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Just What Is A Sports Movie?

Absorbing, true-life drama about Josh Waitzkin, a 7-year-old chess prodigy whose incredible abilities cause problems for his parents struggling to decide what's best for their son. With hopes of winning a championship, Josh seeks help from two mentors, a former world-class player and a streetwise speed-chess wizard.

OK! I know it's not a sport but it is competition. What ever happened to Max Pomeranc, the sad-eyed miniprotagonist of this outstanding chess movie?

Reflecting Americans' love for sports of all kinds, U.S. filmmakers turn repeatedly to sports themes to convey messages much larger than the stories themselves. There are few, if any, countries in the world in which sports-not a sport but sports in general-permeate national life to the degree that they do in the United States. Sports are part of the very fabric of American life, discourse, and lexicon, so much so that it is commonplace to hear prominent national leaders speak about matters of state with reference to such sports metaphors as "throwing up a Hail Mary," "scoring a slam dunk," "playing hardball," and "hitting below the belt." Indeed, the little black presidential briefcase that holds the codes necessary to launch U.S. nuclear forces is referred to as "the football."

The centrality of sports in American life is amply reflected in contemporary American cinema. For decades, U.S. moviemakers have successfully mined sports to produce some of the most inspiring, poignant, exciting, and memorable American movies ever made. This tradition started in the first half of the 20th century, but it remains vibrant today. Just in the past few years, Hollywood has produced popular and critically acclaimed films featuring virtually every major sport, from football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, to boxing, horse racing, and even surfing. Since the mid-1970s, four U.S. sports films have won Academy Awards, or Oscars; most recently, Million Dollar Baby (2004), the Clint Eastwood film about a female boxer, won four Oscars, including the one for best picture (an honor the film shares with just two other sports movies). Though American sports movies make use of a common vehicle to explore the fullness of American life and the nuances of human psychology, they tell us many different things about the values that are important to Americans.

American football, always an important subgenre of U.S. sports cinema, has overtaken baseball in recent years as the sport most frequently featured in U.S. films. The last several years have seen the release of a plethora of serious, high-quality football movies that have explored such diverse themes as overcoming adversity (We Are Marshall, 2006); working hard to achieve your dreams (Invincible, 2006); the unrelenting pursuit of excellence (Friday Night Lights, 2004); the power of sports to heal racial/class divides and build communities (Remember the Titans, 2000); and the triumph of an athlete's innate competitive spirit and innocence over the crass commercialism and cynicism of the U.S. professional sports industry (Any Given Sunday, 1999). As diverse as these themes are, an overarching message about football emerges from these recent films: Football-in its epic scale, over-the-top pomp, gritty attitude, and, yes, hard hitting-is the most complete and vivid sports metaphor for American life itself.

Hollywood has long demonstrated a fascination with boxing. The three major boxing films produced in recent years (Rocky Balboa, 2006; Cinderella Man, 2005; and Million Dollar Baby, 2004) are all classic underdog stories (while Million Dollar Baby explores other, more complex themes, as well). The underdog theme-a perennial favorite of U.S. producers of sports films-also extends to the Olympic hockey rink (Miracle, 2004) and the horse racing track (Seabiscuit, 2003), in which athletes (and, in Seabiscuit, a racehorse) achieve stunning victories in the face of overwhelming odds.

Collectively, these movies say a lot about American values, but they strike a chord with foreign audiences, as well. That's because these films, at their core, are less about sports than they are about that part of each of us that yearns to take the field, give our all, and live our dreams.

Just what is a sports movie? Well, the fact that the Marlon Brando character says "I coulda been a contender" in On the Waterfront doesn't make it a boxing film. Sports Films are those that have a sports setting (football or baseball stadium, arena, or the Olympics, etc.), competitive event (the 'big game,' 'fight,' or 'competition'), and/or athlete (boxer, racer, surfer, etc.) that are central and predominant in the story. Sports films may be fictional or non-fictional; and they are a hybrid sub-genre category. Sports movies have athletes or sporting events at the center of their narratives.

The most popular sport theme in Hollywood films of the 20th century appears to be baseball, with basketball, American football, football (soccer) and boxing in a plentiful selection of films. Track and field, horse racing, auto-racing, golf, ice hockey and wrestling have also proven to be popular sports themes.

Whenever movies enter the sports world, we can usually expect some variation on the over-the-hill wise veteran, the upstart young rookie just looking for guidance, and the last minute victory over the hated rival. We can also expect, of course, at least one or two complete raisin cakes in the stands.

There is a sportswriting adage that goes, "The smaller the ball, the better the writing," and the inverse seems to be true of sports movies. Screenwriters routinely slander golfers (Happy Gilmore), Ping-Pongers (Forrest Gump) and roulette players (Casino), while always getting bowlers exactly right (Kingpin, The Big Lebowski).

