by Walt Opie
Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby
"The unconquerable doing the impossible." That's how famed sportswriter Red Smith once described a diving, game-saving catch snagged by baseball legend (and breaker of the color barrier) Jackie Robinson. It would also be a good way to summarize the basic plot of many of the best-loved sports movies, for these films often involve a hyper-determined but flawed underdog, in the guise of either a team or an individual, who must compete with the very best in their chosen sport and try to pull off a miraculous victory (or at least come closer to winning than anyone expects). Examples of this are obvious and innumerable, with Sylvester Stallone's 1976 star vehicle Rocky being the modern prototype.
In this corner...
The sports movie overlaps into other genres, into drama, comedy, biopic, documentary, action/thriller, or even musical (Damn Yankees). Although there are plenty of exceptions, sports films are often not the most critically revered, but they do tend to hit us where it counts - right in the gut. They are unabashedly emotional in a way we disdain to see in most other kinds of films.
From Raging Bull to Bull Durham, boxing and baseball are the two sports that consistently inspire the most compelling films in this category, followed closely by football, and then probably basketball, horse racing, and hockey. However, many other competitive endeavors have also enjoyed their shining moments on the big screen throughout movie history, especially: auto racing, golf, track and field, skiing, soccer, cycling, pool, surfing, karate, chess, and even rugby. For a great example of the latter, check out This Sporting Life, featuring a young Richard Harris, once an aspiring rugby player himself, in his first Oscar-nominated performance.
Robert De Niro in Raging Bull
And the winner is...
Many things can add up to a high-quality sports movie, including genuine emotion and compelling characters, but one of the most important and difficult goals to achieve is verisimilitude, both in the sport being portrayed and, more importantly, in the way the actors themselves come off as prime athletes. This is probably why Robert De Niro, later rewarded for his effort with an Oscar for Best Actor, felt compelled to train and spar for a year with retired boxer Jake La Motta (whom he was portraying) at Gramercy Gym in Manhattan before shooting began on Raging Bull. Considering that actual fight sequences only make up about ten minutes of the final film, this was quite an impressive commitment to verity.
A true sports fan can spot a foul play (pun intentional) or a non-athletic actor a mile away, and this can quickly shatter the suspension of disbelief to such an extent that the movie is rendered ridiculous. Unless the film is a comedy, such as Caddyshack with Chevy Chase smirking his way across the links and Bill Murray trying to destroy gophers under them, the audience usually insists on being convinced that the actor or actors might truly have the physical prowess it takes to land that knockout jab, smack a winning homer into the bleachers, or complete the Hail Mary pass downfield for a touchdown.
Given these challenges, some of the more memorable sports movies have been made by actors and directors who were also once competitive athletes themselves. Burt Reynolds, for example, was a football star at Florida State University and later had two hit movies about that sport - The Longest Yard (1974) and Semi-Tough (1977). Writer/Director Ron Shelton played second base in the minor leagues for several years before breaking into Hollywood. He may be the single most successful creator of sports films ever, with a string of box office winners including two with Kevin Costner - Bull Durham and the golf film Tin Cup - as well as the terrifically entertaining White Men Can't Jump starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson.
Yet another strategy is to have the story involve fictional athletes who compete at the lower levels of the game, usually for laughs, and the pulling of a few heartstrings. One of the better examples is the hilarious The Bad News Bears about a group of misfit kids who play little league baseball (with Walter Matthau as their irascible, beer-swilling coach). Another notable example is Shelton's sharply written Bull Durham, which chronicles a Class A minor league baseball team (and co-stars future husband and wife duo Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, the latter as wild-throwing pitcher Nuke LaLoosh). Also in this category is the classic 1977 hockey comedy Slap Shot (starring Paul Newman), about a minor league hockey team that goes from bad to downright dangerous. Slap Shot also featured real-life pro hockey players Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson, and David Hanson playing the thuggish Hanson Brothers (the latter was cast when Jack Carlson could not appear in the movie with his two other real life brothers).
Emphasizing the popularity of the originals, both The Longest Yard and The Bad News Bears are set to reappear in 2005 in updated, and likely pointless, remakes, with Adam Sandler dubiously reprising the Burt Reynolds role and, more promisingly, Billy Bob Thornton standing in for the irreplaceable Walter Matthau, respectively.
Inside the Diamond...
As Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once put it, "If you can't imitate him, don't copy him." It isn't easy for any actor, regardless of talent level, to convincingly portray well-known, larger-than-life gods of sport like Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali. Just ask John Goodman (The Babe) or Will Smith (Ali), who, although both clearly made laudable attempts, tried to capture these legends in what turned out to be less than stellar moments in their careers. This has always presented a tremendous challenge to filmmakers and actors alike. Fortunately, the Babe agreed to appear as himself in the 1942 film The Pride of the Yankees about fellow New York Yankee Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper) who sadly was stricken late in his impressive career, at the age of 37, by the rare nerve disease now bearing his name.
