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johanna schneller: fame game

It was the way Secretariat won the third race, the Belmont Stakes, the longest and most gruelling prong of the Triple Crown, that elevated him to horse hero. By the time he'd won the other two prongs, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in the spring of 1973, he was already famous. (I was 11 and knew nothing about horse racing, yet I knew all about him.)

But that victory clinched it. He didn't win by a nose - he pulled away and away, the sportscasters shouting and the crowd on their feet and all of us watching on TV feeling our own muscles straining as we willed him to go, go, go. He won by 31 lengths, and that made him Pegasus.

So it's fitting that in the new film Secretariat, which opened Friday, the horse and the owner/breeder who believed in him - Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) - have been given the full-on, old-school hero treatment by director Randall Wallace.

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and Pearl Harbor and directed We Were Soldiers, unabashedly makes 'em like they used to. He's the kind of capital-b Believer who's not afraid to open his new movie with a quote from the biblical Book of Job, nor ashamed to say that he makes movies about heroes.

In a phone interview, Wallace was achingly sincere in a way I rarely hear. He said things like, "Cynicism is a form of cowardice," and, "I never want to feel limited by an unwillingness to fail. The unwillingness to dare gives us a self-imposed slavery."

"I make movies that show that courage matters, that hope prevails, that love works," Wallace said. "I want not to wrestle with the issue of is there life after death, but is there life after birth? How do you live more fully and more vividly?"

So in the thudding hooves, the rising music, the heart-in-mouth truth of Secretariat, Wallace was right at home. But he still needed some drama for his story - after all, everyone knows how it ends. He and his screenwriter, Mike Rich, found it in the racehorse's owner, Penny Chenery. The refined daughter of a Virginia horse breeder, Chenery had left the family business to become a housewife and mother of four. But when her beloved father died, she believed that the only way to save his ailing breeding operation was to gamble losing it altogether. In doing so, she also risked alienating her husband and kids, who wanted her presiding over the stove, not press conferences.

"It's one thing to stand up against your declared enemies, and quite another to stand up against the people that you love most," Wallace said. "To play that, we needed Diane Lane. She brings the required softness and strength, and never loses her dignity in anything."

"Frankly, most actors don't like to play heroic roles," Wallace continued. "My theory is that they don't feel heroic themselves, and they understand that the camera will see their authentic selves, so they believe they'll look weak instead of powerful. But Diane was willing to commit to that."

Of course it helps that Lane, 45, knows all about the compromises one makes when trying to balance ambition and family. She's been acting since the age of 6 - "since I was a little kid with no front teeth in my passport picture, travelling with a theatre company," she said in a phone interview. She was Francis Ford Coppola's muse on three films in the early 1980s ( The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and The Cotton Club), and received a best-actress Oscar nomination for Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful (2002). Married to the actor Josh Brolin since 2004, she has a 17-year-old daughter, Eleanor, with ex-husband Christopher Lambert, also an actor.

"There are very few industries that sequester employees away from their families for two or three months," Lane said. "You've got the people on oil rigs, you've got astronauts, and you've got people in showbiz." So one emotional scene in Secretariat was especially familiar to her: Chenery, alone in a hotel room, has to listen by phone to her daughter's much-anticipated stage play because her flight home has been cancelled. Lane nailed it on the first take.

"That's territory that I'm well-versed in, unfortunately," Lane said. "There are moments like that throughout any mother's life. That's why we're the bane of our children's existence as they go forward and get therapists." She laughed. "No matter what a mom does, there will always be things you could have and should have done. There's just that mother guilt, which I think trumps Jewish guilt and Catholic guilt."

Lane hadn't worked in two years, since Nights in Rodanthe, because she wanted to stay home and recharge. Doing Secretariat was "bittersweet, because we're looking at colleges," she said. "Every minute that I'm away from my daughter I feel it, because I know there's going to be a lot more of that with her flying the nest. I, too, will be put into a different phase of life. I won't have the excuse of saying no to the film in Australia or Africa or China because I need to be home."

It was fitting that Secretariat's Sept. 30 premiere was a family affair: Lane, Brolin and their kids were there, "the older ones with their dates," Lane said. And Chenery came, with all 10 of her grandchildren. "That's the way it should be when there's a triumphant moment and everybody gets to participate in it and share it," Lane said. "It's something worth savouring. I don't take that for granted any more, if I ever did. As you get older life becomes more finite, and these things take on more value."

The horse went on to a life that any pro basketball player would envy: a posh crib, good food, and steady sex. The owner went back to the stove.

Which of those fates would you call heroic? I'm happy that, in this movie, the answer is "both."