because she is one heck of an actress and is amazing in everything she does.

  5. I just saw a tv spot for this. It looks great. I can’t wait see it. I know no one cares about horse racing anymore but I love Diane Lane.

  6. Secretariat will be a hit and will be an Oscar contender. It has all the elements for our times. A horse only one woman believes in at the beginning, Miss Diane Lane, one of the greatest actors of her or any other generation. A come from behind horse the audience can root for. Trust me, a hit. And Oscar gold. I will hoof it through the next Kentucky Derby if I’m wrong!

    1. Um… since when was Seretariat an underdog horse? I love secretariat, and loved that someone finally made a movie about him but I was so ashamed when I saw Disney won the rights to do the movie. Again here comes Disney, changing the story from a superhorse who was almost guaranteed to win, (the best in the Belmont didn’t even get a payout) to an underdog story? Secretariat was definitely not an underdog, he was definitely the horse to beat. I wish they would have focused more on this great animal, and developed his character a little more. They didn’t show as much as his charisma as they could have. And to totally skip out on his training and him growing up? At least in Seabiscuit they focused on the horse a little more.

  7. I love the ‘You had me at hello’ reference and the rose-anecdote :) Diane Lane is one of my all-time faves.

  8. To my recollection, no Disney branded film has ever won a Best Picture Oscar. Miramax did, but never under the Disney label that I can remember. A few have been nominated for Best Picture, but I can’t recall a time when a Disney film won.

    Diane Lane is certainly due, but there’s a lot of competition. Disney hasn’t produced many acting awards either. Again, discounting Miramax.

    As much as I am a fan of Disney, and I have not seen this film, I just wonder how serious AMPAS voters take Disney outside of animation.

  9. The movie is quite good, no big surprises or special effects just good storytelling. Diane Lane’s performance is terrific & who doesn’t love going to the track, having a beer & betting on a horse to win & then watch them race around. At least your interacting with living objects & not a rigged machine.

  10. I saw SECRETARIAT at an advanced screening weeks ago. It’s just okay. Put it this way… it’s no Seabiscuit and it’s definitely not worthy of any Oscar nods. Diane Lane is passable… Malkovich is… well, Malkovich. Average film.

  11. I had to look up “Seabiscuit” on IMDB to even remember what it was called. Same poster as “Secretariat.” $87 mil. budget and $148 mil. worldwide gross. That might be fine if anyone cared about the movie now, but no one does. I know there are producers in this town who will always think that greenlighting this MOR crap is a good idea just because someone somewhere has heard of it before, but really. There are far better projects out there that need a lot less money to get made.

  12. Diane Lane is more gifted than Sandra Bullock. But, Bullock is more beloved and definitely more popular than Lane. I don’t expect a Diane nomination nor if nominated a win.

  13. I grew up in Queens not far from Belmont racetrack near the Queens border in long Island. Had a friend who worked in the stables and he’d give us “tips” that never failed so I have to agree with the person who said 90% races are fixed. I believe there isn’t much that isn’t fixed though and I hate when people spoil the fun by reminding me of that. Lol

    Secretariat is a great STORY. The nostalgia alone is enough for me. I rather see this than those DC/Marvel inspired superhero films, that’s for damn sure.

  14. What is going on with the Colors? That is not the Exact racing Colors of Meadow Stables – why did they choose not to use the actual Meadow Stables Silks for such a movie. I don’t understand

  15. Diane Lane is a great actress , but this is no Blind Side. I wish people would stop saying that. Seabiscuit wasn’t a big hit even though it got Oscar nom’s- boy that must have been a bad year.This year there are a lot of good actresses turning in great work. This won’t be an Oscar nom for Diane

  16. GREAT movie, hits all its marks but great. Blue and White are the Meadow Stables racing colors. Secretariat is a beloved horse, to this day, by many. Expect it to start out of the gate and topple the competition this weekend!

  17. My All-Time FAVORITE racehorse!! Secretariat is so awesome in action and built for the Triple Crown. A perfect horse with personality, class, and a little pazazz too!

    Not only am I going to see this film, I am going to buy the DVD for my collection too.

  18. Horse Racing is a dying business and at the heart, a very cruel operation.

    People care as much about horse racing as they do about dog racing. Both, are very cruel sports behind closed doors. Horses are often given performance enhancing drugs or small things are inserted under the saddle to make the horses run faster.

    I would say that anyone who is 40 years old will see the death of horse racing, dog racing and bull fighting in their lifetime. They’re all dying sports and people are tired of paying to see animals perform on queue.

    1. “Small things are inserted under their saddle to make them run faster”… Are you serious? Have you ever been around a horse. You insert a “small thing” under their saddle and they won’t run faster. They’ll buck you right off.

      And thoroughbreds are tested for enhancement drugs.

      I know that a lot of people don’t care about horse racing but thoroughbreds are awe-inspriging creatures and Secretariat was the best of the best. I can’t wait to see this movie. Can’t wait.

  19. My daughter and I are very much looking forward to seeing Secretariat tonight and not just because we own a retired off-the-track thoroughbred, Dantes’ Inferno, but because Secretariat is a GREAT TRUE story about real people thus requiring REAL acting talent…not another CGI recreated comic book.

    And if you like horseracing, watch the Kentucky Derby and care about what happens to horses when they’re no longer needed at the track than support a horse rescue group like ReRun.org or the Southern Calif Thoroughbred Horse Rescue – sctbrescue.org. These groups adopt ex-racehorses, foster and train them and give them a second career in life.

    Scooter…People do care about horses and what happens to them! Saving Dante and sharing this with my daughter is one of the best things we have done together…she’s been riding now for over 14 years, started at 6 years old and loves it…it’s a great way of life and a great thing for parents to share with their kids

  20. My husband & I saw ‘Secretariat’ Friday night! We both loved it, people cheered & clapped at the end, even knowing the races outcomes! We saw the great horse at Claiborne in 1988, year before he died, we were only ones at the farm, when the groom brought him out. Just a sweet beautiful stallion, ….even then! Critics be damned!!

  21. @ Scooter. Shame on you for saying ALL harness races are fixed!!!
    By stating that comment you are saying all horsemen in the Standarbred Industry are criminals! HOW DARE YOU!!

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