What’s fascinating about “Everybody’s All-American” (citywide) is how much empathy director Taylor Hackford creates for Babs, the Magnolia Queen, and her football hero-consort, Gavin, the “Gray Ghost,” whose lives reached some sort of epiphany with his triumph at the Sugar Bowl in 1956. The movie wonders about the second act for such sports legends. It questions what’s in store for the college beauty who, asked about her major, says, “I’m majoring in Gavin and me.” Do we care?
By sheer force of performance, Jessica Lange and Dennis Quaid make us care. These are among the most full-blown and seductive accomplishments of either actor’s career, but especially of Quaid’s. His transition from untarnished golden boy to the chain-smoking, puffy ex-jock, tired of his own unvarying recitation of his Greatest Moments, has real poignance, even though it’s denied a logical conclusion.
For Lange, the challenge is to grow from dewy magnolia to steel magnolia while remaining securely in the audience’s affection. She does it with a mental strip-tease; the frilly Southern excesses peel off one by one, leaving us at last at the strong core of Bab’s character--her tenacious love for her man, her own tensile strength. (Lange’s real strip-tease in the movie may not exactly go unnoticed either. Somewhere early in the story’s 25-year panoramic meander, she takes a nighttime skinny-dip. Under Stephen Goldblatt’s lenses, she’s luminous--as bright and endearing under her blond bangs as Marilyn Monroe in those fleeting moments from “Something’s Got to Give.”)
If these decade-spanning yarns are going to work, they have to be done full-throttle or not at all. You can tell from the first nighttime football sequence, when what seems like thousands of band members stream down the steps of the state Capitol building in Baton Rouge, playing as they go, that that’s exactly the energy Hackford is going to give his story.
It’s not a deep saga--although you suspect it would like to be--as it parades its Beautiful Southerners through every social wave from civil rights and the women’s movement to encroaching yuppiedom. The actors scramble to give their characters texture and veracity, and they never fumble. In the end, it is the story that lets them down.
“Everybody’s All-American’s” lovers stay together through the unmanning of Gavin, who pushes his luck in a dangerous, short-lived profession. In one shot, the camera runs over Gavin’s body in the locker room. It appears to have been clawed by a tiger, but it’s only the badges of an ordinary Saturday afternoon’s work. The end of the road for his career and his protectiveness about the image of the Gray Ghost are the center of the story’s pathos, which never gets full exposition.
Tom Rickman did the script from the book by sportswriter-novelist Frank Deford. In spite of occasional holes of logic, the screenplay is raucous and lively, with some evilly funny moments of perception, particularly between Babs and the “jock-sniffing” used car dealers who become her employers. Rickman has the same good ear and eye for matters Southern that he showed in “Coal Miner’s Daughter."( Presumably it was language, as well as brief nudity and violence that got the film its R-rating.)
Among his Southerners, two of the most vivid characters are played by John Goodman (“Punchline’s” husband) and Carl Lumbly (“Cagney & Lacey’s” Detective Marcus Petrie). The massive Goodman plays Lawrence, the quintessential good ol’ boy who is Gavin’s best friend and partner in football and later in their restaurant/bar. Lumbly is Blue, a black athlete of Gavin’s ability but none of his advantages in these early, segregated days of Southern football. He will go on to become a civil rights activist and a major business and political force.
Supposedly Timothy Hutton’s character, nicknamed Cake, who is Gavin’s worshipful cousin, is the film’s third-strongest role. Cake will become the Southern gentlemen of letters, forever in awe of his dazzling cousins, but especially of Babs whom he moons after glumly. Unfortunately and through no fault of Hutton’s, Lawrence and Blue run him right off the field. Hutton really struggles, but it’s like trying to apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a wet kid glove. (Also, Hutton’s character is the only case where the film’s make-up wizards bottom out. They keep moving stick-on hair about his face; wispy, goat-like chin whiskers, anemic mustaches, a final, unconvincing beard, and it only makes things worse. There are men who remain boyish--and unwhiskered--into their 80s, and Hutton may just be one.)
It’s the only break in the film’s sturdy technical details. The rest of the make-up is so good it’s almost imperceptible. The costumes are evocative and witty, the production design is wonderful and the music is enough to make a strong boy break down and weep: Shirley and Lee doing “Feel So Good,” as the background for a scene that takes Gavin and Lawrence across town to the rib joint where Blue works. Hank Ballard and “Finger Poppin’ Time”; some baaaad songs by Charmaine Neville & Innovations. (Music that can pinpoint a whole era is a Hackford talent, and it gets a real workout here.)
“Everybody’s All-American” may come from the bourbon-and-branchwater culture of the sporting South, but it goes down like Coca-Cola--it’s not exactly nourishing, but then again, it’s performances are so addictive that you may not even care.