The movie that made Lawrence Taylor cry for what he’d done

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LT. (Showtime)
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It’s significant that Lawrence Taylor was in tears after a screening at the Paley Center last night of LT: The Life and Times, Showtime’s new feature-length documentary.

Taylor’s tears weren’t those of late-life sentimentality and thankfulness, but rather of regret and shame.

“To see your life through the eyes of others, I mean, that’s a bitch,” Taylor said on stage afterward. “That’s hard to handle. And I mean, I really apologize to the people who, if I harmed them in any way, especially my kids and stuff. It’s very, very humbling.”

The movie is an unsparing treatment of the Giants' Hall of Fame linebacker, whose brilliance on the field and destructiveness off it owed to the same qualities: recklessness, overabundance of energy and lack of regard for anything other than going hard and kicking ass.

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It’s not a film with universal appeal to the non-sports fan: The interviews are a little redundant, the detail a little exhaustive, the redemption arc a little pat. But if you’re a Giants fans or just a sports fans interested in a definitive treatment of one of the greatest athletes of all time, see this movie.

Most of the subject matter we already know: LT did a lot of drugs, had sex with a lot of women, caught up on sleep during defensive meetings, but showed up on Sunday to play better than most everybody else, before or since.

But the film sets itself apart by putting faces to the people who Taylor hurt: specifically, his family. It’s one thing to hear that he was never home for his wife and kids. It’s another to see the now ex-wife and grown kids in front of the camera, working through their ambivalent feelings. They forgive him, sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still angry about paying the price for his failings.

“'LT' was too big for my marriage, too big for this house, too big for New Jersey,” Taylor’s ex-wife Linda says, making knowing use of her ex-husband’s nickname.

(Another layer of moral ambiguity comes with the knowledge that Taylor’s 32-year-old son TJ, who is compellingly intelligent and honest in the film, was arrested in July on statutory rape charges.)

The film also provides never-before-seen depth on Taylor topics that have come and gone from the news. For instance, Taylor speaks about his 2010 arrest for patronizing a 16-year-old prostitute, for which he pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct.

He defiantly claims he had no reason to think the girl was underage, and that she hadn’t shown up to his hotel door with bruises on her body as was alleged. Furthermore, he says he has patronized prostitutes “all my life, and I don’t apologize for it.”

His current wife, Lynette Taylor, says the incident didn’t reveal a sexual predator so much as “a horny guy who did some dumb stuff.”

The film would have benefited from a less one-sided portrayal of the incident, however, in the form of an interview with a prosecuting attorney or anyone else opposed to the idea that patronizing 16-year-old prostitutes is basically OK.

Going back in time, the film highlights the N.F.L.’s ineffectual drug testing throughout Taylor’s era, which delegated the task to the teams themselves and allowed Taylor to beat the system by using the urine of a clean player. When he finally got suspended for drugs in 1988, he says it was because he had the misfortune of taking a dirty player’s urine.

“If it was my urine, I’d probably still be suspended,” he says.

From this, the film examines whether coach Bill Parcells and the Giants brass enabled Taylor’s drug use so they could keep him on the field and out of rehab. It’s a charge Parcells angrily denies, though his refusal to provide details means he’s less than 100 percent convincing.

On whether he took measures to help Taylor with his drug problem, Parcells says, “I know, he knows, and that’s all I’m gonna say.”

Then he adds, “But frankly it pisses me off when people say that.”

Taylor and Parcells were close in the kind of mutually validating way in which Taylor and his family were not. Whatever Taylor was doing off the field, whatever his practice habits during the week, he made a point of standing next to Parcells each Sunday during the singing of the national anthem, a symbolic I’m with you gesture. When Parcells describes Taylor’s gritty performance in a 1988 game, in which he fought through torn shoulder ligaments and a detached pectoral muscle to have three sacks, his eyes well up.

Little wonder, then, that Parcells’s resignation after the 1990 season had a deflating effect on Taylor, who retired after the 1993 season.

"I had retired when Bill left,” Taylor tells the camera. “I just didn’t tell anybody until three years later.”

With retirement came free time, an itch unscratched, and a descent into drug abuse. The film shows the nadir of this period: Outtakes from a 1998 television interview with Jim Nantz, during which Taylor is glassy-eyed, unsteady and borderline maniacal.

Taylor claims in the film that he’s been sober for 15 years and that he even quit drinking several months ago. Toward the end, the film features several images of redemption: Taylor walking his daughter Tanisha down the aisle at her wedding, though he was mostly absent during her upbringing; Taylor doting on his seven-year-old adopted son, Mali, in his last, best shot at fatherhood.

The film ends with Taylor telling the camera that when his grandkids ask him what LT was like, he’ll reply that “LT was one bad motherfucker.”

The audience broke into cathartic laughter at the line. But the filmmakers made a mistake by relying on this trite kicker, because it conveys the wrong last impression. Romanticizing the notion of Taylor as a bad motherfucker undermined the film’s admirably somber treatment of his failings as a complete human being.

The more powerful image late in the film was that of Taylor bawling at his daughter’s wedding with a mix of pride and remorse.

Ex-wife Linda tells the camera, “I was sitting there saying, ‘What’s eating at him? What regret is he having?’”

LT: The Life & Times, a feature-length documentary on Lawrence Taylor, premieres Friday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. on Showtime.