Biscuit is Gravy

Sure, Seabiscuit 's better than all the action sequels it's up against. But what will a fan of the book say?

We seem to have touched a nerve a few weeks back by making reference to a theater full of leather-clad bikers. Our guest for the evening, comedian Jimmy Danelli, casually joked about the "Hell's Angels" in the audience, which elicited some angry letters from biker types who felt slighted.

So we couldn't help asking this week's guest, former radio jock, poetry slam pioneer and longtime Harley Davidson rider Mary "The Bone Mama" McCann, about the new breed of motorcycle enthusiasts -- was it just us, or were the complainers overly sensitive?

McCann bought her first Harley in 1979, when she lived in Illinois. A desire to ride year-round is what motivated her to move to the Grand Canyon State soon after. But she's impatient with the newbies buying bikes like they were trophies of their first million.

Mary "The Bone Mama" McCann
Emily Piraino
Mary "The Bone Mama" McCann

"It used to be Live to Ride, Ride to Live.' Now it's Live to Ride, Ride to Brunch,'" she cracks.

A single redhead, The Bone Mama adds that she'd be a great catch for a biker dude. "I'm actually a dream girl," she says. "I have a Harley Davidson and a Home Depot charge card."

For the dwindling portion of the local population that didn't just drive in from out of state in the last couple of years, McCann's a familiar and fondly remembered voice from Zone 101.5's heyday, a station she helped kick off in 1992. Seven years later, she was the victim of a change in format, a dumping that still smarts for those listeners who dug her likable style and commitment to local bands.

McCann also claims the distinction of introducing our state to the phenomenon of the poetry slam some 14 years ago. Today, she's involved in several ventures. Besides continuing her efforts in poetry and painting, McCann is also helping local music historians with a project called the Arizona Music Heritage Foundation (www.azmusic.org). With the aid of noted archivist John Dixon, McCann is hoping to educate folks about the influence of such seminal Arizona artists as Duane Eddy, Waylon Jennings and the Meat Puppets, to name just a few.

The Bone Mama's also still pushing radio, but of the Internet kind. She's with a company that sells devices allowing home stereos to play Internet stations, helping the firm select the finest of the net's music sources.

Despite that busy schedule, however, McCann, a devoted book reader, has also found time to obsess over one volume in particular: Seabiscuit, the 2001 bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand.

"It sucks your face to the page," she says. "I couldn't put it down. I've given my book to a lot of friends. It's in Chicago now."

Walking into the Scottsdale Fashion Square theater, McCann was especially hopeful that filmmakers had captured what a phenomenon the little horse had been in Depression-era America. "Seabiscuit had huge press. People were tied to their radios for news of the races. I love that aspect of it -- the radio aspect."

What we get instead is a PBS special. Seabiscuit starts out like a Ken Burns film, with sweeping images of old black and white photos and the voiceover of David McCullough -- you know, as in the sorts of documentaries that seem intended to get viewers choked up about things as unsentimental as civil wars.

And that certainly seems to be the intent here. If Seabiscuit the book is fascinating and factual, Seabiscuit the movie wants to be pure tearjerker.

"They cheesed it up," McCann complained afterwards.

To make sure the throat-lumps begin building early, Seabiscuit opens with a long, slow sequence detailing the backgrounds of its three main human characters -- Seabiscuit's owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire). Each of the men has been beaten down by the Depression, but almost from the start, McCann noted, the film ignored some of the most compelling true tales behind their successes and failures.

How could filmmakers ignore the intriguing way Howard made his original fortune, for example? A bicycle repair shop owner who had become an early automobile dealer, Howard suddenly found his cars in emergency demand as makeshift ambulances in the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Howard had turned that disaster to his favor, and soon became the biggest auto dealer in California. In the film, however, Jeff Bridges appears to recycle his scenes from Tucker, and we're left with the impression that Howard's millions came from his ability to drive fast cars and give rousing speeches. Bridges is so good in the role, however, he threatens to steal the film. But once the racing begins, increasingly he's left to small, repetitive scenes.

"Jeff Bridges is one of the most underrated actors. Fisher King is one of my five all time favorite films. But he stayed in some serious middle ground in this movie. There wasn't a lot to his role," McCann said.

She was happier about Chris Cooper's moody trainer. "He's great as Smith, who was one of the last real cowboys," the Bone Mama said. "But they kind of cheesed him up, too. They threw in a little horse-whisperer there, and I was worried that they'd go even further down that path."

But McCann's greatest scorn was reserved for the red-headed, blind-in-one-eye jockey who rides Seabiscuit to racing glory. McCann explained that in the book, Red Pollard was a complex, angry little battler who wanted to pick a fight with the world.

"That character was an angry man, and we get this frustrated boy. And that's a shame," she said. Maguire, she complained, just didn't fit the role.

Not that the diminutive actor didn't give his all. But when he loses his temper, challenging to pummel another character, for example, McCann found it completely unbelievable.

"Wasn't it painfully obvious that Tobey Maguire has never said I'll kick his ass' to anyone before? I've said I'll kick your ass' with more conviction!"

Maguire may have looked convincing in the saddle in racing sequences that were the triumph of the film, but the Bone Mama just couldn't get over the bad casting.

"You have a boy playing this complex man. It's disappointing."

Still, even McCann gave props to the rousing showdown between the little horse that could and his main rival, War Admiral. And she wasn't the only one. The audience at the screening had been so primed for the one-on-one match (a race, the narration tells us, that was heard by 40 million Americans on radio), that spontaneous cheering seemed to burst involuntarily from filmgoers as Seabiscuit made his decisive move.

It was exhilarating. But there was still plenty of film to go, and still plenty of sentimentalizing on the menu. McCann was dismayed that the final triumphant racing moment plays in slow motion like a funeral dirge.

"For a horse racing film -- about speed -- it was kind of slow," she said. And she wondered why more of the book's spirit couldn't have made it to the big screen. "It's almost like they didn't have faith in the story, and they needed to make up something to make it more Hollywood. But the story didn't need that," she said.

For other fans of the book, she advised: "Go in there with Hollywood expectations. Don't go to see the book. And try to forget that you're watching Tobey Maguire." --By Tony Ortega

Contact the author at his online address, tony.ortega@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8426

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