Monday, June 10, 2013

Brian’s Song (1971)

          From the time of its release until, arguably, the arrival of Field of Dreams (1991), the iconic TV movie Brian’s Song enjoyed an enviable status as the ultimate male-oriented tearjerker, combining the bittersweet tropes of the melodrama genre with the macho textures of sports cinema. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss Brian’s Song as a cheap exercise in audience manipulation—even though the film is too brief and schematic to dig particularly deep into the lives of its characters, Brian’s Song is a credible drama distinguished by a terrific leading performance and solid supporting turns. In fact, much of the picture’s power stems from the presence of James Caan in the title role, because at the time he made Brian’s Song, Caan was bursting with so much ambition and talent that his imminent ascendance to big-screen stardom was inevitable; all it took was an incendiary supporting performance in The Godfather, released a few months later, to complete Caan’s transformation from up-and-comer to household name.
          Based on pro football player Gale Sayers’ memoir about his friendship with doomed fellow Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, Brian’s Song is a sensitive exploration of camaraderie in the face of hardship. Adapted with restraint and taste by screenwriter William Blinn and director Buzz Kulik, the picture begins with the arrival of Gale (Billy Dee Williams) to a Bears training camp. He’s immediately razzed by fellow newbie Brian (Caan), but the two subsequently bond. Later, Brian provides stalwart support when racists resist African-American Gale’s integration into the team. The budding friendship deepens further once Bears coach George Halas (Jack Warden) breaks a color barrier by making Brian and Gale roommates during trips for away games, and one of the warmest scenes in Brian’s Song revolves around Brian’s inability to make racist remarks even when he’s trying to motivate Gale during the painful recovery from a leg injury.
          Brian’s Song gets heavy during its second half, after Brian is diagnosed with cancer.  Suffice to say that only the most hard-hearted viewer could possibly get through the picture’s final scenes without shedding a tear, because the aim of Brian’s Song isn’t to bludgeon audiences with the pointless tragedy of a young life cut short, but rather to invigorate audiences by celebrating a friendship that outlasted death. Caan hits one right note after another here, blending sensitivity and toughness in a manner that later became his signature. Williams, never the most dexterous performer, benefits from a characterization based on reticence, so when the cracks in his character’s emotional armor finally show, the moments count. Warden, who won an Emmy for his performance, provides the definition of reliable support, grounding the film in the harsh realities of professional sports while also conveying a strong sense of innate decency.

Brian’s Song: RIGHT ON

1 comment:

Cindylover1969 said...

William Blinn won an Emmy for his script (which was later published - I wish I had a copy).