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
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.”
Shelton’s best film of the 1990s, Tin Cup (released this month) continues the feminisation of the sports movie. His heroine (played by Rene Russo) is a psychotherapist who believes she can help the golfer hero (Kevin Costner again) with his “inner game.” For his part, he does not like talking about his emotions, still less having a woman probe into his private life-he is undergoing therapy only because he wants to get closer to her, physically.
Shelton and screenwriter John Norville skilfully use the sportsman-therapist relationship, increasingly common in sport, as a commentary on the way men and women play psychological games.
Costner’s character may not be a gentleman. But the days of the gentleman player have gone-in sports movies even more than in sport. You could always spot the bad guy in an old sports film: he was the one who cheated. Nowadays, the hero is just as likely to bend the rules. The recent golf comedy Happy Gilmore is about a foul-mouth redneck who can hit the ball 400 yards but cannot control his temper, and is hailed as a result by the American public as a colourful, if emotional, working class hero.
In Disney’s The Mighty Ducks (1992), misfit children of various races team up to become American ice hockey heroes; but sportsmanship and non-violence do not seem to be principles that the Ducks hold dear. Both The Mighty Ducks and its sequel look at times like incitements to boorishness, gang warfare and hatred of foreigners.
The torrent of money pouring into sport has also had its effect on sports movie morality. Two comedies this year-Kingpin (about ten-pin bowling) and Happy Gilmore-ended with the heroes losing the final match, which would once have meant losing their self-respect and the girl, then pocketing enough money from commercial endorsements to get the girl anyway.
Ron Shelton’s films reflect the same trend. White Men Can’t Jump is more about hustling for money than it is about basketball; and Shelton’s anti-hero in The Great White Hype (released last month) is a Don King-like promoter who treats boxing not as sport but as a lucrative branch of show business.
Shelton’s lesser known basketball movie, Blue Chips, takes a characteristically tolerant view of corruption. His hero, a high school basketball coach (Nick Nolte), is tempted into illegality because he knows that his refusal to pay bribes to promising youngsters will cost him his job and his team any chance of success, since none of his competitors is playing by the rules.
Shelton’s argument seems to be that because school athletic programmes make profits and act as training grounds for the pro leagues, players should be paid openly and the pretence of amateurism dropped-just as in lawn tennis, or the modern Olympic games.
Shelton has not yet tackled the issue of how over-concentration on competitive sport at an early age may ruin a young person’s emotional or physical development. The only film I have seen on the theme-Steven Zaillian’s Searching for Bobby Fischer (called Innocent Moves in the UK)-is about chess.
If Shelton is the Orson Welles of sports movies, he has yet to make his Citizen Kane. Nothing he or anyone else has done has achieved the emotional power of Hoop Dreams (1995), a wonderfully dramatic three-hour documentary about two young hopefuls dreaming of a career in professional basketball.
In Hoop Dreams, the world of sport becomes a metaphor for American society: a competitive system which rewards a minority but ignores the needs of the vast majority. It is an indictment of how white society uses and discards young black men, but also-less depressingly-shows how having a sporting dream, however unachievable, can give people hope and the spirit to improve themselves.
Sports movies will never die out precisely because they are about dreams and achievement, concepts which lie at the heart of narrative film-making. Shelton’s latest hero, Tin Cup McAvoy, claims that playing great golf brings the same sort of satisfaction as creating great art: “When you hit a perfect golf swing, a tuning fork goes off in your heart.” The reason why Tin Cup is so likeable is that he refuses to play safe; he prefers to go for perfection rather than “play the percentages.” The ups and downs of Ron Shelton’s career suggest a similar, refreshingly cavalier approach to film-making.