Dupuis captures hockey history
(CP) – Roy Dupuis wept and he didn’t know why.
Like many people on the night of March 11, 1996, the Canadian actor was moved by the ceremony commemorating the last game at the Montreal Forum, and by the long and heartfelt ovation reserved for Maurice (Rocket) Richard.
“I was at home watching that, it still moves me,” Dupuis, a lump in his throat, said in a recent interview.
“You’re talking about a 16-minute ovation. On TV. No one cut it. I had never seen that. I didn’t know the guy yet, didn’t know the real story. I remember thinking after that ovation . . . what just happened? Why am I crying?
“It’s what we call in French l’inconscient collectif (the collective unconscious). Three-quarters of the people that were there never saw him play.”
But they knew of the man, and why he meant so much to Quebecers.
The Rocket, a film by director Charles Biname and distributed by Alliance Atlantis, does a remarkable job of telling that story. A hit in Quebec after being released last fall, the English-language version of the movie hits theatres in the rest of the country starting Friday.
“This movie is going out in 150 theatres across Canada, that’s never happened for a Canadian movie, never, it’s like Maurice has done it again,” said Dupuis, who stars as the Rocket.
The fact the French-language version of the film was warmly embraced in Quebec is no shock. After all, it’s the story of a blue-collar superstar hockey hero who helped carry an oppressed French-Canadian society on his shoulders. Before the Quiet Revolution, there was Rocket.
“This guy gave pride to his people,” said Dupuis, who first played the role of Richard for a Heritage Canada TV vignette and a 1999 miniseries. “At the time we were second-class citizens, that’s what we were, that’s the reality.
“And then this guy, at the right time, happened. He became the greatest in something that was accessible to everybody – hockey. And all those people who thought they were second-class citizens thought: ‘Geez, we can be somebody.’ And that’s where it all started.”
There are reminders throughout the film that being French wasn’t a cakewalk in those days, from the fence that separated the poor French-Canadian fans from the elite (mostly English) of Montreal at the Forum during games, to Richard’s tormentors – first the English factory boss, to Habs head coach Dick Irvin, and of course league president Clarence Campbell.
And the feeling among the players that a French-Canadian skater had to be three times better than his English counterpart to make the Habs.
“One of the concerns that Ken Scott (the script’s author) and I had, was that we didn’t want to demonize the English,” Biname said during a recent press stop in Toronto. “There were a certain number of things that were irritating and frustrating, a certain of number of events that happened, and we just put them together.
“The interesting thing is that Dick Irvin, who’s supposed to be the real bad guy in the story, because he pushes Maurice to the end, insults him, uses whatever at hand to make him go crazy – he’s the one who has the vision for the man. He’s the one, you realize through the film, who believes in him in spite of everything else. So you have a great character opposing the hero which is actually the one that makes him the hero.”
Irvin is played brilliantly by Nova Scotia actor Stephen McHattie (most recently in A History of Violence). McHattie studied for the part by phoning up Irvin’s son Dick Irvin Jr., a longtime Hockey Night In Canada broadcaster, and by reading books Irvin had authored on his father.
“His son quotes him in a book saying the worst part of the job was having to hurt the guys that he really loved,” McHattie said in an interview. “He knew right away that the Rocket played best when he was angry.”
The Rocket’s life was too eventful for two hours so Biname had to choose where to start and end it. He starts with a 17-year-old Richard, bent on making it big in hockey while also supporting his family while working as a machinist.
Nowhere in the film do we see Henri Richard, the Rocket’s younger brother who goes on to win 11 Stanley Cups with the Habs.
“Such a huge age difference,” said Biname. “Maurice had left the house and was almost finishing his career when Henri came in.
“We had Henri in there for a while (in the original script), we had a line in there for him, and then I thought: ‘It’s a plug, it’s not right.’ I don’t like that. If it’s not going to serve the story, why do that.”
The film builds up to the famous Richard riots of 1955, when Campbell suspended the Rocket for the rest of the season – including the playoffs – for assaulting a linesman during a brawl in an incident that was sparked when Boston’s Hal Laycoe two-handed Richard on the head with a vicious high stick.
What helps sell the film is that Dupuis is no slouch on skates. He played hockey growing up and plays his own scenes in the movie. No stunt actors needed. And Dupuis doesn’t look out of place.
Another nice decision by Biname is letting the characters speak in their native tongue, Rocket in French, Irvin in English, and so on.
French subtitles in the Quebec release last fall translated the English characters. Now English subtitles tell us what Rocket is saying. It keeps the movie real, because that’s exactly how it was then. Dubbing the actors would have taken away from the realism.
The real test for Dupuis was pulling off the Rocket both on and off the ice, a task he took extremely seriously.
“I met Maurice many times when I did the TV series at first. He became a friend, he opened up to me,” Dupuis said of the Rocket. “Because of the kind of man that he was, that meant he agreed to the fact that I was playing him. What happens when you have access to the person you’re going to play, you become very intimate with him, because you’re trying to understand him and get inside of him. I think we became very close. And then he died (in May 2000).
“So when they came up with the idea of doing a movie about him, it’s like they told me they wanted to do a story about my best friend and they wanted me to play him. I said yes but I needed to read the script first and agree, I needed to see in that script the man I know. And that’s pretty much what I saw.”
Dupuis captures hockey history