Scene from Rocky II
THE first fighter I saw in the movies was poorly
built, deeply reluctant and hid behind the referee. His name was Charlie
Chaplin and his fight scene in City Lights (1931) was a right hook to
the funny bone.
Of course, Hollywood's affair - it is Oscar
week - with boxing is usually grimmer, but the big screen adores boxing:
in its violence lies hope, in its nobodies searching for validation
lies romance, in its torn lip and tearful blonde lies drama.
From The Champ (1931, two Oscars) to last
year's Warrior (Nick Nolte didn't win best supporting actor on Sunday
night), the camera seeks out the ring and the cage. Eyebrows splitting
makes for a cinema you want to turn away from but can't.
Directors like Clint Eastwood in Million
Dollar Baby (2004, four Oscars) are drawn to the shadowy beauty of gyms
and offer us what real athletes don't, which is the pain, the training,
the polishing of an art. Others paint for us - those who don't have
ringside seats in Las Vegas - a visceral beauty of this form. In an
unforgettable scene in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980, two Oscars),
the camera pans across the ring, pausing at where blood drips softly
onto the canvas.
Actors relish the sports film perhaps because
they get to be authentic heroes. Robert de Niro put on about 27kg to
play the retired Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and won a best actor Oscar.
Christian Bale lost 14kg for The Fighter (2010) on his way to a best
supporting actor Oscar. Alas, Brad Pitt's only violence in Moneyball was
against an inanimate water cooler, evidently not evocative enough to
win the film a single golden gnome yesterday.
The Academy Awards have a fascination with all
sport because people do. Even old stoneface Charlton Heston's best
scene in Ben-Hur was the race. Indeed, a magazine states that sports
films have earned 137 nominations and won 30 Oscars in various
categories. Don't be surprised: apparently, Oscar voters are 77 per cent
male and what else do we do but sit on our sofas and wish we were The
On the screen, recreating history is
irresistible. Pick a few runners, fiddle with the facts a little, find
music to tug at the heart and you get Chariots Of Fire. Fiction does
just as well. An unknown actor writes a script, peddles it in Hollywood,
demands to act in the title role, does many push-ups and hey presto we
get Sylvester Stallone as and in Rocky. Both films won best picture
The sporting field on screen is seductive for
it carries, mostly, the promise of the happy ending. Certainly, we are
suckers for sentiment. It can be Sandra Bullock's tough sporting mama in
The Blind Side (best actress Oscar), the dreaming cyclist in Breaking
Away (one Oscar) or Kevin Costner's idealistic Field Of Dreams (three
But it's not all serious stuff. Shaolin Soccer
- and there is a paucity of excellent football films - is worth
watching simply because of its tagline: Get Ready To Kick Some Grass.
Happy Gilmore is no golf guide, Talladega Nights might upset true racing
fans and India's colonial cricketing epic, Lagaan, has rather uneven
batting technique. But we all watch and the reasons go beyond escape.
Real life might have multiple cameras, but it
doesn't have music, lighting and retakes to ensure the home run is hit
at sunset. Real life is field-centric and offers us limited access into
the athlete's world, but screen life portrays their sacrifice, the
disappointment, the private hells.
Real life moves us, but the screen - as in
Invictus - can educate a wider audience on what a rugby victory meant to
a nation. One last thing. Real heroes mutter cliches, screen ones have
writers. Like Eric Liddell, the strong Christian, yanking at your heart
when he says in Chariots Of Fire: 'I believe God made me for a purpose,
but he also made me fast.'
Indeed, there's no escaping the tart film
dialogue. Lose a golf bet and your buddy might drawl 'show me the
money'; construct a new stadium and the Field Of Dreams' legendary line
of 'if you build it, he will come' is recalled; and, if ever your kid
agrees to wash the car, kindly quote Mr Miyagi's 'Wax on, wax off'.
Being a sports film junkie - I've even seen
Gymkata and please don't - I have my own favourite. When I win in
tennis, even against a guy who looks like he's carrying twins, I think
if I had practised as a kid, 'I coulda been a contender'. Marlon Brando
said that in On The Waterfront, which wasn't a sports film but won an
Oscar for screenplay writer Budd Schulberg. Fittingly, he was once a