Thursday, August 28, 2014

Bruce Grierson's "What Makes Olga Run?"

Bruce Grierson, author of U-Turn (Bloomsbury USA) and co-author of Culture Jam, with Kalle Lasn, is a social-science writer living in Vancouver, BC.

Here Grierson dreamcasts an adaptation of his latest book, What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives:
Coming soon to your local multiplex, What Makes Olga Run?, the movie. It’s the story of an uptight city guy’s slow absorption of the paleo lifestyle – primitive food, polyphasic sleeping and intense barefoot workouts with boulders — which he views as the secret of recovering his lost youth. His mentor on this journey, the Burgess Meredith to his Rocky, is a 90-something track athlete with Old Country grit and a Zen-like intelligence: Olga Kotelko.

There’s surely an Oscar waiting for the actress who can pull off the role of Olga. The part demands a pretty serious level of physicality. The real Olga Kotelko notched more than fifty world records in three age categories — most recently women aged 95-99. She was a sprinter and a high jumper. It’s hard to imagine, say, Betty White, putting that kind of spring into even her walking step.

But here’s the thing: In every physiological test done on her by specialists across North America, the real Olga scored at least 30 years younger than her chronological age. And in physical appearance she was at least 25 years younger. So we’re not looking for a 90-year-old actress here. We’re looking for a 65- to 70-year-old actress. That opens up the field to all those late-Boomer Oscar-winners who must be dying for another chance to carry a film: Goldie Hawn, Glenn Close, Sigourney Weaver, Cher. (!). (Okay, the last two are probably out, since Olga was five-foot-zero and 125 pounds.)

For pure athleticism, a casting director’s thoughts might drift to Jane Fonda, who will turn 77 in December. But it would be a stretch for Fonda to capture the humble Olga vibe. There’s too much muffler-dragging liberal egotism there. Olga was a Saskatchewan farm kid turned elementary school teacher turned churchgoing grandmother — a “Plain Jane” (by her own description), not a Botoxed Jane.

So here’s my vote: Sally Field. She looked passably like Olga as Forrest Gump’s mom. She has the right kind of simple wholesome gravitas. She’s 67; she could probably run the 100m in under 20 seconds: close enough. Whether she could throw a javelin or discus convincingly who knows, but that’s what body-doubles are for. Better to have the character of Olga shine through and fake the running scenes than vice-versa.

As for who would play me, I’m thinking David Cross, the Mr. Show guy. He looks as if he could have been a runner in his younger days, but he also has the air of a guy who lost his wheels in midlife, possibly in a package deal with the hair.

The chemistry between Cross and Field would be crucial. Think Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude, or more recently Steve Coogan and Judi Dench in Philomena.

And the director? How about Phil Alden Robinson, the guy best known for skirting sentimentality (barely) in his adaptation of W.P. Kinsella’s Field of Dreams. The temptation would be to overmilk the premise for comedy, which would be a mistake. So no Ben Stiller or Judd Apatow. This is a sweet film, at bottom, not a farce.

Cue the popcorn sales. Hold the butter.
Learn more about the book and author at Bruce Grierson's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 99 Test: What Makes Olga Run?.

--Marshal Zeringue