By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
No longer would women’s hoops refer only to skirts or earrings. That’s the turning point captured by The Mighty Macs, a Cinderella story set at the dawn of both the women’s movement and the emergence of women’s intercollegiate athletics.
It’s the story of plucky Cathy Rush, played by Carla Gugino, the coach of the first dominant team in women’s basketball. She wasn’t much older than her players, and was later inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame after leading Immaculata College, the tiny, then-all-female Catholic school for women in Chester County, Pa. to the status of a national powerhouse and a string of national championships.
An inspirational sports drama, The Mighty Macs details the improbable title run of Rush’s 1971-72 underdog Immaculata team, which won the first women’s national basketball championship, then followed that up by winning it the next two years as well, racking up an astonishing three-year record of 74-4.
With a small student body to draw players from, and no individual stars, Rush preached fundamentals and teamwork to her ragtag, undersized squad at a time when women’s basketball wasn’t taken seriously and women weren’t encouraged to participate.
But what Rush accomplished — her influence on her team and on her campus, and her ultimate influence on the first post-Title IX generation of young female athletes — certainly deserves the movieization treatment.
When Rush took on the challenge, as the only applicant for the unwanted position and pulling down a token salary that strongly resembled working for free, Immaculata was on the verge of bankruptcy and looked as if it was about to be sold. Plus the team had no gym and no uniforms. Other than that, things were cushy.
Ellen Burstyn portrays the vigilant mother superior, Mother St. John, the head of the college; David Boreanaz is Cathy’s husband, NBA referee Ed Rush, whom she had recently married; and Marley Shelton plays Sister Sunday, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary nun who, questioning her vows, agrees to serve as the team’s assistant coach.
But this is Rush’s portrait and Gugino’s movie. Appealing and inspired, with equal parts energy and dignity, Gugino gets a lot more mileage out of her dialogue than the words themselves deserve.
Pity that we don’t get to know the players very well, but perhaps that’s not such a liability in a movie celebrating team play.
Debuting writer-director Tim Chambers, working from a screenplay about female empowerment, perseverance, and David-versus-Goliath overachievement that he co-wrote with Whitney Springer from a story he co-wrote with Anthony Gargano, mounts on-court sequences that are authentic-looking both in terms of the sport and in terms of the period.
And Chambers’ push to bring this movie to the marketplace has exhibited some of the same qualities as the protagonist and team it depicts. Originally titled Our Lady of Victory, the period-piece narrative unfurls like an amalgam of Hoosiers, A League of Their Own, and Sister Act, as winning for the nun-run school becomes a habit.
The film manages to move and inspire even when it’s not altogether convincing, although the basketball sequences — as shot by veteran sports cinematographer Chuck Cohen and featuring unfamiliar actresses who can obviously play the game — have remarkable verisimilitude.
Yes, the film is probably a shade too earnest and a tad too starched. But at least there are many more grace notes than there are cinematic turnovers.
If the G-rated film were a basketball team, it would be criticised, gently, for playing the game too close to the vest, as if afraid to lose while attempting to win. And perhaps for not wishing to offend in any way the film’s real-life principals.
But there’s nothing wrong with the old-fashioned approach to a movie about a bygone era, and — just as for a basketball team — crisp execution can make up for a host of sins, including limited creativity and boldness.
So we’ll sink a free throw of 3 stars out of 4 for the root-for-the-underdog sports bio-drama, The Mighty Macs. Just as they did for the team being celebrated, teamwork and fundamentals bring these ladies a victory.