Who Needs Movies When We Have All Those Real-Life Sports?
Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin gets caught in a hotel room with two topless dancers and a mobile pharmacy. His former bodyguard sells tapes detailing Irvin’s alleged drug use to a Dallas television station. A Dallas police officer, boyfriend of one of the dancers, is arrested for allegedly attempting to hire an undercover officer to kill Irvin, who later pleads no contest to cocaine possession in a deal that keeps him out of jail.
Hollywood can’t touch this plot. With real-life athletes like Irvin, who needs sports movies? But the studios keep trying.
The temptation to create a compelling, entertaining sports movie must be too strong to resist. Studio heads and directors ignore the long list of artistic failures and succumb to the tidal pull. Before you know it they’re out there bobbing helplessly in the celluloid waves, wondering where everybody went.
Disney recently announced that it will cut its movie production in the next year, possibly in half. A central reason cited for the cutback was the abject failure of highly touted sports movies. Prominent among the failures are two recent releases - the unfortunate “Eddie” and the abominable “Celtic Pride.”
There must be a way to do it right. Maybe the upcoming “The Fan” and “Tin Cup” will buck the current trend. The problem with sports movies, perhaps, isn’t with studios and directors. The problem is with us, the sports-loving public. We’re not so easily fooled anymore. We’re jaded and caustic, our mouths set in a permanent sneer from the ceaseless harangue of sports-talk radio and loudmouthed fans.
In short, we’ve been Irvin-ized.
We’ve got the unusual social theories of suspended Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott. We’ve got the sociopathology of Cleveland Indians outfielder Albert Belle, who pairs once-in-a-generation talents with bullying behavior on and off the field. We’ve got 17-year-old Kobe Bryant, a Philadelphia high school basketball player who was chosen in the first round of the NBA draft, then announced that he wouldn’t play for the team that chose him - the Charlotte Hornets - because it doesn’t play in a market that will allow him to make full use of his endorsement value.
The movies just can’t keep up.
When you look at the current rash of sports movies, it’s no wonder the genre seems poised to go the way of the Western.
“Celtic Pride” treats sports fans as if they are uniformly worthy of contempt - a strange concept when the target audience, presumably, is sports fans. Two Boston Celtics fans, played by Dan Aykroyd and Daniel Stern, kidnap the opponents’ star, played by Damon Wayans, who teaches them valuable lessons about something or other.
There’s nothing at all wrong with “Sunset Park,” except somebody thought the public would buy Rhea Perlman as a boys basketball coach in an inner-city high school. The story, similar to nearly all the hackneyed sports movies, centers on the little guy overcoming barriers - race, class and gender - through a game. It’s a theme to which most of us have canceled our subscriptions.
“Eddie” is a variation on the same theme, with Whoopi Goldberg somehow ending up as coach of the New York Knicks. An ensemble cast of NBA players makes the basketball scenes work, but the rest of the film is a lifeless gag.
A boxing film, “The Great White Hype,” followed the script of the Mike Tyson-Peter McNeeley fight right down to the exact dialogue: “He’s got the complexion to make the connection,” says Samuel L. Jackson, playing a promoter who parrots the words of the real-life Don King. We don’t need this movie; real life was better, and it was released first.
We can’t be won over anymore by the simple sweetness of Lou Gehrig’s slow and stoic deterioration in “Pride of the Yankees” (1942). The gentle emotional tugs of another dying baseball player, played in 1973 by Robert De Niro in “Bang the Drum Slowly,” would seem too innocent today.
We can still watch in campy amusement as Ronald Reagan stars in the 1940 film “Knute Rockne, All American,” but we wouldn’t buy the gooey sentimentalism of the Notre Dame coach and his infamous “Win one for the Gipper” motivational speech.
There has to be a middle ground, but this year’s sports movies haven’t found it. Mostly, they have failed to acknowledge one basic tenet of the high-tech world: We know too much. We have our backstage pass, and it has made us a more discerning viewership. Television has taken us into the clubhouses and locker rooms. We get the highlights and interviews every night - the action, the adventure and the drama. With the proper electronic hookups, we can watch nearly every game of every sport.
Next month, “Tin Cup” and “The Fan” will attempt to throw a line to the drowning genre. And there appears to be hope. “Tin Cup” is directed by Ron Shelton, who made two of the best sports movies of recent years, “Bull Durham” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and stars Kevin Costner as a washed-up golf pro. The conversational nature of golf, its cerebral geometry and its childish frustrations carry much untapped potential.
