Sports movies remain popular because they are about dreams and achievement-themes at the heart of narrative film-making. But Christopher Tookey regrets the death of sportsmanshipby Christopher Tookey / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Every month seems to bring a couple of new sports films. The trouble is that sports movies nowadays do not have much to do with sportsmanship.
Sports films used to be about humble guys triumphing over the odds-movies such as The Winning Team (1952) in which Ronald Reagan starred as an epileptic telephone engineer turned baseball pitcher, or The Great John L. (1945), where boxer John L Sullivan conquered the demon drink with the help of his parish priest.
The last such film to find a mass audience was Rocky, but that was 20 years ago. Ever since the 1960s, the fashion has been for warts-and-all portraits of sporting folk, most famously Martin Scorsese’s gloves-off study of boxer Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull and Ron Shelton’s Cobb, in which Tommy Lee Jones depicted baseball legend Ty Cobb as a violent, racist, drunken wife-beater.
Sports films used to be celebrations of asexual male bonding. Nowadays you are more likely to find yourself reading a review of a lesbian sports movie, exemplified most recently in Personal Best (track athletics), Dallas Doll (golf), Thin Ice (a celebration of interracial lesbian skating) and When Night Is Falling (a fine, if unlikely example of lesbian seduction while hang-gliding).
Even the modern film-maker described as “the Orson Welles of sports movies,” Ron Shelton, allows women into his pictures. In his best sports film of the 1980s, Bull Durham, two baseball players (Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner) try unsuccessfully to have a cosy, buddy-buddy relationship, while simultaneously competing for the affections of an eccentric sports groupie (Susan Sarandon). She seems to be an airhead, but gradually we come to realise she is humanising and maturing both men. One of her favourite techniques is to tie a sportsman to her bed and make him listen to poetry. “A guy will listen to anything,” she observes perceptively, “if he thinks it’s foreplay.”