The main problem with The Bear, the biography of coach Paul Bryant, is that it isn't a film. Yes, it is on film, we will grant that, but it's more a mural than a moving picture. There's no dramatic content, no structure, no story; instead of scenes, a series of disconnected, random vignettes has been strung together. These start when young Paul wrestled that bear, proceed relentlessly down through the minutiae of his days—even to documenting the occasion when he purchased his first houndstooth-check hat—and conclude, for lack of anything better to do, when he gets to be 69 and dies. Nothing edifies, nothing even tries to explain the essence of this extraordinary man, this 20th-century avatar.
Evidently the producer, director and screenwriter made the conscious decision to tell a life story without inserting any life in it, to pander—for unless you come to the theater set on utter adoration, you'll depart flat and unfulfilled. Those who'll be most disappointed are precisely those who knew the Bear as a human being; they're cheated the most because this man, who was larger than life, has been whittled down to the size of a ventriloquist's dummy.
Gary Busey, a fine actor, portrays Bryant. When he played Buddy Holly, Busey acted the part. In The Bear, he has settled for impersonation. When Busey was Holly, he wore horn-rims and we saw them as eyeglasses. As Bryant, he wears houndstooth-check hats, but we aren't deceived; they aren't hats, they're props. To be sure, Busey's is a very good impersonation, but under the circumstances it would've made more sense to have hired Rich Little.
This isn't necessarily Busey's fault. Except perhaps for a couple of sweet, if altogether predictable, period scenes early on, nothing of original value has been contributed by either the director, Richard Sarafian, or the screenwriter, Michael Kane. All that sustains us is the Bear delivering soliloquies—halftime speeches and whatnot—and although there are entirely too many of these exhortations, at least when Busey is providing a conduit for coach Bryant's words, we can, as the Bear says, enjoy the taste of our own blood for a moment or two.
September 30, 1984
But it all quickly evaporates. In The Bore—excuse me, The Bear—there's absolutely no difference between the coach at 25 and at 69, except that Busey puts on old-man makeup. We're given not an inkling of what made Bryant tick, what set him apart, what made him a leader—for that he was, above all.
One vivid example: When Bryant came to Texas A&M in 1954, he took the players off to preseason practice in the middle of nowhere, treated them cruelly, even denying them water in the satanic heat of August middays. In the film, the experience is sanitized, made to seem like a Boy Scout weekend, with Bryant no more than a Dutch uncle. There's no suggestion that it's summertime, much less that young men could've died of heat prostration. But more important, Bryant learned a bitter lesson from this episode, and man that he was, he spoke often in later years of the shame he felt for what he had done—and the amends he made because of it. None of this is even hinted at in the film. We just jolt on, tableau upon unrelated tableau. In one seven- or eight-minute period, we totally dispense with 1) the entire subject of segregation, 2) Joe Namath and 3) the Wally Butts-Saturday Evening Post affair. There's such a devotion to petty detail that the film grinds to a complete halt at one point while the Bear chats with Darrell Royal on the phone about helping him install the wishbone offense, and then—I swear to you—the music swells while successful practice plays are run off against the scout team.
So antiseptic and generic does this movie make the Bear that it manages to eliminate the entire state of Alabama. Oh, yes, there are stock shots of magnolia blossoms and the Denny Chimes, but as there's no sense of the man, neither is there any sense of the place. As much as any person in our time, Bear Bryant was intertwined with his state, but for all the feel we get of 'Bama, it might just as well be Montana or Luxembourg.
Bear Bryant was a man who charmed women and enthralled men and positively glowed with life, roiling the very waters he walked on. For him to be ladled out as a plate of thin soup nourishes neither his state nor his university, nor anybody who loved or admired him.