One of the saddest of questions in sports is "Whatever happened to...?" We ask it all the time, because, while we eagerly create heroes every season, we discard just as many when their legs go or their eyes go or their arms go. It's such an unfair question, too. We can't expect these heroes to hit pay dirt, hurl goose eggs or tickle the twine forever. When they do stop, we retire their numbers and forget them. Love 'em and leave 'em.
Everybody's All-American, a movie starring Dennis Quaid, Jessica Lange and Timothy Hutton, and directed by Taylor Hackford, answers the question, "Whatever happened to Gavin Grey, the Grey Ghost?" Based on the novel by SI senior writer Frank Deford, Everybody's All-American follows Gavin (Quaid), his wife, Babs (Lange), and his nephew. Cake (Hutton), over a span of 25 years, as Gavin—whose nickname takes on ironic overtones—goes from hero to has-been. Meanwhile, Babs, the ornamental Magnolia Queen, becomes a woman of independence and substance. And Cake, as the constant observer, goes from a saucer-eyed student to a professor cringing with embarrassment over his uncle's decline.
The sweeping chronological story gives the movie an old-time structure: they don't make 'em like that anymore. Yet it also has an almost '60s sensibility and a modern artfulness. The screenplay is fairly faithful to the novel, although there are alterations. The college is now LSU, not North Carolina. A few characters have been dropped. And the moviemakers have opted for a more upbeat ending. It doesn't seem like a cheat, however.
Hackford scores in the opening sequence, an evocative depiction of a 1956 pep rally. In fact, the pep rally is so good that the movie has to play catch-up. And eventually it does catch up, thanks to some other memorable scenes: an impromptu race between the Ghost and his black counterpart, Narvel Blue; a funny and miraculous last-second touchdown in the '56 Sugar Bowl; Gavin working his way through the Magnolia Queen's many crinolines.
The football scenes are excellent. Quaid actually broke his collarbone during the filming; Tim Fox, once a safety for the Patriots, Chargers and Rams, hit him a little too hard in one scene.
Beyond the gridiron, the movie still has the ring of truth, but it also has flaws. It's too long, for one thing, and there are a number of clichès around. But the moments of verisimilitude far outnumber the clunkers.
Quaid gives a breakthrough performance worthy of an Academy Award nomination, not to mention the Heisman. He's quite believable both as the happy-go-lucky BMOC and later as the slightly pathetic golf pro. Along the way he lets us see that Gavin knows exactly where the pitfalls of fame lie. That doesn't mean he can avoid them. And Quaid lets us feel Gavin's paralysis.
Lange is also quite good, although—dare we say it—she's a little too old to play the ingenue. She's a good match for Babs in one way, though. Lange's own growth as an actress is mirrored in Babs's development, for Lange too went from window dressing (King Kong) to an Oscar (Tootsie).
As Cake, Hutton is more of a humorless drip than his character in the book. At least Hutton helps the story along by changing hairstyles every so often. Carl Lumbly is quietly effective as Narvel, the talented though undiscovered player who turns his energies toward civil rights. One of Hackford's best tricks is telling such a large story with such a small cast. Oh yes, Deford appears in a cameo as the bigoted proprietor of a diner. He's remarkably, umm, tall.
There are all sorts of reasons for seeing Everybody's All-American: the acting, the football, the romance. But the best reason might be just to find out whatever happened to your old heroes.
ANDREW COOPER/WARNER BROTHERS
Lead players Lange and Quaid have come up with a couple of All-American performances.
NEIL LEIFER/WARNER BROTHERS
As the Grey Ghost gallops into oblivion, the film rushes toward its most telling moments.