Thursday, July 12, 2012

Winning (1969)

Winning was the film that turned Paul Newman from a merely handsome and talented movie star into a car fanatic and a professional racecar driver. It's also considered the unloved middle sister in a trio of big Hollywood racing films that began with Grand Prix (1966) and ended with Le Mans (1971.) Chances are you've never seen it, but you've seen footage from it used to illustrate the wild and wooly days of U.S. racecar driving before big money took it over.

I consider it a decent but minor example of the sorts of films that were being made almost monthly during that period when Hollywood Went Insane, somewhere after Cleopatra nearly took down what was left of the studio system and before the counterculture putsch in Hollywood after Easy Rider subsided into either exploitation and self-parody (Deathrace 2000, Angels' Wild Women) or a reactionary rediscovery of craft and production values (The Godfather, Chinatown.) It's one of those films where a whole lot of context makes it marginally easier to watch all the way through. Here endeth the film crit bafflegab. (For now.)

Let's talk cars. The film begins with Frank Capua (Newman) driving a Bob McKee Can-Am car at Road America in Elkhart Lake, casually renamed Redburn for the film. Frank is a cool customer, sitting straight-backed in his seat as he pulls into the pits, out of gas just before the last lap. This is an era in racing history I love; the McKee car Newman is driving is a fantastic, wedge-shaped thing, in a field full of the sort of low, lethal-looking cars that all seem like road-hugging variations of a GT40 or a Porsche 917. It was the kind of race car I drew in the margins of my notebooks at school (next to the Sherman tanks and the Stuka divebombers,) and came shrunk to palm size with every Hot Wheels track set you got at Christmas.

When he pulls into victory circle the camera cuts between him and the second place driver, Lou Erding (Robert Wagner,) with whom Capua has a sort of friendly rivalry as they exchange a series of ritual hand gestures. There's a party later at a firehall, which Frank leaves, a bit drunk and melancholy. He walks through Redburn's very backlot-looking downtown, and comes across Elora (Joanne Woodward) closing up the Avis Rent-A-Car storefront where she works. A combination of his drunken charm and her faint desperation - attractive but divorced and firmly in act one of middle age, stranded in a small town where a car race is one of the big annual events; it's hard not to understand her motivation - means they end up taking a moonlight tour in a rental Ford where her backstory gets established.

Winning is a strange film. Director James Goldstone (The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight seems to be his other career highlight) either lets the film wallow in patches of emotionally sluggish tedium or kicks the pace along with palpable impatience. In a few scenes Elora has come out west with Frank to Santa Monica, where his courtship continues at the beach, and with her sitting in the navigator seat as he drives a Mini in a very casual rally.

He proposes to her while he takes a walk along a track where he's about to race, telling her to bring her teenage son out to live with them. The track was apparently Riverside International, now defunct, where Frank is driving in a stock car race that seems very far from the glitz and money of modern NASCAR. The '67 Ford Newman drives was a real car left over from the previous year's races, and if you've only seen the garish sponsor liveries of modern day Sprint Cup racing, the hand-painted numbers and shop banners on the cars lined up next to Frank's look mighty hillbilly.

This, once again, is the stock car racing I remember from the car mags I used to read at Walker's, the corner store near my school, decorated by sign painters and driven by rawboned guys with big sideburns and faces that wouldn't be out of place in Dorothea Lange photos if it weren't for the broad, cocky grins on their faces. Capua might find himself behind the wheel of a McKee or a McLaren every now and then, but he's clearly a journeyman driver still waiting for his big break, his life built chasing purses at weekend races anywhere from county fairs to speedways like North Wilkesboro and Concord, a long way from the glamour of Brand's Hatch or Monaco.

Before the race Elora drops off her teenage son Charley (Richard "John Boy" Thomas) for a "get to know your new Dad" weekend; Newman's Frank is manly as all fuck and Charley is clearly desperate for a father figure so they bond. Goldstone puts the film back in fifth gear again and in rapid succession Frank tells the boy he wants to adopt him; cut to the happy new family posing for their Polaroid wedding photos with the justice of the peace, then Frank giving Charley a dune buggy for his birthday, imparting what might be the kernel of Frank's philosophy: "Sport, you've got to learn to drive this thing by the seat of your pants."

For virtually every teenage boy, current and former, this probably makes Frank the greatest fucking Dad ever. While Charley takes his new ride for a spin, Frank and Elora have a moment in the swing chair, wearily anticipating the next day, when he'll head back out onto "the circuit."

"I'll work on the cars and I'll drive and I'll eat and I'll sleep, and I'll work on the cars and I'll drive." Frank is in a philosophizing mood, and by now Newman and Goldstone and screenwriter Howard Rodman (Coogan's Bluff, Route 66) have been working overtime to establish Newman's character as an existentialist in a fireproof racing suit, a mechanic-driver in the Phil Hill mold, his anxiety constantly battling his need to win, his weariness fighting to keep a lap between it and despair. It was the '60s - this kind of stuff was everywhere until existentialism turned into sissy book-learning shit and we fell in love with the brute nihilism of the anti-hero. That was sometime in 1971. In June, I think.

