The Mighty Macs is a sweetly old-fashioned sports movie with a Hollywood Catholic milieu in which Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman would be right at home. To cite a more recent touchstone, it’s almost exactly the same movie as Secretariat, only Catholic instead of Protestant, and with girls playing basketball instead of horses racing.
Consider: Like Secretariat, The Mighty Macs is based on a true underdog sports story from the early 1970s. Both movies feature a spunky blonde heroine played by an appealing actress in her 40s—a well-dressed housewife with an old-fashioned feminist streak, married to an initially unsupportive sexist husband who just doesn’t understand why his wife needs to see this sports thing through instead of being there for him, or why she’ll regret it for the rest of her life if she doesn’t stick with it. Oh, and in both films, the heroine bonds with a female sidekick/assistant who is the one person who sticks with her through thick and thin.
The heroine is Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino), who coached the women’s basketball team at tiny Immaculata College in Chester County, Pa., at a time when college basketball for women was only starting to be taken seriously. Rush led the Macs to three national titles and has been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.
The sidekick is Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), a seemingly strait-laced young nun whom we see struggling with her vocation in an early scene, but who turns out to be an old hand at the game and a stand-up gal that Cathy as well as Jesus can count on. Sunday becomes Cathy’s assistant coach, although she’s more valuable to the movie as a friend that Cathy can turn to. Gugino and Shelton are the film’s biggest assets; they click as characters and share a number of the film’s better moments.
One of those better moments is set, believe it or not, in a bar, where Sister Sunday somehow winds up without her wimple, and a gentleman (that’s definitely the word) buys both ladies a drink and politely hits on them. “The good ones are always taken,” he says in the end, never realizing that the man in Sister Sunday’s life is Jesus. In the same scene, Sunday tells Cathy about her vocation and, how, for the first time, deciding to go into religious life, she wasn’t simply doing what she was told, putting a positive feminist spin on taking up the habit. She also encourages Cathy to take responsibility for her strained marriage—to take the initiative to tell her petulant, self-absorbed husband that she loves him.
Strangely, Cathy isn’t given a chance to act on this. Her husband Ed (David Boreanaz) unexpectedly makes the first move, a mild surprise I would have enjoyed more if there were any clue where it came from. Ed is a more pleasant and supportive character from that point on, taking an interest in Cathy’s games and even coming out to watch, but his change of heart is never explained; the screenplay simply flips him like a coin from tails to heads.
Cathy has her work cut out for her at Immaculata. Nobody cares about sports, including the girls. Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn) tells Cathy with a straight face that she won’t need keys to the gym because it burned down, then hands her a basketball that looks like it might have been in the fire. The girls’ uniforms have been aptly compared to Dorothy’s dress in The Wizard of Oz. None of the players, alas, are really developed as characters. (Trivia note: A number of the real Mighty Macs players have cameo roles as nuns.)
I thought I had seen it all when it comes to sports-movie training sequences, but Cathy has a few new tricks up her sleeve. Some of them are girly tricks, as when Cathy illustrates how team members need to be able to trust one another to have each other’s backs by criticizing a player’s lipstick and has the girls practice passing wearing oven mitts. I’m not sure whether these are the kinds of thing that a woman thinks of or that a man thinks of when writing a woman’s character. I like a scene in which Cathy dramatizes the necessity of starting over as players. So many movies emphasize only believing in oneself, but sometimes you have to get over yourself and trust someone else.
The movie is full of Catholic iconography that Catholic viewers and fans of Golden Age Hollywood Catholicism will appreciate. Statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints are everywhere. I compared the movie’s Catholic milieu to a Bing Crosby film, but a Crosby film would actually have edgier personalities and more conflict. My Reel Faith co-host David DiCerto tapped The Sound of Music as a closer parallel, and I think he’s right. The nuns are played mostly for quaint laughs. Would you be shocked to learn that they used to play poker and that Mother Superior played a mean game? I saw the film with a large contingent of viewers that might have come from a black Baptist church, and they thought practically everything the sisters did was hilarious.
The movie reminds us early and often that young ladies in another era went to college to get an Mrs. degree and that a woman’s sense of identity and self-worth shouldn’t come from a man. “Why should she want to work? She already has a husband,” one player whispers to another. In another scene, comforting a weepy girl who has made much of her boyfriend’s varsity jacket, Cathy gently puts one of the Macs’ new team jackets over the girl’s shoulders, telling her that this jacket, not the other one, is who she is, and no one can take it from her.
All of this is fine, and in a G-rated movie this safe and conflict-free, it feels a little silly noting a few odd one-liners that seem to take unnecessary or clumsy pokes at men, but there they are. When one of the girls complains about practicing in the chapel basement, saying, “I think I may be allergic to dust,” Cathy shoots back, “You will make a wonderful husband.” Um, because husbands complain? Cathy also says that she’ll teach the girls to play like the male teams, except “we will actually play as a team.” In the one scene set in Mass, as Cathy arrives late, the monsignor happens to be reading from 1 Peter 3: “Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold and wearing of fine clothing” etc. Is that meant to underscore how old-fashioned and irrelevant traditional religious ideas are?
For the most part, the film gets the 1970s period details right. Is it really true that United Airlines used to let one or two nuns fly free? Do they still do that? In a small touch of liturgical authenticity, we hear a reading followed by “This is the word of the Lord.” (I was a new Catholic when “This is” was dropped in 1994.) Cathy’s twice-repeated line “That’s what I’m talking about” sounds anachronistic to me, although from the Urban Dictionary website I learn that the phrase can be heard in a 1929 Fats Waller song, The Joint Is Jumping.
I compared The Mighty Macs to Secretariat. Secretariat was a $35 million Disney film, and it shows: The horse racing sequences are well-shot and gripping, even when Secretariat loses. The Mighty Macs is an indie film made for around $7 million. It is the first film from director Tim Chambers and from Quaker Media, which Chambers co-founded. I must report that viewers who like watching basketball may be disappointed, at least until the final act. Even when the Macs begin winning sometime in the middle of the movie, game footage is brief and perfunctory: a quick montage of a few shots, and then we learn who won or lost. Only the last two or three games are shot as if they matter.
I enjoyed the movie’s traditional religious milieu, though it could have been more bravely handled. The Mother Superior has a nice moment that underscores authentic service and poverty, and there are a few scriptural citations, pretty much all for generic uplift. Yet every time I can remember a character praying was in the service of a punchline of one sort or another. We never even see the team praying before a game, right up to the very last game, when they all kneel down—and the scene cuts away before a word is spoken.
Earlier, Cathy confesses to Sunday, at a particularly ironic moment, that she’s actually Baptist, not Catholic. Looking shocked, Sunday asks, “But you believe?” Cathy’s equally generic answer—“Above all else”—is too glib; she could easily mean “I believe in the Mighty Macs and women’s lib.” I hate to pick on a movie this nice and well-intentioned. On the other hand, I think the Macs deserve better than a nice, well-intentioned movie.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: A single line of mild innuendo; humorous treatment of fraud involving impersonating a nun. Fine family viewing.