In those days athletes often appeared in movies, providing Hollywood with recognizable names to market. Babe Ruth, Red Grange and Jack Dempsey, icons of the Golden Age of Sports, were all over the silver screen. Ty Cobb appeared in a 1916 silent film called Somewhere in Georgia in which he was kidnapped and had to ride to the big game on a mule. Sorry you missed that one, eh? Even early boxing movies were lighthearted. Did you ever see the one in which Curly of the Three Stooges turns into a fighting demon every time he hears Pop Goes the Weasel—but one night, see, the violinist at ringside breaks a string, and then....
Body and Soul (1947), directed by Robert Rossen (who later wrote and directed The Hustler) and written by Abraham Polonsky, opens with a shot of a heavy bag swinging forebodingly in a deserted yard and unfolds from there in a series of flashbacks. Body and Soul turned sports movies in a new direction and is still phenomenal.
For years after it opened, boxing films continued to be the most memorable of sports movies for many reasons: The action is inherently taut and dramatic, with the ring an ideal symbolic stage; boxing is relatively easy and cheap to film; the public has always accepted boxers as antiheroes—something it just wouldn't do for players of football or our national pastime—which provides a never-ending source of colorful supporting characters.
Quick! What lines do you remember from films about sports other than boxing? The mound conference in Bull Durham, which includes Wuhl's memorable "Candlesticks always make a nice gift" (a line improvised by the actor, incidentally, at three o'clock in the morning after hours on the set)? There's Tom Hanks wailing to one of his players in A League of Their Own, "There's no crying in baseball!" Perhaps you recall the young Paul Newman, brimming with doomed confidence, going off on Gleason's Minnesota Fats in The Hustler: "You know, I got a hunch, fat man. I got a hunch that it's me from here on in. One ball, corner pocket. I mean. that ever happen to you? You know, all of a sudden you feel like you just can't miss? 'Cause I dreamed about this game, fat man. I dreamed about this game every night on the road. Five ball. You know, this is my table, man. I own it." There's Costner, as Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, haltingly asking his father (or the ghost of his father—damned if I know), "Do you want to have a catch?" And Jerry Maguire gave us the sports-film line that seems most destined to live on: "Show me the money!"
But what we remember most from sports films are snippets of scenes: the Hansons belting the bejesus out of everyone in Slap Shot; Bill Murray's flower bed flailing in Caddyshack; the stadium lights shattering when struck by Hobbs's thunderous home run in The Natural; the underhand foul shot by Hickory High bench warmer Ollie bouncing up and through the net in Hoosiers; the coarse, climactic cry of "A-DREE-IN!" in Rocky.
Classic boxing films, however, are elevated by memorable dialogue. Upon watching Toro Moreno, the boxer based loosely on Primo Camera in The Harder They Fall, the sportswriter ( Humphrey Bogart) says to the slimy promoter (Rod Steiger), "Powder-puff punch and a glass jaw. That's a great combination." In Body and Soul the fight promoter, played by William Conrad, delivers this take on young boxers: "One out of a hundred [ever] fights professionally, one out of a thousand's worth watching, and one out of a million's worth coffee and doughnuts." In Requiem for a Heavyweight, Gleason has this timeless comment about the sweet science: "Sport? Are you kidding? If there was headroom, they'd hold these things in sewers." Rod Serling wrote those lines, Gardner wrote Fat City, and Budd Schulberg wrote The Harder They Fall from his novel of the same name. The best writers have always been drawn to boxing.
So, too, have a multitude of actors of varying degrees of talent, and most of them have pulled off the role. Robert Ryan's aging lunger in The Set-Up looks perfectly believable, as does John Garfield, a former Golden Gloves boxer, in Body and Soul. So, for that matter, does Stallone as the unschooled southpaw in the first two Rocky films, even allowing for the fact that his duels with Apollo Creed are more plasma orgies than boxing matches. "I said I wanted Apollo to come out and hit me with four right hands in a row, and everybody told me that wouldn't happen in a real fight," says Stallone. "Well, I had seen Tex Cobb never land a punch against Larry Holmes in 15 rounds, but he was still there at the end." One of the most believable screen fighters is Errol Flynn in the overlooked Gentleman Jim. In fact, Robert Towne considers Flynn's performance one of the five greatest in American film.
Other sports have not done so well keeping it real. William Bendix should've been arrested for fraud when he swung the bat in The Babe Ruth Story. Anthony Perkins did a good job of climbing the backstop in Fear Strikes Out (an incident that never happened to the real Jimmy Piersall), but he looks like a bush leaguer in the outfield. "Anytime you have a guy throwing a ball like that," says screenwriter Pizzo, "you lose half your audience." And, in One on One, were we supposed to believe that Robby Benson was the top basketball recruit in the country?
If you're not going to be authentic, you'd better be resourceful. Stone still marvels at the camera tricks that allowed North Dallas Forty director Ted Kotcheff to disguise the fact that he had no budget for thousands of extras. When you look at the football sequences, which are realistic, you sense there's a crowd at the game but never see one, because there isn't one. Filming the football scenes in Any Given Sunday was, Stone says, one of the hardest things he's ever done, and he won the Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam. "Filming sports is harder than war because you have to create the illusion of a game being watched," says Stone. "In war there are no onlookers, but in football you have the problem of how to include the crowd in every shot." In addition to hiring 10,000 extras, Stone ordered 2,500 cardboard fans and spread them around the stadium.
The director also gave what one Any Given Sunday cast member called a "fresh-meat-in-the-air" atmosphere to the football scenes. "Oliver got all us super-testosterone types together and just let us loose," says Andrew Bryniarski, a former bodybuilder who played Madman Kelly in the movie. "I mean, the football scenes were very realistic and adrenaline-charged. The tougher it was, the more Oliver loved it. It put him in a frenzy."