Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Mighty Macs

MPAA (G)  CNS/USCCB (A-I)  Roger Ebert (2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

The Mighty Macs (screenplay written and directed by Tim Chambers, story by Tim Chambers and Anthony Gargano) is a feel good movie Catholic movie made in the tradition of Rudy and older Catholic film-making (Going My Way, Bells of St. Mary's) that nonetheless does touch, gently, respectfully to all, on modern issues.  Honestly GOOD JOB MR CHAMBERS!

The movie begins in the fall of 1972.  Cathy Rush (played by Carla Gugino) a recent college graduate and recently married to fellow athlete Ed Rush (played by David Boreanaz) decides that she's not going to be content with being simply a dutiful housewife and decides therefore that she wishes to make a mark of her own.  Having played basketball in college herself (until the program was scrapped) she applies to become basketball coach at nearby all girls' Immaculata College (in Chester, PA).  School President, Mother St. John (played by Ellen Burstyn) with bigger problems on her mind (the biggest of which was the perennial problem of any Catholic school administrator, simply saving the school, period) hires her for $450 for the season.  After hiring her, she tells Cathy, "You know if you were a better negotiator, I would have gone up to $500."  Ms Rush responds, "I would have taken the job for free."  Such was the status of women's athletics in 1972, the year that Title 9 was passed.

So Cathy Rush is put in charge of putting together a College basketball program from scratch.  There's no gym, just a rec area with a couple of basketball hoops in the basement of the University's church.  There are no uniforms.  The CNS/USCCB review notes that the uniforms that IC's players used that year were converted smocks that the college's nuns used while cleaning.  The players initially aren't particularly motivated either.  They have concerns of good young Catholic women of their time.  One of the players comes to practice one time wearing the letterman jacket of her jock boyfriend sincerely bubbling that the jacket was her "pre-engagement ring" from him.  Another player, talented but from an obviously poorer family than many of the other players (she lived at home rather than on campus, helping her mother around the house at least as much as going to school, nevermind initially making practice on a regular basis) responds sincerely if somewhat bitterly to Coach Rush's challenge "You have to dream!" by saying "I thought dreams were only for rich people."  Such, again, was the time...

It's also 1972, after the Second Vatican Council, and obviously just after the first victories of the modern feminist movement.  Sister Sunday (played by Marley Shelton) one of the younger nuns of the IHM community operating the school tells Mother Saint John that she's having doubts about her vocation.  Sighing, expecting the more or less inevitable at the time, Mother Superior assigns the good sister re-evaluating her call to clean the Church to give her time to reflect.  In a great (and amusing) adaptation of similar "crisis scenes" in countless old-time Catholic pictures, Sr. Sunday finds herself kneeling in Church asking God, "You're gonna have to give me a sign, a really obvious sign as to what you want me to do."  And she finds herself irritated by being interrupted in her sincere heart-wrenching prayer by the sounds of whistles and basketball dribbling in the rec room below.  And then she realizes "Oh." ;-)

It turns out that Sister Sunday played basketball in high school as well and Coach Rush makes her, her assistant.  Indeed, some days after sending Sr. Sunday down to the Church reflect (as well as clean) Mother Saint John is pleasantly surprised that the good sister is still around.  Again, this was a time when many, many good younger sisters discerned that God wished them to pursue life outside the Convent.

And it becomes clear in a later scene why the question of staying or leaving consecrated religious life would have been perhaps more difficult for Sister Sunday than for others.  In a bonding scene, she tells Ms Rush that she had entered her novitiate at 25-26 after "living as a single woman in Manhattan" in the years before.  Sr. Sunday had not entered the Convent "young" or "without some life experience."  She had truly entered with her eyes open and aware of the commitment that she was making.   (Sister Sunday is a very interesting character in the movie).

Well much of course happens.  And in the "barn storming" days of serious women's college athletics it turns out that tiny Immaculata College, led by Coach Rush and her assistant Sr. Sunday did, in fact succeed in leading that some group of young women not only to the first ever NCAA Womens' Bascketball Championship, but succeeded in repeating the feat two more times.  Additionally, the young women of that team went on to do some great things afterwards both in women's athletics and otherwise.  So this becomes a very nice film all around.  And the College, which went co-ed in 2005 and is now called Immaculata University continues to this day.

I liked this movie a lot.  And I do give a lot of credit to Tim Chambers, the writer and director of the film.  This was not necessarily an easy story to tell.  But he did so in a way that truly respected everybody and did actually remind us all of the contributions of Catholic institutions and even specifically all-women's Catholic institutions.  Indeed, thinking about it, I'm not all that surprised that the first three Women's NCAA Basketball Championships ever were won by this small Catholic all-women's school.  As small and as resource poor as the Immaculata College was, at the time such small all-women's Catholic colleges (yes run by the nuns) could have provided more opportunities for young women than many far larger secular and coed institutions.

Finally, Chicago has its own "Mighty Macs" at Mother McAuley High School where a good number of the young women from my parish go to high school.  It too seeks to promote academic excellence and women's leadership, and from what I have seen in my years at Annunciata it has largely succeeded.  Generations of "McAuley girls" (as well as young women from other Catholic high schools) have continued in their studies to the city's and state's Catholic as well as State colleges and universities and now staff many of the offices and boardrooms (in positions of prominence) throughout this fair city.

So The Mighty Macs is not just a "theoretical movie from a bygone era."  The Mighty Macs live today in institutions like Immaculata College of that day.  And that is something that all Catholics throughout the whole United States could be proud of.

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