Big ball is good (Hoop Dreams), small ball is bad (Tin Cup), and no-ball-at-all is most likely a work of genius (Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, Dorf Goes Fishing). Alas, there are other, conflicting formulas, and they are equally valid. If men are running in slow motion on a beach (Chariots of Fire, Brian's Song), you are almost certainly watching greatness. (If women are running in slow motion on a beach, you are almost certainly watching Cinemax.)

Every movie ever made about a team of profane outcasts -- Mean Machine in The Longest Yard, the Chiefs in Slap Shot, Chico's Bail Bonds in The Bad News Bears -- has been, without exception, brilliant. Field-goal-kicking donkeys (Gus) are funny. Dogs that can dunk (Air Bud) are not.

Movies set in Indiana (Hoosiers, Knute Rockne: All-American, Breaking Away) can be one of two things: great or Rudy. Movies whose main character is named Indiana are fail-safe, though other Midwestern states can be less reliable. Jackie Gleason was unforgettable as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, Brendan Fraser unwatchable as Yankees phenom Steve Nebraska in The Scout.

Nebraska had a 106 mph fastball -- and in sports movies, wild implausibility should be used only for comic effect. As a weightlifter representing Klopstokia at the 1932 Olympics, W.C. Fields wins gold in Million Dollar Legs when his opponent, straining to jerk 1,000 pounds, falls through the earth. (Great.) The Natural had us right up until the moment Roy Hobbs literally knocked the cover off the ball. (Not great.)

Then there are movies in which no one on the set has ever personally witnessed the sport being filmed. So the climactic at bat of The Fan, in which Wesley Snipes plays a San Francisco Giants star, takes place in what appears to be a hurricane, violating rules of both the National League and the National Weather Service.

It's not that sports fans are unwilling to suspend disbelief. We'll happily accept that high school basketball player Michael J. Fox can spontaneously turn into a werewolf (Teen Wolf). But when that wolf shoots two crucial free throws while a defender stands directly in front of him -- in the middle of the lane -- waving his arms in Fox's face, our disbelief is no longer suspended, and it falls to the ground like a cartoon character who has imprudently looked down after running off a cliff.

Better to give us unflinching verisimilitude: Babe Ruth playing Babe Ruth in The Pride of the Yankees, Jimmy Piersall losing it in Fear Strikes Out, a writer from Sports Illustrated propping up a bar in The Slugger's Wife. The Slugger's Wife, of course, was terrible, but the slugger of the title was played by Michael O'Keefe, who played Danny Noonan in Caddyshack, which is the greatest sports movie of all time. So he's got that going for him, which is nice.

Chevy Chase, star of Caddy-shack and hero to golfers everywhere, has a confession. "I hate golf," he says. "I don't do golf. I'm awful." The comedian made his thoughts known during Karrie Webb's charity pro-am in 2001 to benefit the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, held at the Manhattan Woods Golf Club in West Nyack, N.Y. Appearing as a favor to his pal Reeve, Chase filled out a foursome, cracked jokes about his group's lack of finesse on the greens ("This is like a bunch of grandmothers moving from one pool table to another"), and abruptly left before finishing the round. Guess he was in the wrong nape of the woods....

So you're in L.A. for the Mercedes-Benz Cup tennis tournament and you've got time to kill. What do you do? If you're U.S. Open champion Marat Safin, you drop by the Playboy Mansion. Accepting an invitation from tennis buff Hugh Hefner, Safin stopped in at the famed residence in 2001 and had a poolside dinner with Hef and a few other guests, including Mansion rat Scott Baio. Afterward, Safin and Hefner retired to a viewing room to watch America's Sweethearts. The sybaritic lifestyle must not be good for Safin's game: A few days later Xavier Malisse upset Safin 7-5, 6-3....

To every Olympic gold medalist who's considering an acting career, we've got one thought for you: Bruce Jenner in Can't Stop the Music. Despite that dire warning, we don't expect the tide of athlete-thespians to ebb. Indeed, swimmer Amy Van Dyken will join the Denver stage production of The Vagina Monologues. Meanwhile, Tara Lipinski has been cast in an independent feature called The Metro Chase, about an eight-year-old boy who gets lost in Paris. Lipinski plays an American who helps look for the kid. The skater, who is working with an acting coach, hopes the film will jumpstart her Hollywood career. Her one provision: no skating roles.

David J. Firestein. Fields of Dreams: American Sports Movies. eJournal USA. June 2007.
Steve Rushin. It's easy to pick the greatest sports movies ever made: Just keep your eye on the ball. Sports Illustrated . August 9, 1999.

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