When Hoffman, Nolte and an all-star cast horse around on HBO's new series, they mean business at California's fabled Santa Anita racetrack.
Nothing is left to chance
It's awful nice of the horses to share the screen with heavy hitters such as the double-Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte in HBO's new series Luck, which hustles viewers down to the wire with some of the most bravura race footage ever captured on camera. Truth be told, once those nags explode out of the gate, they steal every scene.
Luck's executive producers – the creator/writer David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue) and the director Michael Mann (Public Enemies, Ali) – have so fully integrated the jockey's-eye-view into such kinetic camerawork that you fear falling off your horse as the beasts thunder and jostle down the final stretch.
In this one-hour drama, an all-star cast and crew initiate us into California's holy temple of horseflesh gaming, Santa Anita Park, an arcane world of tradition, lingo, lore and legend that can rival the wickedness of the American frontier or Prohibition-era Atlantic City. The series opens in prison as the inveterate gambler/bookmaker/money-launderer Chester "Ace" Bernstein (Hoffman) gets his walking papers after three years in the joint. A tough guy with a brassy attitude, Ace teams up with his long-time chauffeur and muscle Gus Economou – played with disarming honesty and vulnerability by Dennis Farina – to craft a complex criminal scheme involving the Santa Anita Racetrack.
Soon the pair recruit Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), a winning trainer with a dirty reputation. In the meantime, an old trainer (Nolte) nurtures a possible breakthrough thoroughbred, while a ragtag group of racetrack degenerates band together to try to catch lightning in a bottle – as winners of an elusive Pick Six bet that promises a multi-million-dollar payday.
A top-drawer drama series takes time to set up. For much of the first hour, Luck leads us around Santa Anita, giving us story carrots, letting us acclimatise to its curious world and form our first impressions of the players, thus giving us a feel for track life. Soon, however, out come the spurs and we're off to the races.
Recruiting the reputedly difficult movie-star Hoffman for any TV series is a coup.
"I always look for the reason not to do it!" Hoffman told a recent HBO press conference in Los Angeles. "I've turned down a lot of good movies with a lot of good directors, so I'm trying to get away from that. Michael Mann called me and said, 'I know you don't want to do television ... you're not gonna do this, but this is one of the best scripts I've ever read. Would you just read it?' So I read it, and I said, 'I really liked the parts I understood.' "
But one has to wonder about the clash of the titan egos – Hoffman, Nolte, Milch and Mann – on the set. Hoffman, however, believes that strong personalities work well together because there's no weak link.
"When you are working with heavyweights, there's no problem," he says. "A director has to be OK with a suggestion. If you suggest something to a director and his face clouds over and all the colour drains from his face, I know he's not a collaborator."
Of his star, Mann says: "He was the first choice, and I said I hadn't seen him play this kind of a role. That's always great territory, to bring an actor into something he hasn't done. In many of Dustin's great roles, he's been reactive - reactive to other characters, reactive to circumstances. And he's brilliant."
"This character is very different. This character is proactive – ("Ace") is the man with the plan; he's the architect," adds Mann. "And consequently, when you know where you're going, and you know what's happening and you're able to predict other people's reactions before they react, what that brings to Dustin's work ... is a power in stillness. He's still quite often, and you feel the power located within him. There is the opposite of interesting agitation - it's just the power in stillness."
This potent stillness is evident in one scene when "Ace" Bernstein first steps out of his limo as a free man. Hoffman the actor quietly pauses to survey his new hotel digs. He languorously drinks in every detail, tosses in a facial tic here and there, wildly attentive, eyes scanning, yet clearly keeping his guard up. Hoffman's a master of the facial nuance.
It's unfortunate that Nolte, an equally mesmerising actor in movies such as The Prince of Tides and Affliction, has yet to shake off the damage done to his reputation by his horrific "fright wig" police mugshot - snapped on an autumn day in 2002 when he fell asleep and swerved across the Pacific Coast Highway. His freaky Hawaiian-shirted image proved a PR nightmare, posted for millions to mock on The Smoking Gun website. (Incredibly, only a decade before he had been anointed People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive.)
In Luck, however, the gifted, white-grizzled Nolte, now 70, has put his dirty laundry behind him. He endows his trainer persona, Walter Smith, with a Zen gentleness and horse-whispery mysticism. In the pilot episode, when he sets his sights on a new horse and says ever-so-softly "I still know a peach when I see one; he's a good one", you believe him.
Luck premieres tomorrow and is broadcast on Wednesdays and Thursdays on OSN First HD, OSN First and OSN First +2
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