What happened to the sports movie?
If you had stopped 14-year-old Kirk Minihane (he of the email@example.com email address for those who don't agree with what is about to be written) outside of the Burlington Mall theatre on April 21st of 1989 and told me that the movie I’d had just seen – Field Of Dreams – would signal the end of the sports movie as I knew it I doubt I would’ve recognized what language you were speaking.
And who could blame me? Growing up it seemed that a classic in the genre was released every year. Turns out it was almost true, on average. No doubt about it, The Golden Age of the American sports film started with the release of Rocky in 1976 and concluded with Field of Dreams in 1989. Take at look at the nine films from that era which are no-doubt first-ballot inductees into the Sports Movie Hall of Fame:
Chariots of Fire
Field of Dreams
Eight Men Out
Those are just the essentials. I’m not even counting The Natural, Caddyshack or The Bad News Bears, each of which are looked upon by many as worthy of being right next to the nine I just listed. And there are still about another 15-20 or so (the Rocky sequels (only II, III and IV, of course. See, Rocky V was released in 1990. It really did take a turn after 1989) Vision Quest, All the Right Moves, The Color of Money and Major League among them) that I would term solid pieces of entertainment that deliver on expectations.
I’ll allow Hoop Dreams (which is a movie but not really a movie, and you know exactly what I mean) and Rudy into the Sports Movie HOF on the first ballot, but that’s it.
(Could a Sports Movie HOF work? Would anyone go? And we would let in actors and directors as well as the movies themselves? And where would it be located? I don’t know about you, but a Stallone/Costner induction weekend sounds like a tremendous take, if only to take care of the one thing on my bucket list—a picture with Carl Weathers and Don Johnson.)
The very good category has a few – Friday Night Lights, Searching For Bobby Fischer, The Wrestler, Tin Cup. I’m not a Cinderella Man supporter but I’ll allow it, I guess. Am I missing anything else? Okay, Seabiscut.
And just a notch or two below that? A couple of hoops flicks – Love and Basketball and White Men Can’t Jump, to be sure. Oh, another actually – He Got Game. Happy Gilmore. Miracle and The Rookie.
And that’s it. I understand there may be a movie or two that you might want in the 1990-2009 group that I didn’t throw in there, but c’mon – the difference in depth and quality between the two eras is staggering. Hoop Dreams is a different beast (as all documentaries are), but I’d put each of the Big Nine Movies from 1976-1989 above any made since.
So I guess the question is: What happened? Maybe Rocky put it best during his argument on the beach with Adrian in Rocky III when he asked “I mean, what happened? How did everything that was so good get so bad?”
Who Plays Crash Davis Today?
Casting is everything in sports movies. I mean, obviously it’s important in all movies, but you can get a million actors to convincingly play a politician or doctor or detective. But an athlete? Tough. We’ve seen it on screen when it doesn’t work and it ruins the movie every time. If Russell Crowe doesn’t know what Habeas corpus is he can fake it and get by as a lawyer on screen. But guess what? If he can’t skate no one is going to buy one second of Mystery, Alaska even if the rest of the movie is as good as The Godfather (and it sure wasn’t).
And we bought Kevin Costner as an athlete. He looked like a baseball player and he looked like a driving range pro. Good looking, sure, but not enough to throw you off or anything. He fit in a clubhouse or on a bus, swapping stories. And he could swing a bat or a club with enough skill to allow you to stay in the story. No small feat, and that’s why he’s the undisputed champion of sports movie actors. Plus he could play someone down on his luck and you managed to believe it (with a nice laid-back charm that was a huge asset in a sports movie but never found a home in the rest of his career, which sort of explains why he spends most of his time now playing in a band or in celebrity golf tournaments). But all the same could be said for Kurt Russell in 1988 (he was supposed to play Crash Davis). I think you could make the same argument for Newman 10-12 years earlier (would’ve been great if Bull Durham was made in 1978 or so). And Redford was an athlete.
I don’t know who plays Crash Davis today. Brad Pitt and George Clooney would be my fast answers but both are too old (Costner was 33 when he made Bull Durham. Pitt is 45 and Clooney is 48). So that generation is out. The guys that are the same age now that Costner was then don’t add up. I think Leonardo DiCaprio is a pretty good actor but could you ever see him as a world-worn career minor leaguer (he’s actually older now than Costner was in 1988, which is frankly shocking to me)? Same goes for Matt Damon. When I see these guys playing characters in movies with kids (Damon in Syriana, DiCaprio in Revolutinary Road) I can’t shake the feeling that they are playing dress-up. Not a good thing. And Damon is a better actor than Costner ever was, but being a sports movie actor is a different animal. I don’t see anyone ready to step up and take over the title.
(And can I just mention that George Clooney has maybe the all-time lost sports movie career? How did that not happen? And the one movie he does make – Leatherheads – is awful. A terrible attempt to make an homage to a screwball 1930s comedy. Too bad, because there is a good movie in the world of 1920s football. And now that’s gone.)
