- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

As Memorial Day Weekend doubleheaders go, you can’t do much better than “The Longest Yard” on Friday followed by a sneak preview of “Cinderella Man” on Sunday. Granted, Adam Sandler’s version of “Yard” is no match for Burt Reynolds’ original — and “Cinderella Man” wouldn’t last five rounds with “Raging Bull” — but that’s not the point. The point is: Sports movies are suddenly “in” in Hollywood. And not just any sports movies, either. Sports movies that get nominated for Academy Awards. Sports movies you can actually stand to watch.

Maybe it’s just a cycle, but I tend to doubt it. The studios, it appears, have finally figured out that sports is one of the central themes of American culture — duh — and that they might want to start paying more attention to it. Not with films like “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” but with serious pictures that appeal to the Serious Fan, the guy (or gal) who might not be able to “Stump the Schwab,” but who can tell you who played third base with Tinker, Evers and Chance.

Earlier this spring, “Million Dollar Baby,” a tearjerker about a female boxer, was the belle of the Oscar ball, taking home the statuettes for best picture, best director, best actress and best supporting actor. The year before, it was “Seabiscuit” that got seven nominations (though it finished out of the money in each category). In 2002, Will Smith and Jon Voigt were up for acting awards for “Ali,” and in ‘99, Denzel Washington was nominated for his portrayal of another fighter, Hurricane Carter, in “The Hurricane.”

This is not the norm in Hollywood. Sports movies may make a few bucks — “Hoosiers” and “Bull Durham” come to mind — but rarely are they showered with accolades. The worm began to turn, though, in 1996. That was the year a film about a sports agent, “Jerry Maguire,” made Oscar’s Final Five, and its two stars, Tom Cruise (lost) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (won), received acting nominations. It was also the year “When We Were Kings,” the story of the Ali-Foreman heavyweight title bout in Zaire in 1974, got the Oscar for best documentary.

For whatever reason, sports movies seemed to get better after that. Or perhaps it’s just that the other movie genres got worse.

At any rate, since ‘96, we’ve had a slew of solid sports (or sports-related) flicks. In addition to the aforementioned, there’s been “He Got Game,” “Remember the Titans,” “Finding Forrester,” “Bend It Like Beckham,” “The Rookie,” “Miracle,” “Coach Carter.” Throw in “Tin Cup” — for the laughs if nothing else — and, well, this might be the Golden Era of Sports Films — with more, presumably, on the way.

(And to think, barely two decades ago, we were having to make do with John Lithgow — as a transsexual who used to play for the Philadelphia Eagles — in “The World According to Garp.”)

There’s a scene in “Stuck on You” in which one of the characters, playing the part of a detective in a TV series, delivers a line that ends, “and I’ve won the Heisman Trophy … twice.” The character’s brother scoffs at such historical inaccuracy. “Come on,” he tells the director, “every sports fan knows that Archie Griffin was the only player to win two Heisman Trophies.” And so the script is changed.

That’s kind of what’s happened with sports movies: The script has been changed. The studios have stopped insulting the intelligence of sports fans with lame plot lines (how many “Rocky” sequels can anybody take?) that play loosey-goosey with the facts (“The Natural,” in Bernard Malamud’s telling, didn’t end with a home run). At long last, they’re turning out realistic films that deal with grown-up subjects like race, gender, religion and euthanasia — not just quarterbacks and comebacks.

Which isn’t to say these films don’t have flaws, sometimes distracting ones. I’m still not sure whether Tobey Maguire, big as he is, should have been riding Seabiscuit … or whether the horse should have been riding him. (At least Maguire looked better in silks, though, than John Candy did in “Who’s Harry Crumb?”) I also take issue with some of the fudging in “The Hurricane.” (Carter wasn’t, according to accounts, robbed by the judges in a middleweight title fight against Joey Giardello.)

But those are small potatoes compared to, say, John Goodman playing Babe Ruth. No, for sports movies, these are the Best of Times.

(And I’m not talking about that silly football flick Robin Williams starred in, the one in which he said, “You better watch it, Dr. Death! I’m pretty [darn] fast for a Caucasian.” Hollywood is way beyond that now. Right? … Right?)

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