While poking around for background info on another car story I came across this little bit of (what could be) great news: Hollywood will be doing a biopic about Phil Hill, the first American world driving champion, and Tobey Maguire is going to take the lead.
Like all announcements of upcoming racing movies, I look upon this with an equal mixture of hope and dread.
Hope, because I love a good movie, and maybe, just maybe, they can make a good one about racing this time around. And dread because … well Sweet Jesus, have you seen Sylvester Stallone’s “Driven”?
Racing movies, by and large, suck. They take the one thing that racing has in spades, unpredictability, and hammer it flat and paint it beige. Is the young up and coming bad-boy racer going to work his way through the pack with a magical drive to win the big race and get the girl? Well duh! People didn’t pay ten bucks to see Tom Cruise NOT win, now did they? Or Kip Pardue, if I want to keep the “Driven” thing going. But I don’t. Because up until “Redline” came out, “Driven” was the worst racing movie ever made. Yeah, “Redline” wasn’t exactly a racing movie, but it was centered around racing, illegal street racing, illegal street racing run my high stakes gambling rap moguls and Mafia types, but it had all the clichés plus a few new ones and really, really stank up the screen.
But a biopic about Phil Hill … now that could be an entirely different affair.
From what I could gather, the plans for the movie are to focus on Hill’s championship season of 1961, and his relationship with, and competition against his teammate, friend and closest rival Count Wolfgang von Trips. Right there you got something that sounds made up by Hollywood, but it’s true: the guys name was really Wolfgang von Trips, and he was an honest to God Count, but everyone called him Taffy, due to the color of his hair.
Many, many racers, and von Trips was among them, are very simplistic people. They have a desire to go fast, an uncommon amount of bravery, and a sense of competitiveness that makes fighter pilots look like nuns.
Apart from those basic traits Phil Hill was NOT like that. Hill was a hugely complex person and was dubbed early in his career as “Hamlet in a helmet” and they weren’t kidding. The son of a postman, born and raised in Santa Monica, California, Phil rose to prominence in the West Coast post-war sports car racing boom. He was friends with, and competed against the likes of Dan Gurney and Masten Gregory and Ritchie Ginther and Carroll Shelby when Shelby was a driver and not a car builder. More importantly, he regularly beat those guys, and seemingly everyone else he came across. But unlike those guys, he wasn’t your typical racer for the time.
Moody, quiet, introspective, he was most often described as “sensitive” and that pretty much hit the mail on the head. You could see that “things” would have an affect on Hill that would barely register with other drivers, but then in the next instant, you’d see that Hill would somehow subsume whatever external forces were causing him distress, and then go even faster.
And by “things” I mean typical events racers had to face in the 1950s and 60s. “Things” like seeing a friend and fellow competitor trapped and burning alive in his car, or having to talk with a team manager about a rival not just going off the track, but going off the track and mowing down a few kids like they were weeds.
Back then, most racers would just shrug and get on with the next task at hand. Death was everywhere, so why get worked up about it. Hill would, but only for the briefest of moments. You could see the shock and recognition on his face like you were reading an open book. Then just as quickly, the book would close, and Hill would go out, and everybody else on the track had bigger problems to face: Dealing with a now faster and even more determined kid from Santa Monica.
I won’t spoil the story (for those of you who don’t know it) about Hill & von Trips and the 1961 Grand Prix season, but suffice to say that if I were to present it to you as an idea for a movie, and you didn’t know it already, you’d think I was joking.
There is enough drama and twists and politics and pressure and, ultimately, blood on the tracks to make you think it’s the product of the overworked imagination of a Hollywood screenwriter. But it’s all too real, and hopefully, Hollywood will get it right this time, and the guy that seems to have enough suppressed quirks of his own (Maguire) can bring the story to the big screen with some integrity.
Photo from Flickr user Tostie14