Cosell Fan Tutti

John Turturro and Jon Voight both attempt to reanimate the ghost of the legendary sports commentator, a man of unforgettable style and regrettable toupee.

Observations

January 13, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

Before the lights went down for the coming attractions, a trivia blurb on the screen reported that the most filmed character in movie history is Dracula, which at the moment seems inaccurate. At the moment, it seems to be Howard Cosell.

The feature film was Ali, with Will Smith as Muhammad Ali and Jon Voight as half of a Cosellathon that will be playing in theaters and television tomorrow night. The other half is John Turturro in Monday Night Mayhem, a TV movie (TNT, 9 p.m.) dramatizing the perpetual ego-wrangling behind the scenes during Cosell's time on ABC's Monday Night Football.

Try catching both in succession -- but only if you can get someone to bet heavily that you can't do it, like one of those movies where people get big money to spend the night in a haunted house.

Cosell appears in varying ectoplasmic resurrections of uncertain verisimilitude, as he might have put it. Seeing the two portrayals back-to-back -- first Turturro, then Voight -- is not quite like seeing Olivier, then Burton, do Prince Hamlet. But then, Hamlet didn't actually exist, so who knows how he walked or talked or really felt about his mother? Cosell, though, left an indelible memory, making a most difficult task for any actor attempting more than a cartoonish impersonation.

The looks, for one thing. Well, perhaps four things: the nose, the ears and the rug. The notion of anyone looking like Cosell seemed so astonishing that someone actually published a book in 1988 called The Man Who Looked Like Howard Cosell. Here's the part where the look-alike is spotted at a New York hotel bar:

Alice swallowed. "Can you imagine what that man thinks every morning when he sees himself in the mirror? My God, to look exactly like Howard Cosell -- "

"As the English say -- it's a daunting thought."

Of course, the book (by John Bartholomew Tucker) is fiction.

Pretty, he wasn't

The trivia question about Dracula is fortuitous, as the last actor who might have been well cast as Cosell was Bela Lugosi, who made his name portraying the Transylvanian vampire. Lugosi was more elegant than Cosell, but their resemblance might have spared the makeup job they had to do on Jon Voight. In case you don't remember seeing Voight in other roles, this is only a slightly less formidable special effects project than turning Tom Cruise into Muhammad Ali.

Voight's face becomes a piece of portrait sculpture worthy of Auguste Rodin. The jowls hang like fleshy saddlebags, shadowed in certain lights by the prodigious prosthetic construction of the Cosell schnozzola. The hairpiece is suitably conspicuous, and who could blame Ali for pausing during an interview to ask: "You want some food for that thing?"

Turturro does the movie sans latex, carrying the resemblance with his own considerable nose, the bad toup and his affectation of Cosell's stiff, hunched posture. He looks at least as much like Cosell as his fellow cast member Kevin Anderson looks like Frank Gifford, which is not at all. But give the makeup folks credit for doing the hair nicely in both characters.

Turturro has the more challenging task than Voight, as the TNT movie revolves around Cosell. We see the public and private Cosell, including one moment where he sits in the bedroom with his wife, Emmy, and removes the hairpiece. One might recall the unmasking of the "Phantom of the Opera."

Monday Night Mayhem tries to show the grandiose and insufferable Cosell, the needy Cosell, the petty, the principled, and the decent Cosell. Turturro has to convey a range of emotion from inside the corset of the stereotypical Cosell mannerisms. It doesn't always ring true.

Or humble, either

There's a certain innocent bewilderment about Turturro that softens his Cosell, undermines the portrayal of a worldly-wise lawyer turned sports muckraker, a crusader who would later write that he considered the professional sports world "an ever-spinning spiral of deceit, immorality, absence of ethics, and defiance of the public interest."

Voight is more convincing in conveying the Cosell gravitas and the voice, but he doesn't have to sustain the portrait for much screen time.

Cosell is a relatively minor character in Ali, as the film shows him mostly in his public role of interviewer and ringside broadcaster. Other than a few private moments with the champ -- which effectively show the affection behind their public jousting -- Voight plays the familiar bombastic, needling Cosell:

"Are you really fast enough to beat George Foreman?" Cosell asks, standing up at the scene of a press conference before the 1974 heavyweight championship fight in Zaire. "Many people believe you're not the man you used to be 10 years ago."

"I talked to your wife," Ali shoots back. "She says you're not the man you used to be two years ago."

You can't do the Cosellathon without trying to imagine his commentary on it, which will remain unknowable. As Cosell died of heart failure at 77 in 1995, one can only imagine. Surely he would approach the subject of his movie incarnations with the same modesty he brought to bear in assessing his role on Monday Night Football in his book, I Never Played the Game: "Who the hell made Monday Night Football unlike any other sports program on the air?

"If you want the plain truth, I did."

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