What do Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, James Garner, and Jeff Bridges have in common? Yes, they’re all actors. That's not the answer.
How about Steve McQueen, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Kirk Douglas, James Cagney, James Caan and Tony Curtis? And Elvis Presley, Mickey Rooney, Fabian and Frankie Avalon? What possibly could all these actors have in common?
Answer: They have all starred in a motor racing movie.
Some of the movies were big budgets affairs, like “Grand Prix” (James Garner), “Days of Thunder” (Tom Cruise), “Le Mans” (Steve McQueen), and “To Please A Lady” (Clark Gable). Some not so much, such as “Winning” (Paul Newman), “The Racers” (Kirk Douglas), and “Bobby Deerfield” (Al Pacino). Some were what we might call quality low-budget (good script, minimal financing): “The Last American Hero” (Jeff Bridges), “The Crowd Roars” (James Cagney), and “Speed” (Jimmy Stewart). The next group is the merely forgettable (bad script/low budget): “Johnny Dark” (Tony Curtis), “The Big Wheel” (Mickey Rooney), and “Redline 7000” (James Caan). The final group is comprised of stinkers: “The Wild Ride” (Jack Nicholson in an early role), “Driven" (Sylvester Stallone), "Viva Las Vegas” (Elvis Presley), “The Wild Racers” (Fabian), and “Fireball 500” (Fabian AND Frankie Avalon).
I bring up the subject in light of “Rush”, the recent F-1 racing movie by Ron Howard. The movie received rave reviews and became profitable after only a few weeks in theaters. How does “Rush” stack up against Hollywood’s best racing movies? Below is a list of what is generally considered the ten best, including “Rush,” each with a story synopsis.
1. THE LAST AMERICAN HERO (1973) -- Life isn’t easy in the North Carolina backwoods where the cottage industry is making moonshine whiskey. The money is good but Federal agents are on the prowl for moonshine runners like Junior Jackson, who has honed his driving skill outrunning the Feds. When his father is caught and sentenced to jail, young Jackson takes up stock car racing to pay the family’s legal expenses and put food on the table. Crooked promoters and cutthroat competitors are only a few of the obstacles standing in the way of Jackson’s climb up the ladder to NASCAR greatness. Based on the true life story of Junior Johnson, the moonshine runner turned racing legend, and directed with loving care by Lamont Johnson (Johnson is that rarest of Hollywood film makers who not only understands life in the Appalachian backwoods but does it justice). Jeff Bridges, in one of his first starring roles, is convincing in portraying Junior Johnson’s toughness, intelligence, and sensitivity. Filmed in the very heart of stock car racing, Wilkesboro County, North Carolina, "The Last American Hero" is a captivating adventure. “I’ve Got a Name,” sung by Jim Croce, makes an ideal theme song.
2. RUSH (2013) -- What happens when a free-wheeling English playboy takes on a charmless, machine-like Austrian for the Formula One Drivers’ World Championship? Sparks fly, and a fiery crash at the “Green Hell” Nurburgring nearly takes the life of one of them. Based on the true-life rivalry between Englishman James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda, with Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) as Hunt and Daniel Bruhl (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) as Lauda. With a paltry (by Hollywood’s standard) $30 million budget, director Ron Howard filmed on location with minimal computer-aided imagery, employed vintage F1 machines when possible, and sought the advice of F1 drivers. Coupled with an unerring eye for authenticity, Howard produced a stunning recreation of 1970’s-era F1 racing, with pitch-perfect stand-ins for Hunt and Lauda. Cramming a 16-race season into a 122-minute film, however, makes “Rush” seem, well, rushed. That said, the movie is a winner.
3. LE MANS (1971) -- Having recovered from a near-fatal accident at Le Mans the year before, Michael Delaney returns to the 24-Hour classic to try his luck again. His machine: the brutal Porsche 917. The race proceeds like clockwork (no pun intended) until the following afternoon when Delaney crashes yet again, in a torrent of shattered fiberglass. This time, he limps away. In the closing minutes of the race, he takes over the team’s sister car in last-ditch effort to win the day for Porsche. Directed by Lee H. Katzin and starring Steve McQueen. McQueen is absolutely believable as laconic, hard-bitten racer Michael Delaney because he’s been there. In 1970 he drove a Porsche to second place in the Sebring 12-Hour. Filmed on location with ground-breaking-camera work. Minimal dialogue and minimal plot, “Le Mans” is strictly for aficionados.