Gary Cooper in The Pride of the Yankees
This film was also the occasion for the for the most moving speech in sports movie (and for that matter, baseball) history, in which an ailing Gehrig steps up to the microphone and tells a packed Yankee Stadium:
I have been walking on ball fields for 16 years, and I've never received anything but kindness... People all say that I've been given a bad break, but today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
More than any other sport, baseball - still referred to as our national pastime - carries a mythic quality that lends itself nicely to Hollywood. It boasts colorful players like Ruth, Ted Williams, and Shoeless Joe Jackson, for example, and infamous teams such as the Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the Chicago White (nee Black) Sox that rabid fans of the game continue to recall fondly from generation to generation.
The real life player Shoeless Joe Jackson has helped inspire at least three of the best-loved baseball movies ever made, including Field of Dreams, The Natural (based on Bernard Malamud's fine novel and loosely on Ted Williams), and John Sayles's minor masterpiece Eight Men Out (with John Cusack, David Strathairn, and Charlie Sheen), which meticulously details the 1918 World Series Black Sox scandal. The more surrealistic, and sentimental, Field of Dreams brings Shoeless Joe and other members of the notorious Black Sox back from the dead to visit an Iowa farmer's (Costner) homemade diamond in the middle of a cornfield. Like The Natural, Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams was based on an excellent book - W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe. Director Barry Levinson's The Natural draws from the baseball legends to build a larger than life fictional character, Roy Hobbs (played to perfection by Robert Redford, age 46) who has been "taken away from the game" for years, but mysteriously reemerges for one final season and a chance to take the World Series despite a corrupt owner's repeated and fruitless attempts to bribe him. For a change of pace, A League of Their Own very ably tells the story of a WWII-era women's baseball league; there were laughs and there were tears (although, as Tom Hanks manager character famously said, "There's no crying in baseball.")
In the Ring...
In 1998, when the American Film Institute (AFI) came out with its list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of all time, only two of the films chosen were legitimately sports movies - Raging Bull (#24) and Rocky (#78) - both about boxing. Master filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) are no doubt drawn to boxing due to its naturally dramatic set-up - two brave competitors in top condition clobber each other with their fists on a raised platform before a frenzied crowd, sweat and blood spraying palpably off their battered, swollen foreheads as they suffer and deliver blow upon blow. Every time a fighter steps into the ring it feels like no less than a battle between life and death.
Like baseball, the sport of boxing has drawn a host of charismatic real-life champs including Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Muhammad Ali. One notable early boxing picture was Somebody Up There Likes Me, based on the Rocky Graziano autobiography of the same name (inexplicably not yet on DVD). It features a young Paul Newman in a breakout role originally crafted for James Dean before his tragic car accident, and it marked the screen debuts of Steve McQueen, George C. Scott and Robert Loggia. This well-directed Robert Wise film appears to have heavily influenced a number of future actors and filmmakers including Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone, who allegedly borrowed whole characters for his Rocky screenplay (famously written in just three days). And in the aforementioned rugby film This Sporting Life, the Richard Harris character carries around a dog-eared copy of the book Somebody Up There Likes Me and keeps a photo of the boxer stuck to his bedroom mirror.
The most famous boxer of all-time is undoubtedly Muhammad Ali, who is connected to a number of boxing movies in various ways. As early as 1962, Ali actually played himself (then still Cassius Clay) in Requiem for a Heavyweight with Anthony Quinn in the lead role and co-starring legendary actors Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney (written by The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling). Also, the character of Rocky was born when Stallone watched an unknown challenger named Chuck Wepner last almost an entire 15 rounds against Ali in a 1975 title bout. Most of Ali's fights are available on DVD or video, plus his charismatic presence was captured beautifully in Leon Gast's documentary When We Were Kings (filmed in 1974 but not released until 1996) about Ali's stunning victory in Zaire over the heavily favored (and feared) George Foreman - before the latter became the loveable hamburger grill pitch man and preacher we know today.
And besides the recent Oscar-winner Million Dollar Baby, one other smaller picture with a woman at the center captured some attention a few years back - John Sayles protégé Karyn Kusama's Girlfight, with Michelle Rodriguez in what should have been a star-making performance as a tough lady boxer.
On the Gridiron...
