Mapping The Legacy Of Boxing On Celluloid With 10 Boxing Films Picks

7 Aug
Published in WBUR’s ARTery

Paul Newman in

Paul Newman in “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” (Courtesy)

The recent release of “Southpaw,” the new movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the ring rat of the title, again floats the paradigm of the American Dream realized in the toughest of all venues. Largely due to the primal, violent and intimate nature of pugilism, boxing has always been a storied staple of film throughout history.

“Southpaw” tries to achieve a post of solemnity and seriousness by playing against the archetype but in execution, it’s so heavily riddled with cliched jabs it never even flashes the mettle to reach the heights of any of the narratives it aches to be. One can understand the allure to Gyllenhaal, an actor who regularly seeks the challenge of off-the-beaten-path roles (take “Brokeback Mountain” or last year’s turn as a career-minded sociopath in “Nightcrawler”), as many an Oscar has been won by stepping in the ring (Robert De Niro and Hilary Swank to name two).

By definition, the sport demands blood and sweat, and total immersion by any thespian hoping to sell the gritty gut-pounding reality of the ring. It’s been a well-noted undertaking — the extremes actors go to in conditioning and preparation — and something De Niro took deeply to heart (going from a toned and ripped fighter to flabby nightclub host by tossing on 50 pounds) in immersing himself into the volatile persona of middleweight Jake LaMotta for Martin Scorsese’s heralded bio-pic, “Raging Bull” (1980). It’s one of the great fight films, if not the greatest, and while the bold choices by Scorsese — shooting in smoky black-and-white and a framed narrative arc — provided grounding and context, it was De Niro’s indelible turn, employing extreme method acting to soulfully get at the turbulent embodiment of LaMotta, that ensured the film of its mantle spot as a timeless American classic.

In looking back at the legacy of boxing on celluloid, three other Oscar winning films would likely hang at the top of anyone’s top 10, the most obvious of which, besides “Bull,” being “Rocky,” the 1976 Best Picture fairy tale and Cineplex-sweeping crowned pleaser which also capped an incredible real-life underdog story for screenwriter/actor Sylvester Stallone who had toiled thespian Palookaville before, and more recent hits about the gritty downside to ring life, “The Fighter” and Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby.”

Below, arranged in alphabetical order, is a list composed of some other great pugilist profiles with a conscience lean to include the eclectic and the classic. Five receiving serious consideration but not making the bell: “Cinderella Man” (2005), “The Set-Up”(1947), “The Quiet Man” (1952), “The Boxer” (1997) and “The Great White Hope” (1970). 

Boxing Gym” (2010):

Documentarian and master of cinéma vérité, Frederick Wiseman sets up his camera in a dingy Austin establishment. Owner Richard Lord, a former boxer with a Texas drawl and a rattail, treats all his patrons (pros and amateurs who span sex, age, race and socioeconomic strata) with equal care and respect. And despite the violent nature of the sport, Lord’s dogma of rhythm, footwork and conditioning is delivered in a calm, avuncular tenor. Wiseman records the rituals of repetition (speed bag and footwork) in poetic long shots that often have two pugilists side-by-side, each seemingly unaware of the other. The cadence and contrast are at once primal and hypnotic.

Fat City” (1972):

A once promising boxer (Stacy Keach) felled by alcohol and love sponsors an up-and-comer (Jeff Bridges) he meets by chance in a Boys’ Club gymnasium. The result is devastating as the young hopeful’s promise goes out the window in the first round and Keach takes up with a barfly (Best Supporting Actress nominee Susan Tyrrell who would fittingly be cast in the 1981 screen adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s book, “Tales of Ordinary Madness”) whose alcohol field antics send him off the rails as he struggles to find employment, sanity and redemption in the ring. One of the better, later, but lesser received efforts in director John Huston’s long and celebrated career. Huston, who had 20 plus amateur bouts as a young man, imbues the streets of Stockton, California, with a pulpy seediness, while the genuine bromance between Keach and Bridges gives the film soul and form.

Gentleman Jim” (1942):

Swashbuckling screen icon Errol Flynn’s portrayal of brash boxing icon “Gentleman Jim” Corbett is a testimony to classic Hollywood framing, Flynn’s suave glossy demeanor and the changing times that provided a backdrop for conflict and intrigue. Corbett, initially a San Francisco banker stepped into the ring to help legitimize boxing as it transitioned from bareknuckle brawling to regulated boxing with gloves as we know it today — where technique and footwork are as, if not more, important than brawn. Corbett’s biggest obstacles came in the form of reigning heavyweight John L. Sullivan (a menacing performance from Ward Bond) a.k.a. the Boston Strong Boy and Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith) as his sassy love interest. The prolific Raoul Walsh made over 130 films including “White Heat” and “Objective, Burma!”

Girlfight” (2000):

Before Swank laced up the gloves in “Million Dollar Baby,” Michelle Rodriguez was the first female fighter in the cinematic ring as a Dana Guzman, a tough Brooklynite who trains without her father’s knowledge and takes bouts against the boys — including the guy she’s dating. The indie effort by first-time filmmaker Karyn Kusama who had been working the story since the early 1990s and incubated it under the tutelage of John Sayles, received rave reviews at Sundance. The film’s critical groundswell would make Rodriguez (the “Fast and the Furious” franchise and”Lost”), so steely in the role, something of an in-demand badass. For Kusama, her more commercial follow-ups, “Aeon Flux,” starring Charlize Theron, and “Jennifer’s Body,” starring Megan Fox and written by “Juno” scribe Diablo Cody, have not replicated her initial success.

