LOS ANGELES — The Super Bowl may be the top-rated sports broadcast on American TV, and baseball may have the highest annual attendance figures. But on the silver screen, one sport reigns supreme: boxing.
David O. Russell’s “The Fighter,” already generating awards buzz, rekindles Hollywood’s long love affair with pugilists. Mark Wahlberg stars in this biopic of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, who after years of scraping by in Boston gets a chance at a title. Christian Bale plays his half-brother, Dickie Eklund, who had been a fighter himself, only to fall into drugs. Like many of the best boxing movies, “The Fighter” deals with the underdog getting his chance, as well as redemption and brotherly love.
Oscar voters’ first valentine to a man in gloves came in 1932, when Wallace Beery won for “The Champ,” playing a down-and-out-boxer who returns to the ring for his young son (Jackie Cooper). John Garfield was nominated for lead actor for 1947’s “Body and Soul” as a poor kid who becomes a champion fighter only to lose his way. Kirk Douglas earned his first Oscar nomination and became an overnight sensation as a ruthless boxer in 1949’s “Champion.”
Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” took home the best-picture Academy Award in 1977, while Robert De Niro earned his first lead-actor Oscar for his performance as Jake La Motta in 1980’s “Raging Bull.” Clint Eastwood scored a knockout punch with 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby,” which won for top film, director, lead actress (for Hilary Swank as a female boxer) and supporting actor (Morgan Freeman as an ex-fighter).
Also nominated for lead actor were James Earl Jones in 1970’s “The Great White Hope,” Denzel Washington for 2000’s “The Hurricane” and Will Smith in 2001’s “Ali.” Though not about boxing itself, the 1954 best-picture winner “On the Waterfront” revolved around a former boxer (Marlon Brando won the lead-actor Oscar as Terry Malloy) who “coulda been a contender.” And in 1952’s “The Quiet Man,” for which John Ford won his fourth Oscar for directing, John Wayne plays a disgraced boxer who killed man in the ring in America who returns to his birthplace in Ireland.
Boxing is particularly suited to the cinema because it offers high-stakes drama, yet its one-on-one action is easier to film than team athletics, experts say.
Compared with more popular sports such as baseball, football and basketball, boxing’s action “takes place in a more simplified arena,” says Stephen Farber, a film critic and historian. “It’s easier to photograph and makes it more dramatic than these large team sports where sometimes it’s harder to get your bearings visually to see what’s happening in the football game and who to root for.
“You have to get invested into a whole team rather than an individual,” he adds. “There is something more intense and compelling when you have one person you are rooting for when they are fighting against another person.”
Elements such as organized crime and corruption often associated with boxing add to the narrative possibilities.
“I think one of the attractions to writers and filmmaking with boxing is that you have the most admirable of characterizations and then the absolute lowest dregs in such close proximity that it makes for compelling stories,” says film-noir historian Alan K. Rode.
Rode says he considers Robert Wise’s 1949 movie “The Set-Up” with Robert Ryan the best boxing film ever made, even though it failed to garner any Oscar consideration.
“It takes you into the seamier side of life with tank-town boxing,” says Rode. “Ryan is a guy who is being used as a professional opponent, a trial horse, and still has the dream of making it. His wife, up in the cozy hotel, is buying soup and hamburgers for dinner after her husband gets the stuffing beaten out of him. And then there’s the chiseling manager. It was a different world than what mass audiences were exposed to in 1949.
“Boxing lends itself to noir because for me the essence of noir is when the protagonist knows what he is doing is wrong and they do it anyway — whether it’s lust or money,” Rode adds. “Boxing provides a fertile ground for that.”
Whether the fighter is pure of heart or morally compromised, the sport’s potential lethality is another major draw for filmmakers.
“It’s something physically very dangerous,” says Farber. “I mean, nobody is going to get killed playing baseball.”