Penny Chenery Bares All in New Documentary

The latest racing documentary, “Penny and Red,” directed, edited, and produced by John Tweedy and narrated by actress Diane Lane, is not your typical home movie with the same stock film clips of Secretariat and the same stories told for the umpteenth time by Tweedy’s mother, Penny Chenery.

This actually is a no holds barred documentary, mostly about Penny, that unfortunately had to leave a great deal of footage and interviews on the cutting room floor to squeeze into its allotted 60 minute-time frame, as stipulated by Disney, which made the motion picture “Secretariat.” Because of that it left us wanting more in regard to the expansion and deeper probing of events, and a more detailed chronicle of Secretariat’s career. This is no fault of Tweedy’s, as it must have been tough for him to scrap so many profound scenes from the story he wanted to tell.

“When Penny contracted with Disney for her life-story rights, she was permitted a carve-out for a documentary limited to one hour,” Tweedy explained. “As a result, we did focus on Penny’s life, not the full story of Secretariat’s career. There are real limits to what can be covered in an hour, and we wrestled hard over what to include.”

The historic value of the film was first-rate, most notably the entire beginning, which told of the history of Meadow Stable and the Chenery family and the sibling relationships. That was extremely well done, giving the viewer a close-up look at the foundation of a major breeding operation and what it was like to be born into such a magical world. And Penny was refreshing and enlightening in her candor, although saying her brother was physically abusive and not elucidating further left one baffled what that was all about and why it was even mentioned. The ending also was very well done, with stirring music adding a great deal to its impact. The racing highlight was the filming of the Belmont Stakes, with Penny superimposed against the race footage. This was excellent filmmaking, and it is obvious that John Tweedy is gifted at his craft.

Of course, the one big bombshell the film delivered was the affair between Penny and trainer Lucien Laurin, which has left many people shocked by this revelation, not only because it was hidden so successfully, but because of the difficulty in actually visualizing it. If moviegoers would have a tough time imagining an affair between Diane Lane and John Malkovich, who played Penny and Lucien in the movie, that would be nothing compared to the real-life people involved.

But this disclosure, which seemed to jump out from nowhere almost in passing, was only mentioned briefly. It should have been delivered by Penny with more emotion so it didn’t seem gratuitous and put in for sensationalistic value. She seemed to trivialize it, referring to the affair only as “great fun,” and really never spoke of having any deep feelings for Lucien. She did say she was unhappy in her marriage, but that is what precipitates most affairs. What was in her heart and what compelled her to have an affair with Lucien, as opposed to someone else? It seemed as if she needed it at that time in her life and Lucien just happened to be there and willing.

Also, Penny mentioned she remained an angry person very late in life, despite all her fame and fortune, but didn’t explain why or evoke much passion when saying it.

In a perfect world, there are a number of incidents I would have loved to see included -- the transition of taking over the stable more closely; the pressures that came with it and the emotion of seeing Riva Ridge win the Kentucky Derby and dealing with her father's illness (which was vague). I would have loved to hear Penny's comments on the coin toss and how she came to get Secretariat in the first place, the abscess in the Wood Memorial, the illness in the Whitney, and the defeats to Onion and Prove Out, and how she dealt with that. But it was understandable why they weren’t addressed.

The elongated Bill Nack segment was more about his recollections than hers, including anecdotes and second-hand dialogue right out of the book, including one story regarding Angle Light’s owner Edwin Whitaker and the rose after the Derby that she had no recollection of. When Nack alluded to it, all she said was, “I did?”

As Tweedy mentioned, not only was he unable to include all that, but this film, unlike all the others, is about Penny and not Secretariat, despite the title of the film. Tweedy does let the audience know right from the start that this is his mother’s story.

If Penny was going to bare all, she could have discussed with Nack about how angry she was with him after his book came out because of how she was made to look. Since the book became a classic and is regarded as one of the best racing books ever, those feelings, as mundane as they seem now, never surfaced.

So, while the finished version does leave some questions unanswered, it is certainly understandable considering the restrictions Tweedy had to abide by. Watching what did make the film, there is no doubt that an expanded version would be a classic piece of filmmaking and an in-depth probe into the life of a very special lady. But despite the cramming and cutting it still is an excellent piece of filmmaking by Tweedy.

Knowing the restrictions Tweedy faced, I highly recommend this film, with the understanding that it had, or has, the potential to be so much more. Unlike the movie “Secretariat,” which was riddled with historical and character flaws, this is as real-life and compelling a drama as one can squeeze into one hour.

“Indeed, (Penny) left some important things unsaid,” Tweedy said. “But for me as filmmaker (and yes, as her son), I was impressed with the things she did say, and the courage it took to say them.”

You will learn a great deal about Penny the person and all her complexities, and no longer just see her as Secretariat’s owner and good will ambassador of racing. Without getting into Penny’s head, this film came across as sort of a cleansing of the mind and soul, and I would imagine it was a cathartic experience for her, revealing all she did. She showed that a person is never too old to strip away their façade and reveal their true self and innermost feelings.

“Penny and Red” can be purchased at Secretariat.com at a cost of $29.95. It is well worth it.

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