Hollywood's Favorite Athlete, The Boxer
Since Hollywood debuted the Academy Awards in 1929, only three Best Pictures went to sports related movies: (2004) “Million Dollar Baby”, (1981) “Chariots of Fire”, and (1976) “Rocky”. In total, 34 Oscars were handed out to the sports genre with boxing being the largest category.
Unlike the ‘feel good’ tear jerkers and screw ball comedies of most sports movies, boxing pictures always portrayed the life of a hard luck fighter struggling inside and outside the ring. Depicted as an underdog pugilist, the main character often lives in a seedy world of grit and gangsters with all the odds stacked against him.
The first fisticuffs movie to take home an Oscar was (1931) “The Champ”, a story about a washed-up alcoholic boxer trying to put his life back together for the sake of his son. The film won Best Actor and Story and was remade decades later in 1979 by Franco Zeffirelli.
Clint Eastwood’s (2004) “Million Dollar Baby” tops the chart for the winningest boxing story on the big screen. It picked up four trophies: Best Picture, Director, Actress and Supporting Actor. The plot revolves around an aspiring female boxer who ends up a quadriplegic after landing on her neck in the ring.
The classic and iconic (1976) “Rocky” comes in with three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director and Editing. Written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, this rags-to-riches tale of a Philadelphia club fighter earned $225 million in the first year and on a film budget of just over $1 million. Its box office success spawned six “Rocky” sequels, the last one being (2015) “Creed”.
“Rocky” is considered one of the greatest sports films ever made and was ranked second best in its category by the American Film Institute ("AFI").
The first on AFI’s list is (1980) “Raging Bull”, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro. Though walking away with only two Awards, Best Actor and Editing, the film was actually nominated for eight Oscars but lost Best Picture to Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People”.
Based on the tumultuous life of 1940’s-50’s middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, “Raging Bull” is a black and white artistic masterpiece. Taking the prizefighter’s character to the limit, De Niro even gained 60 lbs. to portray LaMotta in his later years.
(2010) “The Fighter” starring Mark Wahlberg, and (1956) “Somebody Up There Likes Me” with Paul Newman, are additional themes on ring fighters. Both were grounded on true life stories and each earned two Academy Awards.
By its very nature, boxing had to win a Best Documentary somewhere. (1996) “When We Were Kings” recounts the famous 1974 ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire.
Besides the fight itself, the film captures the build up to the big day with Ali embracing his African roots and Don King working on his first big promotion. It took director Leon Gast 22 years to complete the documentary, which features Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee and musical performances by James Brown and B.B. King in Zaire.
Boxing as a sub-theme to a larger story also made its way to film history. (1954) “On The Waterfront” won eight Oscars including Best Picture. Up against a corrupt union boss and his longshoremen thugs, dock worker and small-time fighter Marlon Brando ruminates:
”I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
With such haunting and unforgettable lines, it’s not a surprise that boxers are among Hollywood’s favorite screen characters.
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