“Seabiscuit,” which opened Friday, is the greatest big-budget Hollywood movie ever made about a real-life racehorse. Since I haven’t seen it, that’s about all I can say about it.
But it got me thinking about great sports movies. And that got me thinking about listing the greatest sports movies ever made. And that got me thinking that surely that’s been done a million times, so how else can I get a column out of “Seabiscuit” without sitting through it, because it looks from the previews like one of those movies that an old friend of mine used to refer to as “jumping over fences movies.” Sports movies lend themselves well to this genre, which usually features swelling music, slow-motion action and the Winning of the Big One After Overcoming Long Odds.
Jumping over fences movies can be pretty good, like “Hoosiers” or “Rocky” or “Stand and Deliver.” Usually they’re just sappy, like “The Natural.”
So here’s the King Kaufman Sports Daily film festival, 10 great sports movies that might not immediately come to mind when you’re making your all-time list. It doesn’t include any movies widely acknowledged as being among the Greatest Sports Films Ever — “Raging Bull,” “Rocky,” “Bull Durham,” “Caddyshack,” that crowd — but is guaranteed to provide 10 fine evenings of schmaltz-free, thinking-sports-fan entertainment.
“Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956): Boxing dominates any list of great sports movies, just as it dominates any list of great sports books. It is, as George Foreman once said, the sport to which all other sports aspire: Pure competition, and thus pure drama. Plus it’s easy to photograph and easy for nonfans to understand, and its participants often lead interesting lives outside the ring (see “On the Waterfront” and “Pulp Fiction”). So with all the great pug movies out there, why this straight-up Hollywood biopic starring Paul Newman?
Because it’s the perfect template for both the Hollywood boxing movie and the sports biography. It has every Tinseltown boxing trope, from the montage of Newman’s Rocky Graziano coming home to his family all busted up after fights to his Italian momma saying, “Rocky, why-a you gotta fight?” and from not-very-realistic fight footage to a ticker-tape parade finale. You watch it and think you’re watching a parody, but it’s actually pretty good.
“The Hustler” (1961): As long as we’re on the subject of Newman … Not that pool is a sport, but the competition between Newman’s Fast Eddie and Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats is a brilliant study of the mental and emotional side of winning and losing. George C. Scott lecturing Newman, who has all the talent in the world but is a born loser: “Everybody’s got talent, I got talent. You think you can play big-money straight pool or poker for 40 straight hours on nothing but talent? You think they call Minnesota Fats the best in the country just ’cause he got talent? Nah, Minnesota Fats’s got more character in one finger than you got in your whole skinny body.”
“Fat City” (1972): And as long as we’re on the subject of losers … The best boxing novel ever was turned into a terrific movie by John Huston, with future “Seabiscuit” star Jeff Bridges as a young boxer going nowhere and Stacy Keach as a beaten-down old fighter who is surely a vision of what lies ahead.
“Bang the Drum Slowly” (1973): Remember when Robert De Niro actually acted, instead of just playing that Robert De Niro character in every movie? Here he’s Bruce Pearson, a half-wit catcher with Hodgkin’s disease. Michael Moriarty is the star pitcher who looks out for him. The baseball action is awful, but it’s a rare sports — and fatal disease — movie that manages to be moving without being sappy or manipulative. Bonus similar pick: “Brian’s Song,” which is sappy, but does feature Gale Sayers living in the same house Sam and Darrin lived in on “Bewitched.” You can amuse yourself by imagining Gladys Kravitz at the window across the street going, “Abner. Abner! Come here! He’s doing wind sprints!”
“Hoop Dreams” (1994): This one does appear on some “best sports movies” lists. It’s the tale of a pair of Chicago schoolboy basketball players. It just beats out “When We Were Kings” as the best sports documentary ever.
“Rollerball” (1975): In the early 21st century, multinational corporations rule the world by controlling the flow of information, and a passive society is enthralled by its favorite violent sport. Ha ha! Isn’t it quaint to see the silly ways people in the past envisioned the future?
“Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962): This is about as sad as a movie can be, and it’s not a violin-heavy tear-jerker. It’s impossible to be a thinking boxing fan without considering the price the sport exacts, not just on its losers, as in “Fat City,” but on its winners. Foreman, successful pitchman, broadcaster and preacher and all-around happy guy, is wildly the exception to the rule that the lives of former boxers are brutal, damaged and ugly. One need only live through one generation of fighters to see many former heroes slurring their speech, living in poverty and dying young. Look no further than an early scene in this movie, in which badly faded heavyweight Mountain Rivera, played by Anthony Quinn, takes a beating at the hands of a beautiful young fighter — Cassius Clay. So it goes.
“Slap Shot” (1977): Paul Newman again. It’s funny how the same people keep showing up. Jackie Gleason was the heartless manager in “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” James Caan, Jeff Bridges. Is there a sports movie All-Star team? Anyway, this comedy often gets lumped in with goofball laugh fests like “Caddyshack” and “The Waterboy” because it’s a comedy with slapstick elements including the “retard” fighting Hanson brothers. But it’s actually a gritty little flick about a doomed bunch of small-time losers in a dying industrial town. And a funny one at that. It’s closest cousin is “Bull Durham,” which is sexier. But “Slap Shot” is funnier and doesn’t resort to speechifying.
“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1962): You read the short story in high school, but did you ever see the Brit “angry young man” flick? You should. It’s the anti-jumping over fences movie. I don’t want to give anything away, but the whole thing leads up to The Big Race at the End of the Movie, and guess what doesn’t happen. It’s fun to watch this movie and think about college sports. Picture the titular runner, played by Tom Courtenay, as a football or basketball player, and Michael Redgrave’s striving borstal governor, who will benefit from the runner’s athletic prowess, as the university president.
“Horse Feathers” (1932): Or you could picture Harpo and Chico Marx as football players and Groucho as the university president, which this classic comedy does. It features the funniest college football sequence ever filmed, which is damning with faint praise, but it really is funny. And just in case it’s not good enough for you that I brought the theme back around to “Seabiscuit” by ending on a movie with the word “horse” in the title, I’ll add a bonus pick to really complete the circle.
“The Godfather” (1972): Now that’s a horse racing movie.
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