- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Quick, somebody punch me in the face. I want to be nominated for an Academy Award.

The Academy, we were reminded again this year, loves a good dustup. Why, it’s even gotten to the point where women are capitalizing on this. Hilary Swank — she of the sweet left hook and pulverizing right hand — is up for Best Actress for her portrayal of, yes, a boxer in “Million Dollar Baby.” More than a few folks, in fact, are predicting she’ll win … by a knockout over Annette Bening.

All because she got punched in the face. Nothing — except, maybe, playing a character with a disability — enhances your Oscar chances quite like a good sock in the puss.

Note I said sock in the puss, not grapefruit in the puss. There was no nomination for Mae Clarke when she had a grapefruit smushed into her lovely visage by Jimmy Cagney in “Public Enemy.” But there was one for Cathy Moriarty — in her first screen role, no less! — when Robert DeNiro gave her a black eye in “Raging Bull.”

Ah, “Raging Bull.” That’s the movie that exposed the Academy for what it is — a bunch of blood-lusting heathens who prefer the touching of gloves in the middle of the ring to the clinking of teacups in a Merchant Ivory film. Think about it. Moriarty (as fighter Jake LaMotta’s wife) got punched in the face — and got nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Joe Pesci (as Jake’s brother) got punched in the face — and got nominated for Best Supporting Actor. And DeNiro (as LaMotta) got punched in the face — and won for Best Actor.

DeNiro wanted to win the award so badly, he asked people to punch him in the face — his brother (Pesci) in one scene and Sugar Ray Robinson in another. The latter bloodletting, near the end of the movie, was an unconscionable attempt to influence Academy voters. DeNiro draped his arms over the ropes, stuck out his chin and invited Robinson to “knock me down” (which, despite a succession of horrific blows, Sugar Ray was unable to do).

After that, his fellow actors had no choice but to give him the Oscar.

(In his defense, DeNiro might have felt pressured into it. After all, a few years earlier, Sylvester Stallone had gotten his corner man to cut his eyelids in “Rocky” — so he could fight the last round and continue to get punched in the face — and what good had it done? Granted, Sly’s bravado had earned him a Best Actor nomination, but the statuette had gone to Peter Finch for “Network.”)

Hollywood’s infatuation with fists to the face goes back to the earliest talkies. One of the first Best Actor winners, Wallace Beery, was pummeled to a fare-thee-well in “The Champ.” Later nominees like John Garfield in “Body and Soul” and Kirk Douglas in “Champion” also dined on a steady diet of glove leather. And let’s not forget Marlon Brando (Best Actor, 1954) getting whaled on in “On the Waterfront” or Paul Newman (1967 finalist) going down once, twice, 20 times in “Cool Hand Luke.” In boxing — real boxing — it’s the puncher who scores the points; in the movie business, it’s the punchee who scores them — with the Academy.

In recent years, getting punched in the face has all but punched your ticket as far as a nomination is concerned. Will Smith in “Ali,” Denzel Washington in “The Hurricane,” Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting” — all took one on the chin for Oscar. So, for that matter, did Johnny Depp. Who can forget the two right crosses he absorbed from jilted lovers in “Pirates of the Caribbean”? (To his credit, Johnny didn’t require a standing eight count on either occasion.)

And now we have Ms. Swank, allowing her luscious lip to be bloodied in “Million Dollar Baby.” How times have changed. I mean, in “The Battling Bellhop,” a 1930s boxing film, did Bette Davis play the bellhop? Of course not. She played the brawling baggage handler’s romantic interest. These days, though, Bette — as tough as cookies come — would be vying with Swank for the lead in “Million Dollar Baby” (and, if need be, challenging Hilary to a three-round bout to settle the issue).

Next on the card after “Million Dollar Baby” is Russell Crowe’s new movie about Depression-era heavyweight champ Jim Braddock, “Cinderella Man.” That one has loads of Oscar potential, too. Braddock, after all, lost 25 fights in his career, so there’s a good chance that, at some point, Crowe will take a glove to the proboscis. Given the Academy’s predilections, I’d put the odds at 1-to-5 that he gets nominated, even-money that he wins.

It’s gotten crazy, it really has. About the only actor who has been socked in the nose in the last 30 years and not received an Academy Award nomination is the horse in “Blazing Saddles.” Why, there’s probably a movie star at this very moment with a screenplay in lap, talking animatedly to a director on his cell phone as he whizzes down Pacific Coast Highway.

“I love the script,” he’s saying, “and the part is terrific. I just have one small request: Do you think we could add a scene where I get punched in the face? That Oscar on my mantle is beginning to get lonely.”

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