4. TO PLEASE A LADY (1950) -- They’re two of a kind: hard-bitten racer Mike Brannon (Clark Gable) and hard-bitten newspaper columnist Regina Forbes (Barbara Stanwyck). The plot is set in motion when Regina sees a driver perish as a result of Mike’s win-at-any cost aggression. Acting as judge and jury, she executes Mike in her column that results in his suspension. Relegated to carnival stunt driver, Mike begins a long climb back to the top, while Regina suffers a similar setback when a man she has attacked in her column commits suicide. Reconciliation, romance and racing follows, shot on location in Newark, New Jersey, Springfield, Illinois, Duquoin, Indiana, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Directed by Clarence Brown with minimal rear-screen projection makes for Hollywood’s most realistic racing scenes up to the making of “Grand Prix” in 1966. Terrific dialogue. Clark Gable looks at home in a crash hat, and admitted afterward that he loved auto racing so much he would have done the movie for free. As she so often did in many of her movies, Barbara Stanwyck chews up the scenery with her grit and charm.
5. WINNING (1969) -- Obsessive Frank Capua (Paul Newman) takes time from his pursuit of winning races to marry a widow (Joanne Woodward) and adopt her son Charley (Richard Thomas is his first movie role). Life is fine until their month-long sojourn in Indianapolis, where Capua prepares tirelessly for the Memorial Day classic. While Capua spends all his waking hours at the Speedway, his on-track rival Lou Erding (Robert Wagner) takes his place in the affections of his lonely wife. Meanwhile, back at the Gasoline Alley garage, Capua bonds with his stepson between practice sessions. Dramatic and touching, “Winning” puts a human face on the men who pursue winning at any cost. A number of real-life drivers appear as themselves, including Dan Gurney (who provided the Indy cars and his garage for the film). Newman was so captivated that he took up motor racing and drove a race-prepped Nissan sports coupe to four SCCA championships.
6. A MAN AND A WOMAN (1966) -- Anne, a young widow raising her daughter alone, and Jean-Louis, a race car driver raising his son alone, meet at the boarding school where both their children are enrolled. When Anne misses the last train back to Paris, Jean-Louis offers her a ride back. They enjoy each other’s company and agree to meet the following weekend at the boarding school where, as fate would have it, they fall in love. The following weekend Jean-Pierre competes in the Monte Carlo Rally in southeast France. Afterwards, he drives through the night to Paris to be with her the following morning. After making love, she tells him that she no longer wants to see him. There’s not much racing action, but there is an intelligent script, innovative direction and camerawork, and a great movie score. Anouk Aimee (“La Dolce Vita”) and Jean-Louise Trintignant (“And God Created Woman”) deliver sensationally nuanced performances. Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film and best Original Screenplay.
7. GRAND PRIX (1966) -- Hard-luck American Pete Aron (James Garner) is fired for causing his teammate Scott Stoddard to crash into the Monaco harbor. Failing to land a new ride with Ferrari, Aron pursues a new career as racing commentator for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. After one race, he quits in order to accepts a ride with an up-and-coming Japanese team. While Stoddard mends in the hospital, his bored wife takes up with Aron who is winning races again. Defending world champion Jean-Pierra Sarti, meanwhile, crashes but is not seriously hurt. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Sarti begins seeing an American fashion writer. Not to be outdone, his dashing and footloose Ferrari teammate Nino Barlini scores with a young, equally footloose French girl. Stoddard recovers and wins three races to put himself back in contention for the championship. The seasons concludes at the treacherous Monza Autodrome, with all four drivers sharing an equal shot at winning the Drivers’ World Championship. Who will win? And what will become of their love affairs? “Grand Prix” was a highly-touted, high tech, big budget movie let down by a cheesy Hollywood script. Garner did his own stunt driving (and suffered burns to his neck from a stunt that went wrong). Besides Garner, the international cast includes: Shakespearean actor Brian Bedford (miscast as Scott Stoddard), Yves Montand of France, Toshiro Mifune of Japan, and Italian heartthrob Antonio Sabato of Italy.
