By Tony Mangia
Caught the Oscars last night and was glad to see Jeff Bridges earn a statue for his portrayal of a down and out country singer, Otis 'Bad' Blake, in 'Crazy Heart.' I was happy Bridges earned the award and wasn't accused of getting it as a 'lifetime acheivement'reward ala Paul Newman for 'The Color of Money' and Al Pacino for 'Scent of a Woman.' Both of them should have had locked up the Oscar for their respective roles in films like 'The Hustler,' 'The Verdict,' 'Serpico,' and 'Dog Day Afternoon.'
At the ceremony, Mo'Nique's abusive mom in 'Precious' definitely deserved the Best Supporting Actress Award but, I gotta admit, her acceptance speech sounded eerily like her character. It was a little scary. Sandra Bullock pulled in an Academy Award for her role in a sports movie, 'The Blind Side'--the true story of the underprivileged teen who becomes an NFL player. It won't rank up there with some of the great sports films but isn't "The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh'or any sports satire starring Will Ferrell. Ferrell has gotten a case of 'John Candyitis'--an affliction where actors are funnier in smaller doses as supporting roles.
Sports movies come in all styles; comedic, nostalgic, gritty and based-in-truth. First criteria to determine if its a sport; if you can eat a hot dog while participating, it ain't a sport. This eliminates all chess films and, sorry Minnesota Fats fans, any billiards films. Darts and softball are out too. Golf movies have, let's say, a five handicap with these rules but we'll get to that later.
Good baseball films usually satisfy the purists and traditionalists. 'The Natural' and 'Field of Dreams' sate the intellect and remind diamond fans of summers past--thinking man's films. 'Bull Durham' could technically be called a 'chick flick.' Hell, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are making a movie about the '70's wife-swapping Yankee teammates Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich. Wonder what angle those Red Sox lovers will take on that storyline? Where's the sport in that? 'Hoosiers' and 'Rudy' celebrate the underdog in all of us. To rise up and conquer--a great premise but usually has more sap than a maple tree. These types of film will not make my list of greatest sports films. Watch these with your father or grand dad if you need a good cry. A top-notch sports flick has some angst and realism but is tinged with raucous humor.
First, a good sports movie has to have a flawed hero with a going-against-the grain morality. Burt Reynolds in 'The Longest Yard' (not the unbelievably lame remake--come on...really... Adam Sandler?) and Paul Newman in 'Slapshot' succeed on these criterias. They both drink, whore and live on past glory. Reynolds as Paul 'Wrecking' Crewe steals his girlfriend's car and drunkenly hits a cop--not to mention he has been banned from the NFL for shaving points! Incredibly, we are on his side at the end of the film. Newman's Reggie Dunlop is one of sports films great characters just because he drives a GTO muscle car and can actually look cool in leather bell-bottoms and a fur coat. Derek Sanderson was the only hockey player (or any white athlete) who could pull off that look without cringing. The whole film seems organic--grown out of the most prolific era (1967-77) of studio-backed, character based productions. "Puttin' on the foil, coach," has to be one of the greatest lines for any sports fan and from three of the wildest teammates--the Hanson brothers--ever created. Whether they were kicking the cans out of a soda machine or those of their opponents during the national anthem, they were three of filmdom's truest hellraisers--even when childishly arguing over slot cars. 'Slapshot' is even more impressive because, as one of the great guy's movies, the profane script was written by a woman (Nancy Dowd)!
Boxing has no problem lending itself to great themes like drama and corruption. Rod Serling's (an amateur boxer)'Requiem for a Heavyweight' is one of the good ones but must throw in the towel to two of the best characterizations in film history. They belong to Sylvester Stallone as the simple overachiever Rocky Balboa in Best Picture winner "Rocky" and Robert DeNiro's adapted portrayal of corrupted pugilist Jake LaMotta in "The Raging Bull." Inside the ring, both men are similar with their animalistic brute force fighting style but, outside the ropes their lives sit in opposite corners. Who can forget the leg-breaker, Rocky, showing sympathy to one of his intended victims or him mumbling sweet nothings to his pet turtles; while LaMotta smacks his young wife around and, later, ends up in a jail cell bashing his own bloated head against the wall--a victim of his wasted life. Micheal Chapman's black and white photography and action shots in 'Raging Bull' has never been duplicated. Watch it and it takes you back to the golden age of boxing.
Looking at the short list of honorable mentions, one cannot ignore the merits of "The Wrestler." Pro wrestling is more entertainment than sport, but the sport, New Jersey, and a broken athlete have never looked sadder, darker and more real. Best Picture nominee, "Breaking Away" was a fine look at aimless young men finding purpose and overcoming odds with a comedic edge and a bike race in the finale. This all leads to a slippery slope. Forget what I said earlier about golf. It's got a ball so it's a sport. I guess I would have to include "Kingpin" as a good film under these terms too--so...I pulled a 'munson.' This means 'Caddyshack'--the mother of all sports comedies--has to be included on this list. How many great lines--"You wanna make 14 dollars the hard way" and "Will you loofah my stretch marks?"--have been repeated from this movie. Bill Murray--at his finest- as Carl Spackler teeing off the flowers or fantasizing about the gelatinous thighs of Mrs. Crane. Rodney Dangerfield's, "Who sat on a duck?" and his razzing of the pompous Judge Smails, wonderfully played by the incomparable Ted Knight. Good sports films don't have to make you cry or think. Films are an escape. How about a Fresca!