The Harder They Fall” (1956):

Humphrey Bogart’s last role as a sports writer turned publicist to promote a mountain of a man with a featherweight right and a glass chin takes its cue from the Primo Carnera scandal (as loosely depicted in Budd Schulberg’s similarly titled novel) where the mob allegedly fixed fights to further the big Italian’s career as well as their purse. Bogart’s hard-boiled cynicism is at the fore as fight after fight is rigged under the direction off Rod Steiger’s crooked promoter. Along for the ride, Mike Lane’s dimwitted gentle giant, Toro Moreno, is nearly a hapless innocent looking to make enough money to get back to his homeland. The condemnation of society and its ability to turn the other cheek to see what they want to see is a sharp burning unmasking. Mark Robson who also helmed “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” and and “Peyton Place” directs.

Hard Times” (1975):

Set during the Great Depression, the ultimate taciturn icon of machismo, Charles Bronson drifts through Louisiana looking to make his way though backroom bare-knuckle brawls. The thing most alluring about Bronson has always been his quiet confidence and here, when up against hulking beast, his quiet drifter’s ability to focus on his opponent’s weaknesses and twist the weighted contest to his advantage, is riveting. James Colburn as Bronson’s fast talking promoter, “Speed” gives one of the finest performances of his career. The film marks screenwriter (“Aliens” and “The Getaway”) Walter Hill’s directorial debut. With the possible exception of “48 Hrs.” and perhaps “The Warriors,” Hill wouldn’t flirt with this degree of greatness behind the camera again, though “Southern Comfort” and “The Long Riders,” remain other notable and under appreciated accomplishments.

Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962):

How can any movie that begins with Cassius Clay knocking out Anthony Quinn not make this list? Boxing great Jack Dempsey also finds his way into the cast. The film, based on the teleplay by “Twilight Zone’s” Rod Serling, chronicles the post ring struggles of Quinn’s ‘Mountain’ Rivera (the earlier TV production featured Jack Palance in the central role), a Lenny-esque being, who after losing to the Kid (Clay) and punch drunk, is forced into retirement by a detached retina, and that’s where the film builds a heart as Rivera tries to find his next station in life. Jackie Gleason looms an amiable scoundrel as the self-interested manager into the mob and without Mountain’s best interests at heart while Mickey Rooney provides the counterbalanced as Army, the cut-man who cares.

Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956):

As far as “Rocky” goes, you really couldn’t crib more from this haunting classic that most have seemingly forgotten. “Raging Bull” too owes a nod as well, though both films are real life spins on troubled men taking out their aggression in the confines of the canvas mat. The real revelation here is a very young Paul Newman playing against his wholesome image as the brutish Rocky Graziano, who before reaching the elusive zenith of being champ, was a petty criminal who spent time in jail and later got dishonorably discharged from the army for going AWOL, Graziano’s career was full of setbacks and challenges (the mob looking for a dive and an alcoholic father). Newman is dynamite and Pier Angeli a revelation as Rocky’s real-life Adrian. Robert Wise, who seems to be gathering knowledge about the mean streets of New York for his later effort, “West Side Story,” directs.

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson“(2004):

Ken Burns’ nearly four-hour-long contemplation on race, celebrity and hypocrisy is an illuminating knife into the heart of turn-of-the-century American history as it follows the meteoric arc of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion who took the title during the Jim Crow era and whose boxing highlight reels were some of movie houses’ biggest draws before “Birth of the Nation” became the first official sweeping box office hit. Beyond skin color and ring prowess, what made Johnson bigger than life was his over-the-top decadence, insatiable appetite for women and disregard for public opinion and authority. Johnson would square off in over 100 fights (one scheduled for 45 rounds), he would own the Harlem establishment that would become the Cotton Club and his sheer prominence pissed off segments of white America. He would ultimately lose the title but it was the Mann Act that ultimately brought down Johnson.

When We Were Kings” (1996):

Leon Gast’s brilliant (Oscar-winning) documentary chronicles the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between a rusty 32-year-old Muhammad Ali in the twilight of his career after having served a three and a half year suspension for violating the U.S. draft for Vietnam and the much younger George Foreman who was shredding his way through the heavyweight division. Ali was the clear underdog. This was the fight that made Don King, unable to secure funds and papers in the U.S. he tapped in with Mubutu, the despot ruler of Zaire, who gave King everything he needed. Due to an injury the fight was delayed for nearly six weeks. The footage of the cultural festival, featuring James Brown is feet-moving infectious, as are Ali’s confidence pumping poetry about tooth decay and Foreman. The young champ comes off with brutish affect of a young Mike Tyson. Gast smartly doesn’t turn to the participants as talking heads, but the writers (Norman Mailer and George Plimpton) ring side and other commentary from other cultural icons like Spike Lee. The whole film rides the rails of Ali’s charismatic energy and ring mastery (the rope-a-dope). It’s both a seamless commentary on society and a testament to will.

Three Boxing Off-Beats:

“Tough Enough” (1983), “The Hammer” (2007) and “Kid Monk Baroni” (1952) starring a young Leonard Nimoy.

Five Great Films, where boxing serves as the backdrop or features a memorable fight scene:

“Pulp Fiction” (1994), “On the Waterfront” (1954), “Fight Club” (1999),  “City Lights” (1933) and “Runaway Train” (1985).

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