Growing up in New York City, I was surrounded by theater, opera and ballet, and the people in those professions seemed pretentious to me, affected and elitist," says Oliver Stone, the director of Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Natural Born Killers and other provocations, whose football epic, Any Given Sunday, opens next week. "What I related to much more, besides movies, were athletes—people who had dirt under their fingernails, worked outdoors in the sunlight, had bruises of honor for their physical efforts and thought in a more intuitive, immediate way."
Stone, who ran cross-country at Manhattan's Trinity School, calls Any Given Sunday "something like Brave-heart in pads." The film includes cameos by Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas and other Hall of Famers—"guys who enthralled me, who were heroes to me as a kid," says Stone, who steeped himself in football like a quarterback watching game tapes while working on his first sports movie.
"I've been thinking about the sports films I've liked through the years," says Stone, who was enthralled by Raging Bull, charmed by Hoosiers and Field of Dreams and blown away by the visual poetry of Olympia, the Leni Riefenstahl documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. These days, though, he thinks football first, and that means Burt Reynolds.
" Reynolds really understood something about the football ethos—the way he moves and talks and is," Stone says of the former Florida State running back who starred in Semi-Tough and The Longest Yard. Stone calls the latter film "a great movie of its time by director Bob Aldrich. He also used Jim Brown perfectly in The Dirty Dozen-that 100-yard death dash Brown makes against the Nazi fort."
Everybody likes Rocky, but boxing fan Stone fell for Rocky IV: "Dolph Lundgren in IV was like Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, a machine. The fight scenes were well executed—not like Raging Bull, in which the fights were more like tableaux in which Jake La Motta achieved a brute transcendence. There's a different tension in Rocky IV. You get caught up in who wins or loses."
Another lesser-known favorite is William Friedkin's Blue Chips, with Nick Nolte and a 22-year-old Shaquille O'Neal. " Nolte captured the essence of the coach, just as he did the wide receiver in North Dallas 40" he says. The 1942 baseball movie The Pride of the Yankees is another favorite. "That one really struck me when I was a kid. Look at it today, and it might look pretty staid, but I thought it was beautiful. It had the aura of the legendary Yankees in beautiful black and white, and how could you resist Gary Cooper's performance as Lou Gehrig?" Major League gets thumbs-up, too: "I love David Ward's unostentatious way of telling a story in a big, broad, Mark Twain kind of way. As for Bull Durham, I have to laugh when Kevin Costner says in his rattled-off litany of beliefs, 'I think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone,' because I cast Kevin as [conspiracy chaser] Jim Garrison in one of his next films, JFK."
Surprisingly, he reserves special praise for NFL Films. "I understand Sam Peckinpah was influenced by some early footage from NFL Films when he made The Wild Bunch—the slow motion and rapid montage that was so important to that picture," he says. "Those guys are to be commended: It's very hard to follow a thrown football in the air and keep it in focus. It's like firing on an animal when you're hunting with a rifle. You have to know how and when to lead it. Believe me, filming football as it happens is an art form."
If baseball is a dance, football is a war. Stone, who kept tabs on the NFL standings while finishing his film, knows which he'd rather shoot. "Baseball may be what America aspires to be," he says, "but football, in the end, is what America is."