Lorne Michaels and David Letterman
Look, I like Will Ferrell. I think we are all getting a little sick of him, but he is an all-time top 10 SNL cast member (you want the other nine? Aykroyd, Radner, Murray, Murphy, Carvey, Hartman, Lovitz, Hammond and Farley) and I enjoyed Old School and Anchorman. But we don’t need to see another character that maybe would’ve worked in a five-minute SNL sketch turned into a 90-minute sports movie. He’s now made an unfunny soccer movie (Kicking and Screaming), basketball movie (Semi-Pro) and figure skating movie (Blades of Glory). We get the joke, Will. Leave baseball and football alone and move on. May I suggest a sitcom?
And I think Letterman is a huge influence on comedy filmmakers today. And of course I understand why. If there is a Mount Rushmore of American comedy Letterman is on it (with Johnny Carson, George Carlin and Joe Haggerty). But Dave lives on irony and sarcasm and not letting you in. And there is a lot of heart in comedies like Major League and Slap Shot and Bull Durham and Tin Cup. Doesn’t exist today. Name me the last sports comedy that actually succeeded in making you laugh AND care about the characters. Reggie Dunlop was a person, not a sketch. Worth mentioning, I think.
The Studios Are Scared
John Sayles had not a single commercial hit to his credit when he directed Eight Men Out in 1988. This was a period piece (always expensive) with an OK cast (no huge stars) and a downer for an ending. But Orion Pictures thought Sayles was an interesting filmmaker and could pull it off.
And he did. Eight Men Out is a not quite a masterpiece, but it’s pretty damn close. Orion Pictures gambled on a director and it paid off artistically.
Commercially? It bombed (just over 5.5 million dollars). And Orion Pictures folded a decade later.
Martin Scorsese was right in the middle of a creative (his dream project, New York, New York had just tanked both commercially and critically) and personal (drugs, failed marriage) crisis when he pitched Raging Bull to United Artists. This is a movie where the lead character is almost sub-human (“a cockroach”, as one UA exec called LaMotta), a wife-beater, a man who fixed a title fight. And Scorsese wanted to show it all, pull no punches (sorry) in his portrayal. And De Niro had an Oscar but wasn’t a proven box-office draw. Plus he was surrounded by an unknown cast. And P.S.? The movie will be black and white.
United Artists didn’t blink. Done deal. They knew the director of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver did, in fact, have a masterpiece in him.
And it was just that. Many consider it the best movie (not just sports movie) of the 1980s. I think it is Scorsese’s best film, still an astonishing study of a man’s descent into madness. Seven Oscar nominations, two wins (including one for De Niro).
And it made no money. United Artists closed the doors a few years later.
Here’s how it works in 2009. Steven Soderbergh, an Oscar-winning director with a pretty decent box-office track record (Ocean’s Eleven and the sequels, Erin Brockovich) has the rights to a monster best-seller. He has Brad Pitt, maybe one of the three biggest stars in the world, attached to star. The budget is 60 million bucks, not inexpensive for a movie that would mostly take place in a general manager’s office but not crazy for a Pitt/Soderbergh flick. Worth a shot, right?
Nope. Sony looked at the data and figured it wasn’t worth the risk. That doesn’t happen 20 years ago. But today? Businessman in suits drinking lavender soda crunch numbers and decide. And so we get G.I. Joe and The Proposal.
'PG' HAS TAKEN OVER
Remember The Titans is a story that could’ve gone another way, really. Racial tension, high school, guys being guys. I suspect that the movie sugarcoated things a great deal. But Disney figured throw Denzel in the mix, slap together a catchy soundtrack and have the whole team dance together and we’ll be fine. And sure, we’ll mention the “race thing” but we’ll do so in a PG way. And did it ever work. Huge hit (over $100 million, biggest take in Denzel’s career at time) and it didn’t offend a soul. And an industry was born. Safe, family sports movies that would never think of challenging the filmgoer. And that’s okay if we have other options, but for the past decade most of the sports movies have been PG-13, PG or even G (The Rookie). Summer Catch, Radio, Drumline. These are not made for adults, they are paced for 14, 15 year-old kids. Zero risk, any of 500 directors could make them. And again that’s fine, but there is nothing for the older folks. Sure, every three or four years you get The Wrestler or Seabiscut, but if you want to see a sports movie you are pretty much stuck with Coach Carter or The Comeback. A hard R sports movie is extinct. And in a time when the hard R comedy is making a comeback (The Hangover, the Judd Apatow stuff) this seems strange to me. I mean, there isn’t a great, dirty sports comedy to be made? Really? I’ll even take a remake. How about The Best of Times with Keanu Reeves (who I thought was pretty good in the lousy Replacements movie. Could still throw the ball with a Johnny Utah-like zip) and Jason Bateman. If you avoid the cliché supporting characters and stick to the original story that movie would have a chance.
IS THERE HOPE?
Sports movies are sort of where Westerns were right before Unforgiven was released in 1992. Not quite dead, but taking very shallow breaths.
A flurry of greatness like we saw from 1976-1989 probably won’t happen again, but you’ll get a jewel every half-decade or so. We’re overdue for one now and maybe The Fighter (Mickey Ward story. Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale co-star. David O. Russell directs) in 2011 will be as good as Rocky or Hoosiers (though O. Russell isn’t exactly Frank Capra). Who knows? Every time I see a new sports movie I hope, I really do, that this will this be it, the flick that brings it all back. But I’m running out of hope, I’ll be honest.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch The Benchwarmers on Comedy Central.