8. THE CROWD ROARS (1932) -- Cocky Joe Greer (James Cagney) has everything going his way. He wins a lot, and his girlfriend Lee adores him a lot. But he drinks a lot too, and won’t introduce Lee to his parents (because she’s “not good enough”). After winning the Indy 500, he returns home to California and finds out his kid brother Eddie wants to be like him--race cars, and date Lee’s girlfriend Anne (Joan Blondell). Joe decides to help Eddie become a race car driver while poisoning Eddie’s relationship with Anne. When Joe’s friend and competitor Spud dies in a fiery crash that he caused, Joe quits racing and becomes a skid-row drunk. Eddie, meanwhile, dates Anne and wins a string of races in the east. The movie culminates at the Indy 500. Great racing footage from several Southern California speedways that have since been bulldozed to make way from shopping malls--Ascot Park, Carrell Speedway, and Culver City Speedway. Also, check out those nylon racing helmets--talk about vintage. Written and directed by Howard Hawks, who would later direct “Sergeant York,” “The Big Sleep,” “His Girl Friday,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Rio Bravo” and another racing flick, in 1965, “Redline 7000” starring James Caan.
9. SPEED (1936) -- Mechanic Terry Martin (Jimmy Stewart), the chief car tester for Emery Motors, is working on a revolutionary new carburetor. He’s having trouble, not just with the carburetor, but with the firm’s engineer who constantly stands over his shoulder and who’s getting in the way of his pursuit of the publicity director, Jane Mitchell (Wendy Barrie). Testing takes them to the Indianapolis 500, where Martin crashes, and to the Murac dry lake in the Californian High Desert, where Martin crashes again, this time in pursuit of the World Land Speed Record. He doesn’t win on the track, but he does win the affection of Ms. Mitchell. “Speed” was Stewart’s first role as a leading man, and one of eight--yes eight--movies he made in 1936. The film was notable for its realistic cinematography by Lester White, incorporating scenes from the Indy 500 with on-location shoots at Murac, where Stewart did his own stunt driving. Scenes inside the automobile factory were shot at Chrysler, where the vaunted Chrysler Airflow was in production. Not the best racing picture perhaps, but it has the best-dressed actors. Stewart, Barrie and the entire cast wear superbly tailored clothes throughout.
10. THE RACERS (1955) -- Selfish, obsessive and reckless, Gino Borgesa (Kirk Douglas) wins Italy’s grueling Mille Miglia. He also wins the heart of Nicole Laurent (Bella Dari), who fears for his life. Now the toast of Europe, Borgesa’s recklessness catches up with him in Belgium where he crashes and badly wounds his leg. Doctors want to amputate, but Nicole intervenes and talks them out of it. Borgesa mends but must take pain killers to continue his winning ways. Win he does, but he offends and/or double crosses everyone along the way, including Nicole, who leaves him. Borgesa then discovers it’s lonely at the top. Directed by Henry Hathaway, and filmed on location in Monaco, Italy, Germany, France and Belgium. Much of the stunt driving, however, was done later in Southern California. Loosely based on the novel by Hans Ruesch. The first racing movie shot in color.
. . . AND THE OSCARS GO TO:
Best Picture: The Last American Hero
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Jeff Bridges, The Last American Hero
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Barbara Stanwyck, To Please a Lady
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Richard Thomas, Winning
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Joan Blondell, The Crowd Roars
Best Director: Lamont Johnson, The Last American Hero
Best Screenplay: The Last American Hero
Best Movie Score: A Man and a Woman
Best Cinematography: Grand Prix
Best Special Effects: Rush
Best Wardrobe: Speed
Best Racing Scenes: Le Mans
Coolest car: McQueen’s Porsche 917
Best line: “Racing is life, everything else is just waiting.” -- Le Mans