Back on the track Newman is the anguished loner again, losing a race to Wagner and brooding in his motel room, where car lights play over him through his window. Frank and Elora have a terse exchange over the phone; she tries to initiate some phone sex; he's too zoned out. They hang up on each other a few times before saying they'll meet up at Indianapolis.

The Indy 500 is Frank's shot at the big time, but it's where everything falls apart. After helping the head mechanic chopper in some parts, he tries to get back under the engine but he's told to go spend some time with his wife. He has a happy moment, taking a leisurely lap around the Indy oval to Dave Grusin's easy listening score before driving back to his digs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motel, where he finds Elora heating up the sheets with Lou, Frank's teammate.

At this point the film has reached its dramatic apex with over half its running time still to go, and if I'm supposed to be rooting for Frank and Elora to work this out, I'm not feeling it. The worst thing Frank has done is get a bit obsessive; he's a professional race car driver, and spending the night tuning the engine might make it a little easier for him to win a purse and support his new family. That clearly seems to have escaped Elora's comprehension, and so she decides to cuckold him with his teammate and the only adult male with whom he appears to have an emotional connection. What would she have done if she'd caught him sharing a victory circle kiss with Miss Hoosier Homecoming as he's handed a trophy - pull a train with AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Bobby Allison and Johnny Rutherford in the middle of the starting grid at Daytona?

Woodward's Elora was lost to me, though, when the film made a point of showing us that she wears a wig, despite owning a head of perfectly healthy hair. Perhaps it's my upbringing - lace curtain Irish, with all of the hair-trigger disapproval that comes with its tenuous grip on the lower rungs of social mobility - but unless there's chemo or alopecia somewhere in the picture, wig-wearing women occupy a place somewhere between floozy and perjurer.

Or perhaps it's just a male thing. Somewhere between the wig and the adultery Elora treats Frank to the classic one-two female-to-male emotional combination of "Why are you so quiet?" and "What are you thinking?" This should have sent Frank fleeing to the relative tranquility of the Scandinavian winter rally circuit, but the fact that he chose to stick around should have made Elora set him up with a box spring and mattress and a La-Z-Boy in the garage next to the Snap-On tool locker.

Needless to say, the roundhouse emotional sucker punch messes with Frank's qualifying times on the oval, while Lou sets some kind of track record before blowing out his engine. Lou apparently blows out a lot of engines. I get it: Lou's a careless sort of guy and he breaks stuff. What do you expect when he's played by Robert Wagner, who merrily nailed anything that menstruated in Hollywood in his prime? Hell, the guy even managed to lose Natalie Wood in the Pacific Ocean. It's fair to say that Robert Wagner isn't the first guy you'd call to cat-sit.

After a night repairing Lou's blown engine and getting his stepson drunk on champagne, Frank pulls off a decent qualifying lap the next day and manages to get seventeenth place on the starting grid, and so the day of the big race looms, with everyone's future - Frank, Elora, Lou, Charley - hanging on how well Frank can drive the Dan Gurney Eagle with the turbocharged Offenhauser around the Indy oval.

Race day is lovingly set up with the camera cutting between the mechanics and the pit lane and the crowds pouring into the track. When the camera zooms in on couples huddling under blankets on the infield grass it's hard not to be reminded of similar shots of hippies shivering in the morning dew at Woodstock the same year. Suddenly it strikes you - Indy was the square Woodstock, or more accurately, Woodstock was just overhyped hippie mimicry of the mass gatherings mainstream society took for granted.

The race begins with all the ritual of Indy, the parade and the pace laps, and then a wow start with footage of a catastrophic 1966 pile-up after the green flag. The race resumes, and Goldstone gives a sense of the long haul duration of the race by fading into some more Grusin music over a montage between the cars on the track and the crowd, which includes one of my favorite shots of the film:

Yes, kids would make pyramids of beer cans their parents were draining and no one would call social services. It was a different time. Lou blows his engine again, and the final laps feature a duel between Frank and Bottineau, the leader, as the camera cuts between Newman's piercing blue eyes and the open wheels of the cars; as an aside, it's hard not to be impressed at how much De Mille's original Ben Hur set the style for racing movies, even to this day.

Frank wins, and after another lonely-man-in-a-crowd scene at the victory celebration, the dawn of a new day leaves him with unfinished business, which includes decking that punk motherfucker Lou.

Frank finally confronts Elora with the divorce papers, but wants her to make them both reconsider. "I'm driving good but my life is crap," he tells her. If Newman and Woodward didn't already have the chemistry of a married couple in real life then Winning's frankly dismal love story would be unwatchable. The film leaves Frank with the last words - "If you think we can make it, we can make it." - before fading to credits on a shot of the two of them facing each other with a car between them.

I frankly think Frank would be better off getting back into his car and getting back to his whole Meursault-at-Watkins-Glen trip, and since Goldstone leaves it all hanging, I'll let myself believe that's what happened next. Winning won't go down in history as anything like an essential racing film, to be sure, but it turned Paul Newman on to racecar driving, so it can't be all bad.

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