Pat O'Brien in Knute Rockne All American
Football combines some of the danger inherent in boxing with the more nostalgic qualities often associated with team sports and has been the basis for many entertaining movies over the years. One of the best-known early football films was Knute Rockne All American (1940) about the great Notre Dame football coach (played by Pat O'Brien) who led the Fighting Irish to five perfect seasons and three national championships in his 13 years of coaching, from 1918 to 1930 (Rockne died in a plane crash in 1931). This film became highly influential in the history of sports movies due to its famous "Win one for the Gipper!" pep speech delivered by Rockne (Pat O'Brien) in the locker room before a big game against Army. George Gipp (played by Ronald Reagan, later nicknamed "The Gipper" by some political pundits), died of complications brought on by a throat infection in 1920, and Rockne had visited him in the hospital shortly before he passed away.
Here is what Rockne confides to his team in the film:
Now I'm going to tell you something I've kept to myself for years. None of you ever knew George Gipp. He was long before your time, but you all know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame. And the last thing he said to me, Rock, he said, sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock, he said, but I'll know about it and I'll be happy.
Inevitably, the team goes on to tear Army apart limb by limb. This speech echoes through practically every sports pep-talk scene filmed ever since, and in Rudy (1993), it is even quoted verbatim in an empty Notre Dame locker room by Sean Astin as the quintessential underdog character Rudy Ruettiger, who dreams of playing in just one game for Notre Dame despite his diminutive size and lack of athletic ability. (In a bit of sports movie trivia, Rudy and Rockne are the only two movies ever filmed on the sacred grounds of the Notre Dame campus.)
Other noteworthy football films from the past include: the dated Jim Thorpe - All American (1951) with Burt Lancaster not at all convincing as the famous Native American football player and Olympic athlete; the male tearjerker Brian's Song (1970) starring Billy Dee Williams and James Caan as real-life Chicago Bears players Gayle Sayers and Brian Piccolo, officially the first interracial roommates in NFL history, who support each other to the end; The Longest Yard (1974) featuring Burt Reynolds as a loveable pro quarterback turned prisoner out to win an early release; and North Dallas Forty (1979) with Nick Nolte as a world weary Dallas Cowboys quarterback hooked on painkillers.
More recent films carrying on the tradition of engrossing football films include: Taylor Hackford's epic Everybody's All-American (1988) starring Dennis Quaid and Jessica Lange, based on the novel by Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford; the uplifting high school football drama Remember the Titans (2000) with Denzel Washington as the determined coach; and actor-turned-director Peter Berg's gritty, documentary-style Friday Night Lights (2004) about the stuggles of a big-time Texas high school team.
Hitting the Court...
When it comes to Dr. James Naismath's beloved game, Hoosiers (1986) has to rank right at the top. Directed by David Anspaugh (who also made Rudy), Hoosiers stars Gene Hackman as a fallen college coach who lands in a small Indiana town obsessed basketball. Inspired by the true story of a 1954 Indiana high school team's dream season when they miraculously won a state title, Hoosiers manages to capture the pure joy of making a run all the way to a championship. The basketball scenes are well orchestrated, and Dennis Hopper has a memorable supporting role as the alcoholic father of one of the starting players, who goes along for the ride as an assistant coach.
Unfortunately, Hoosiers has little in the way of competition when it comes to great basketball films, but there are a few others worth mentioning. Besides White Men Can't Jump - which isn't purely a basketball movie but the hoops action is great - another is Steve James's unforgettable 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. The film follows two aspiring teen-age basketball stars in Chicago who transfer out of their public high schools in the inner city to an expensive school in the suburbs known for its winning ways in hopes of getting noticed by the all-important college recruiters. We are riveted to the stories of these two young men and can't help rooting for them no matter what happens along the way. It's an inner city epic with basketball at the heart.
I have to also mention the flawed genius of He Got Game - Spike Lee's 1998 tribute to a game he obviously feels very passionate about (we've all seen him screaming along from courtside seats at Knicks games). The opening credits, with breathtaking music by Aaron Copeland, are lovingly filmed, and show basketball as it is played throughout America, from a lone basket on a farm in the heartland to school playgrounds and even a makeshift basket in New York with the Twin Towers off in the hazy distance. The story itself takes an implausible leap when Denzel Washington's Jake Shuttlesworth is released from prison for one week (even though he's been convicted of murdering his own wife) to convince his son, a high school senior and hoops hero improbably named Jesus (but played convincingly by real-life basketball star Ray Allen) to attend a certain university on basketball scholarship. The plot doesn't work particularly well, but the film serves as an excellent meditation on the temptations (money, fame, sex, drugs, corruption, etc.) that can often befall young star players as they struggle their way to the top. More recently, Samuel Jackson played a version of the real life Coach Carter at a troubled Richmond, CA, high school who whips his players into shape. The film was inspiring, but ultimately predictably formulaic.
Read on: Walt Opie lists his Baker's Dozen Favorite Sports Films in Part Two...