Written by C.E. Chambers Published October 21, 2011
It’s been an unusually good month for well-made films with creative content that can be enjoyed by the whole family. “The Big Year” (an absorbing and humorous story about professional birdwatchers competing against each other), “Moneyball” (the riveting true story of the financially strapped Oakland Athletics baseball team who became unexpected champions when the general manager threw out conventional wisdom regarding how to choose players), “Courageous” (another inspirational drama/comedy from Sherwood Pictures about men who serve their communities heroically who also become champions at home).
And now “The Mighty Macs” from Quaker Media. The true story of Cathy Rush, a young woman who decided not to let rejection define her but used her skills to transform a rag-tag team of unpolished and disinterested female basketball players from a small, struggling Catholic college into one heart, one hope, and one goal -– who ended up astonishing the nation.
I saw this film a couple of days ago and really enjoyed it. An inspirational, thought-provoking, and sometimes humorous story with some “Cathy-isms” that are rather brilliant from a woman who was only in her early twenties at the time. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of conquering giants and shocking so-called “experts” and maybe easy to write a review along these lines. However, the film’s content and characters are much meatier than that.
Tim Chambers, the producer, writer, and director of “The Mighty Macs,” stated in the press kit for this film that “the story is told from Cathy’s point of view.” In one of those divinely inspired twists of fate, he saw her when he was ten-years-old. He watched Cathy coach Immaculata College’s basketball team as they practiced in his grade school gym in Pennsylvania. The players were “incredibly gifted and cohesive.”
Cathy Rush also left an indelible impression on Mr. Chambers: He never forgot “the swagger, the style, the charisma.” He could have never guessed that, years later, he would enter into partnership with Vince Curran, a former basketball star from Pennsylvania, to create Quaker Media and make a film about her.
In the early 1970s, Cathy became head coach of the basketball team from the all-female Immaculata College in Pennsylvania. In 1972, The Mighty Macs –- wearing their uniform short dresses with plaid sashes against other female competitors dressed in non-restrictive shorts and tops — won the historic, first national championship for women’s college basketball. They went on to win the championship for two more consecutive years.
Cathy was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
It wasn’t commonplace in the early 1970s to encourage females to pursue sports. Cathy (played confidently by Carla Gugino) is a “woman with a dream” who’s surprised when the Reverend Mother at Immaculata College accepts her application to become their basketball coach. She’s never worked in this capacity before.
Cathy could have allowed fate and cultural norms to define her. She had excelled at basketball during high school and was dismayed when her high school cancelled the girls’ basketball season during her senior year and asked them to become cheerleaders instead. She was a star player at West Chester University in Pennsylvania during her freshman and sophomore years but was cut by her coach during her third year.
The Reverend Mother (played by Ellen Burstyn), during her job interview with Cathy, asks her if she’s named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria or Saint Catherine of Siena.
“Atlantic City,” Cathy flippantly replies.
“That’s good, because St. Catherine of Alexandria had her head chopped off,” the Reverend Mother retorts. (I love Burstyn in this role.)
Cathy, a Baptist, is given the job because no one else applied for it. Her new husband, Ed Rush (David Boreanaz), disparages her small seasonal salary and wants her to spend more time at home. He’s a referee in the National Basketball Association (NBA) whom director/writer/producer Tim Chambers describes as an “alpha male.”
It’s a good thing that Cathy is a determined type of person – and even a little bull-headed — because it turns out she’s expected to make bricks without straw. They gym burned down three months ago, there may not be enough players to form a basketball team, and Immaculata College is failing financially. The Monsignor wants to sell it.
A young nun (Marley Shelton) who’s disillusioned with the mundane work that’s also a requirement of her spiritual commitment agrees to become Cathy’s assistant coach. (Marley, a great adjunct to the other strong female characters, says “take a knee” when she encourages The Mighty Macs to pray before competitions.)
The Mighty Macs have a love-hate relationship with Cathy at first. For example, she gives each girl a piece of paper and reverently instructs them to close their eyes and envision everything they know about basketball. She wants them to “mentally transfer this knowledge onto these delicate pieces of paper and hold them close to your heart.” The girls obediently do this, Cathy solemnly collects the pieces of paper in a basket – then disgustedly throws them in the trash. They’re in basketball boot camp, Cathy’s their boss, and she’s breaking them down so she can build them back up into worthy competitors. Thinking about this scene still makes me laugh.
There are quite a few Cathy-isms in this film and this is one of my favorites: “Representing this school is a privilege: We will learn to defend it.”
Cathy is definitely “sassy, strong, charismatic, attractive, stylish, and a natural leader” (all of the qualities that director Tim Chambers looked for in the actress who would play this part), but she’s also big-hearted and could easily double as a college counselor. One of her players is overcome by grief after her boyfriend breaks up with her. The coach seeks her out, empathizes with her, but doesn’t let her wallow in self-pity.
“What are some of the things that he is going to miss about you? What makes you special? What you think of yourself is way more important than what he thinks about you.”
The girl had been proudly wearing her boyfriend’s letterman-type jacket to signify their upcoming engagement, but Cathy instructs, “Don’t let his jacket define you” — and hands her a new, sporty, and very attractive black and white jacket. One that all of the team members will now start wearing over their official athletic uniforms before they compete in those totally inappropriate dresses that don’t contribute much to modesty when they take tumbles on the floor.
“You’ve earned this jacket. Nobody can take it away,” Cathy shares.
As The Mighty Macs unexpectedly begin to trounce their opponents, discouraged nuns who are expecting to be relocated God-knows-where after years of service at Immaculata College rally to become the team’s most loyal defenders and pack gymnasiums during competitions. Faces beaming with joy unspeakable, they pump their fists in the air when the team scores points. (The gesture is very ‘70s-ish and hasn’t gone out of style since.)
And newspaper headlines demonstrate the public’s fascination with the team: “What a Rush!” (a ‘70s cultural play on words), and “It’s Becoming A Habit.”
A sports announcer, thrilled by The Mighty Macs performance at the first national championship for women’s college basketball, exclaims: “When will this fairy tale end? The answer lies somewhere between heaven and hardwood!!” Just one week before, they had been in 15th place out of 16 bids.
By all means, may independent moviemakers — since Hollywood is dragging its leaden feet — present weary American audiences with even more films that instill hope, inspire greatness, and sometimes even portray religion as a very natural and fulfilling backdrop to real flesh-and-blood people – even nuns who stay up all night playing poker. You know, the same ones who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and sleep on hard beds in barely furnished bedrooms. Definitely my kind of Jesus-follower – even if I don’t understand the concept of praying to saints.
Rated G: A man in a motel lounge makes a very suggestive comment to two women. Similar to some of C.E. Chambers’ film reviews, it would have benefited from a little editing.
[The photo of the cast from “The Mighty Macs” is courtesy of EPK.TV.]