I come neither to bury Luck nor to praise it. Too many dead horses buried it (although a look at the New York Times thorough story about thoroughbred racing this Sunday shows they were far safer on the set than on the track). And while I enjoyed the show, praising it requires a certain leap of faith… like anything that dies young, the tendency is to think it was cut down before its prime, but future heights are purely hopeful projection.
Watching the finale on Sunday was a strange experience. It is rare that a show would end a season thinking it was renewed, only to have the circumstances change between filming and airing. It’s rare for a viewer to know that a show’s definitely not returning at the time of the finale, unless it’s being retired after a long run. It obviously changed the entire viewing experience.
The biggest sense of regret as I watched the series somewhat resolve itself was that several great actors may have had their final solid role end before its time. Saddest of all, it was probably the last hurrah for one of the most unique movie stars of the modern era.
Probably Luck’s greatest strength lay in its casting of talented actors who, much like the denizens of the horseracing world, were past their prime. Michael Gambon (71 years old) didn’t get to develop his character much, but was perfect for Hoffman’s gangster rival. Ditto for Joan Allen’s love interest (55 years old, 3 Oscar nominations), although her overdone facial cosmetic surgery was a continual bummer. It was a nice bonus to see Jill Hennessy (43 years old), the best of the Law & Order lawyerettes, in something other than a rote network show.
With his recent Oscar nod (his third) for Warrior, 71-year-old Nick Nolte has been having a recent career renaissance. His role as a horse trainer in Luck wasn’t particularly strong, mostly because it was so predictable. While crustiness has always been part of Nolte’s screen persona, for at least the past decade or so it’s become his only move, albeit softened by a note of regret that his age and physical decay brings. But anybody who great up watching him provide the perfect foil to Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. in endless cable viewings can’t be happy to see his career wind down.
Although I’ll undoutedly write An Appreciation about him in the future, 68-year-old Dennis Farina has been one of my favorite character actors since his lead role in Michael Mann’s Crime Story, the most underrated show of the ’80s (and superior to Mann’s more heralded Miami Vice). From Midnight Run to Get Shorty to Out Of Sight, he’s always provided that perfect note of real world street smarts that help to ground the movies. An 18-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, he has been one of the best ambassadors of the city on film. And, after watching him win a final fatal beat-down, his perfect look in the mirror afterwards made me sad… he’s just too old for this shit.
But all this pales in comparison to seeing Dustin Hoffman (2 Oscars, 7 Nominations), as aging mob boss Ace Bernstein, win his race and stare down his rival, knowing that the odds are good that he’ll never have as meaty a role again. At 74-years-old, Hoffman’s opportunities are few and far between, and his recent track record isn’t good. Since his last Oscar nomination for Wag the Dog 15 years ago he hasn’t had any great roles, and his only stand-out movie was Stranger Than Fiction.
Hoffman was always the most unlikely actor to come out of the ’70s Movie Brats generation to become a star. Not particularly good-looking, he also wasn’t an actor that exuded cool or toughness like a DeNiro or Pacino. His best roles, such as The Graduate or Midnight Cowboy or Tootsie, always depended on him making us feel protective of his lost characters without feeling sorry for them. He’s occupied the same space as Tom Hanks or Jimmy Stewart (an everyday guy caught in strange circumstances), but with an overt Jewishness that kept the majority of the audience from identifying with him in the same way. His likely passing from the scene (along with other actors who broke out in the ’70s and early ’80s) is also the passing of the last remnants of a window that allowed less traditional actors to take hold. I wish I could wonder whether a Hoffman or DeNiro could break through in the age of the international blockbuster, but I know the answer is no fucking way. The best we can hope for going forward are people like Christian Bale or Ryan Gosling… basically interesting versions of traditional leading men. If he hadn’t had the good luck to come up in the era that he did, Hoffman would have undoubtedly been typecast as a character actor, and we would have missed out on some of the most interesting roles in Hollywood history.