Do details matter? Of course they do. One of the failures of Redford's Bagger Vance is the golfing of the Matt Damon character, a onetime phenom who is seeking to recover his "authentic swing." Damon's swing never looks authentic even after he supposedly recovers it (though apparently it wasn't for lack of trying; the actor practiced until his hands bled). Still, by and large, sports movies get it right today much more often than they did years ago. "There's no point in doing a sports film if the sports sequences don't look right," says Towne, who cast two national-class track athletes, Patrice Donnelly and Jodi Anderson, alongside Hemingway in Personal Best.
Hollywood didn't use to believe that. "The old films didn't have to get it right because, for the most part, nobody had ever been to a game or watched one on TV," says Shelton. "Television made film directors get better. You now have a very sophisticated audience watching sports films. They're used to seeing action sequences from nine camera angles. Making a sports film these days is like taking a string quartet to Vienna."
Sanaa Lathan, a striking young actress, practiced her basketball skills for two months, without promise of getting the lead, before Prince-Bythewood cast her as Monica in Love & Basketball. She looks believable, too. Prince-Bythewood says it took 22 takes of one scene before Omar Epps (the male lead) made a three-point shot. "The funny thing is," she says, "I eventually cut the three-pointer because it just didn't look right."
Shelton says sometimes it has to be better than right. "There are lot of imperfect golf swings out on the Tour, but Kevin Costner [in Tin Cup] couldn't swing like Lee Trevino or Jim Furyk because the audience would say, 'Hey, he doesn't look right,' " Whenever Shelton shot a golf sequence, he flew in his technical advisers, Senior tour pro Gary McCord and swing coach Peter Kostis, to review it before he moved on to the next. Say what you want about the increasingly insufferable Costner, the man has done a better job portraying athletes in various sports (cycling, baseball, golf) than any other actor in history.
De Niro's portrayal of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull is generally regarded as the ultimate transformation of actor into athlete, but, as spectacular as the performance was, Billy Crudup in Without Limits did De Niro one better. Crudup seemed to channel Prefontaine, nailing his look (with the help of a blond wig), his all-out running style, his barrel-chested, cocky essence. It is puzzling yet gratifying to hear Towne, who wrote such classics as Chinatown and Shampoo, go on and on about Without Limits, a small movie that's often confused with the earlier Prefontaine and was a box-office disappointment. On a recent night at his Brentwood home, Towne cued up his DVD player and pointed out how he'd spliced footage of the actual 5,000-meter race at the 1972 Olympics in with his own choreographed re-creation. At times it's hard to tell which race is which, and it's almost always impossible to pick out the true Prefontaine. "Stride for stride, gesture for gesture," says Towne, "the race we got on film is the race in Munich."
This compulsion for verisimilitude is the reason that several pet sports projects might never get made. Stallone dreams about doing a film about what he calls "the leather-heads," the early football barnstormers, "but only if it could be done right." Towne would love to do an Arthur Ashe biopic but despairs of finding an elegant yet powerful actor-athlete to replicate Ashe's strokes. The Tommie Smith—John Carlos saga from the 1968 Games interests Towne, too, but he'll probably never film it. "It's hard to get an actor to look good over distance, as Billy did," says Towne, "but almost impossible to turn an actor into a believable sprinter."
Shelton would love to tackle the subject of Lou Gehrig ("a Greek tragedy that got lost in that awful Pride of the Yankees" he says) but knows it's a period piece that would demand extraordinary attention to detail. Scripts for Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger's acclaimed book about Texas high school football, have been circulating for a while, but according to Shelton, "No one can figure out how to make it real." Disney's Schneider sees precious few modern sports figures who could stand up to a cinematic treatment because they are covered so endlessly. Tiger Woods might be the one, muses Schneider, because "he's charismatic and full of joy" yet not fully revealed to the American public.
WHAT LIES ahead for sports movies is hard to predict. Even with the success of Titans, Hollywood execs are cautious about sports films because of their unpredictable box-office appeal. Steven Spielberg has gone to war and into the far reaches of the universe but seems disinclined to take to the playing field. Julia Roberts has shown no interest in sweating on camera. Sure, Tom Cruise (who was good in a minor high school football film, All the Right Moves) could get another sports flick made—Cruise could announce that he wants to do an epic about potato chips, and 13 studio heads would run out for dip—but at 38 he's a little old to play a superstar jock and a little boyish to play a grizzled vet. In fact, Cruise, who produced Without Limits, was going to play Prefontaine but backed out because audiences knew him too well to accept him as a 22-year-old Olympian.
With deepest humility, I'd like to present something that would be perfect for Cruise. Or maybe Costner. Or perhaps Willis. Maybe Will Smith could look at it when he's finished being Ali. The working title is Scoreboard. In brief, here it is.
Nighttime at a minor league ballpark. Game is over, and stadium is lit dimly. Cruise-Costner-Willis-Smith, deep in debt to gamblers and needing money to pay for his young daughter's kidney transplant, emerges from dugout. Scoreboard lights go on, and score appears, 7-2—but it's not the score from that night's game. Nobody sees the score except Cruise-Costner-Willis-Smith. Sure enough, next day's game ends 7-2. Same thing happens next night. Protagonist gets message and bets the game. Wins big money. Continues betting. Pays off debts and accumulates enough cash to pay for operation, but everything starts going to pot in his baseball career. There's a mysterious ex-wife (can we get Julia?) who may or may not know why scoreboard is tipping him off. If he stops betting, will he get back on track on the field?