“The Fan” is an attempt to depict the changing attitudes of sports fans, and it could hold up a revealing mirror. Wesley Snipes plays a baseball player who is stalked by a crazed fan, played by De Niro.
There is obviously a harder edge in the stands these days; in most cases, cynicism has coupled with nastiness to breed a particularly vile offspring. But perhaps it will save us from future insulting sports movies.
The reality of sports-action scenes has long been a topic of both disgust and amusement, and there’s an ironclad rule that goes with it: One bad swing can sink a movie. One unrealistic jump shot, one glaringly bad pass, and they’ve lost us.
“The Babe,” a 1992 movie in which John Goodman plays a sanitized version of Babe Ruth, had one insurmountable distraction: Goodman’s swing. The rest of the movie could have been perfect and it wouldn’t have made any difference. Goodman’s slow, awkward swing was that of a complete nonathlete. It was the swing of a guy who’d gotten a few quick lessons outside the makeup trailer, and it didn’t fool anybody.
Says John Sayles, director of the admirable 1988 baseball film “Eight Men Out”: “I know somebody who was on a baseball movie where the assistant director was Eastern European or something and he kept telling the baseball players, ‘Stay on those lines; there are lines there, why do you keep veering off those lines?’ They’d say, ‘Because that’s not the way you do it,’ and he said, ‘Well, I don’t care; it looks better if you stay on the lines.”’
They can’t fake us out anymore. We know what those lines are for, and why they can’t be crossed. Athletes aren’t actors, and actors aren’t athletes. You can’t give us Michael Jordan unless you can do Michael Jordan.
“In the ‘30s, movies were the only time you saw ballplayers unless you went to the park - and then they were far away,” Sayles said. “Now you have slow-motion replays, and it’s really pretty hard to fake it. You can’t have Anthony Perkins (in the 1960 ‘Tall Story’) dribbling with two hands anymore. Oh God, the basketball playing in that is horrendous.”
It’s all about rhythm. Directors can capture the rhythm of everyday conversation in a living room or a workplace. They can capture the rhythm of a good barroom brawl, a car chase or an emergency-room operation.
But a bases-loaded situation with the game on the line? That’s a different story. There’s a rhythm to the way a pitcher looks in for the sign and checks the runner at first. There’s a rhythm to the way a basketball player looks one way and passes the other. The slightest mistake, the slightest flinch or the mere hint of sloppiness can ruin the veracity of an entire movie.
“You have to be more accurate now because there is so much TV and there’s videotape and replay and all of that,” Sayles says.
“Field of Dreams” wasn’t so much about baseball as it was about the relationship between a father and a son. Baseball was a sentimental backdrop that just as easily could have been the planting of a garden. The success of the movie didn’t hinge on the baseball scenes.
Most sports movies feature unlikely teams playing championship games that come down to the final basket/out/drive. The big opportunity is often the domain of an unlikely player. The big shot either goes in or rims out. The long hit either clears the fence or is caught. The big pass is either a touchdown or tantalizingly incomplete.
And, of course, the lessons to be learned follow naturally from the success or failure of that final moment.
The better sports movies catch the rhythms of the games they depict. They catch the flow on the playground or the court, and they do their best to sidestep the moralism.
“Bull Durham” and “White Men Can’t Jump” were able to convey those rhythms. A former minor-league baseball player before he started making movies, Shelton had a perfect feel for the nuances of baseball, and he brought them to life in a way that hadn’t been done before and hasn’t been done since.
In the pre-cable past, the media’s images of athletes were polished for public consumption. Beat writers didn’t report Ruth’s drinking or womanizing. Nobody knew Ty Cobb was a demented soul, just a tough ballplayer.
Movies, books and newspapers were used to scrape the mud off the eaves of these players, ignoring the unsavory in favor of the upstanding and commendable.
Now, everything’s fair game. Movies, however, have taken only a few tentative steps up that evolutionary ladder. A perfect example is Shelton’s “Cobb” - adapted from Al Stump’s story of his experiences as Cobb’s ghostwriter. It’s a movie that couldn’t have been made, adapted from a book that couldn’t have been written while Cobb’s legend was still fresh.
It used to be easier to get away with being unrealistic. Before ESPN and the highlight culture, a two-hour journey into sports fantasy was viewed with less cynicism. Now we need quick hits, instant drama, real action.
It’s worthwhile to remember the best sports movie of the past decade, and maybe the best ever. That movie followed the lives of two high school basketball players in inner-city Chicago. It had dramatic tension, real-life action and realistic basketball scenes.
The movie, of course, was called “Hoop Dreams,” and every frame of it was true.