Transcript from Richie Faison’s interview for our Sports and the Movies episode of our 3 part series The Athletic Business that ran from December 1st thru December 15th of 2012.
Why do sports not always translate to the big screen?
The sports film, along with horror and romantic comedy, is one of my least favorite types of movie. When I watch a movie, I like to be surprised. These genres have one thing in common – they are rarely surprising and follow the same tired formulas from movie to movie. The ironic thing is that one of the elements that make sports so popular is that they rarely predictable and are almost always surprising in some way. Even the so called experts don’t know what will happen from game to game and are doing well when they can predict winners two thirds of the time.
In the case of the sports movie, the formula means that we will generally meet an underdog (many times a true life athlete/team) who will eventually rise above their current set of circumstances and do something great. They will most likely have a coach/mentor who also has to overcome challenges but will eventually show flashes of brilliance to help the athlete achieve their goal. There will be an opposing force, generally seen as a villain, who will attempt to stop/triumph over our hero. There will be disappointment along the way but they will triumph in the end. This formula, even when done well in examples like Hoosiers, leaves little room for surprise.
The formulas/themes of the sports film is one of the things that keep some coming back for more when it comes to box office. The problem is that it also limits the audience. Many people, like myself, know what they will be getting before seeing the movie so why bother. Others are not sports fans so they think the movie will not appeal to them. The best sports movies overcome one of these hurdles but rarely both.
What in your mind, or what are you looking for when it comes to a successful sports movie (you can give examples)?
The best sports films tweak these formulas (Rocky doesn’t win in the end), throws us a curveball (Million Dollar Baby) or throws out the formula altogether (Field of Dreams). They surprise us as well as exhilarate us. They make us care for real or imagined characters not based on plot device but on real emotion. They teach us about people or events we knew little about but should have (Cinderella Man, A League of Their Own). They show us a side of sports that we are vaguely familiar with but didn’t really know or want to know (The Wrestler, Jerry McGuire).
What are your top 10 sports movies (listed from 1-10) to date and explain why they made your list? (storyline, writing, directing, acting, etc.)
Field of Dreams (1989) – Not just my favorite sports movie but one of my Top 50 favorites of any genre. James Earl Jones has a wonderful speech about how important baseball is to our lives however; it is the father and son theme that really makes the movie. The mystical, otherworldly feel of the film makes it stand out from almost any other film ever made. It is truly one of a kind.
Million Dollar Baby (2004) – The story starts out as a character study of a man (Clint Eastwood) who has lived and breathed boxing his entire life and a small-town woman (Hillary Swank) who wants to prove that she has what it takes. It turns into a movie about larger themes of life and death. The relationship between Swank’s Maggie and Eastwood’s Frankie is one of the best in sports films. Throw in Morgan Freeman’s Eddie and you have a special cast. Sports films rarely surprise me but the last third of this film most definitely did so. One of only three sports films to win the Oscar for Best Picture along with Rocky and Chariots of Fire.
Cinderella Man (2005) –This one has all of the elements familiar to these types of films (underdog story, overcoming hardships, etc.) but what sets it apart from the others is its portrayal of The Great Depression. The boxing moments are excellent but Ron Howard’s depiction of how hard times really were during this time in American history and Russell Crowe’s fierce depiction of James Braddock make this one a great sports flick.
Raging Bull (1980) – Three in a row for boxing. This one has two elements that no other sports film can boast; Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. These two are always incredible together and that is certainly the case here. De Niro won an Oscar for his fierce portrayal of Jake Lamotta, a violent man in and out of the ring. Raging Bull would have been a classic whether it was about boxing or a man in any violent profession. It was all about the character; the sport was secondary. With that being said, Scorsese filmed what are still the most brutal and true-to-life boxing scenes ever shown on the big screen.
Jerry Maguire (1996) – A great sports film with very little sports in it. Jerry Maguire is so memorable because of the romance and the “show me the money” particulars of athletes and their agents. We rarely see the behind the scenes goings on of the financial aspects of sports and what agents actually do. This film gives us that and so much more. It also contains some of the most memorable catchphrases from any sports flick, or any other genre for that matter.
Hoosiers (1986) – Hoosiers has all of the major sports movie themes/clichés – an underdog, the down on his luck coach who changes the life/lives of the athletes, David versus Goliath, a true life tale, a redemption story, etc. What makes it magical is how it is all portrayed. The performances, especially Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper, make you really care for these people. It portrays them as individuals and not just characters moving the plot forward. As usual, we are rooting for the underdog to pull through and this time, it is more than just because we are supposed to do so; we really do care.
(1976) – I realize that this is the fourth boxing movie in the top seven. What can I say; boxing really does make a great theme for a movie. I am not even that big of a boxing fan but when it works, it works. What sets this one apart from the others is not only the music, which is the best of any film on this list and really gives the movie its’ exhilarating feel, but another character that we like and can relate to on many levels. Rocky
may not be the smartest guy around but he makes up for it in determination and loyalty. This is one of the very few sports films that was a megahit (it was the highest grossing film of 1976). Also, the director, John Avildsen, really knows how to make a great sports film – he also directed The Karate Kid which narrowly missed my Top 10.
A League of Their Own (1992) – This one gave us a topic that few people really knew much about – female professional baseball. It was this novelty that sets this one apart along with its’ secret weapon – Tom Hanks. Hanks was a revelation here and previewed his immense talent before winning back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and Forest Gump in 1993 and 1994. The look inside what made this team and league tick was fascinating. I love when a film can both entertain and educate me at the same time. This one did both in equal measures.
The Wrestler (2008) – This one delves into the dark side of sports – what happens when the body breaks down but the athlete cannot give up the fame and thrill of his profession. This alone makes The Wrestler different from most sports movies but what truly sets this one apart was Mickey Rourke who was simply phenomenal here and should have won the Oscar for Best Actor (Sean Penn won as Harvey Milk).
Major League (1989) – The only true comedy on my list is by far the most fun. Major League may not be the same caliber of film as the others on my list but, it is special all the same. Others might go with Caddyshack here but this one just does it for me more than that one. First off, who wouldn’t want to see the Cleveland Indians do well back when they were terrible. Second, the film put together one of the most dysfunctional groups of individual athletes ever seen in a sports film and each of them were great. Finally, and most importantly, Bob Ueker plays the best baseball announcer of all-time. Enough said.