The sporting life, when properly lived, is always a little bit sleazy. Your typical athlete, whether it be a 12-year-old hockey player or a 38-year-old hanging-by-his-fingernails MLB veteran, is sweaty, smelly and swears all the time, about everything, from the schedule to the hour of the morning to the foam on a beer to both kinds of plays, glorious and Godawful, which is why a list of great sports films, which might include The Natural and Knute Rockne, All American, won’t quite cut it. What we require is not merely a list of great sports films, but of great sleazy sports movies.
The antics of Player/Coach Reg Dunlap of the Federal Hockey League’s Charlestown Chiefs, a minor league team that, on the edge of collapse, resorts to colorful violence to get fans in the seats. See the Hanson Brothers head up ice like thrown Gansu knives. See Ned Braden disrobe on ice in the playoffs. See Paul Newman, who described his work in Slap Shot as his proudest theatrical accomplishment – because he did his own skating – wear a mid-70s leather leisure suit in a way that redeems the disco era.
North Dallas Forty
The truest depiction of life in the NFL, this movie, which features actual college Tight End Nick Nolte running patterns for a quarterback depicted by Texas Country Music Hall of Famer Mack Davis, is based a novel written by Peter Gent, who played for the Cowboys in the 1960s. Gent was coached by legendary Tom Landry, who turns up here in disguise, played by G.D. Spradlin, who made a career out of impersonating prison warden types. The movie opens on a Monday morning, with Nolte reliving each tackle suffered and blow taken as he hauls his sorry self from bed to the bathroom medicine cabinet, where he begins the process of anesthetizing that is his life. At one point, speaking a deep truth about the pro game, Nolte, called on to do what’s right for the team, points to the executives and owners and says, “We’re not the team … they’re the team … we’re the equipment.”
John Milius, a model for Walter Zobchak in the Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski, a genius screenwriter who wrote Dirty Harry and Apocalypse Now before he directed such sleaze masterpieces as Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn, the man, whom, defending Arnold Schwarzenegger to the producer Dino De Laurenetiis, said, “If we did not have Arnold, we would have to build Arnold,” cared about this movie more than any of his others. Milius grew up surfing off Malibu before Gidget ruined the scene, and captures that story in Big Wednesday, with life on the water and the passage of time depicted via three friends, three surfers, whom Milius shoots not in the traditional way of a surfing flick way but as they would be shot by John Ford if John Ford loved surfing. It’s American teen life seen as epilogue to the story of American West, the cowboy, who, when all the land has been devoured, takes to the waves off the coast.
The Bad News Bears
A friend of mine once said he considered every minute he is not watching the Bad News Bears – this being the 1976 original with Walter Matthau as a Little League Coach and Tatum O’Neil as a curve ball throwing ace – wasted. It’s an old story: the outsiders, the left behinds, marginally talented, foul-mouthed, gross humored kids banding together to take on the youth baseball elite of Southern California. Jackie Earle Haley as the incomparable ringer Kelly Leak. Walter Matthau at his best as drunken Coach Morris Buttermaker, who claims that he himself did not make the majors, though he struck out Ted Williams in Spring Training, only because of “contract disputes.” Like all great sports movies, the Bad News Bears, while seemingly about the game, is actually about society, specifically the institution of American Childhood which has never been about the kids and has always been about the parents.
The only masterpiece on this list, Martin Scorsese’s biopic of troubled middleweight boxing champ Jake LaMotta is as much about the self-torture and masochism of certain athletes as about what happens inside the ring. The opening, which shows LaMotta, played by Robert De Niro, shadow boxing in a fog, is one of the most beautiful sequences ever filmed, and would earn a place on any list by itself. Then comes the story, which includes a line – an actual bit of language spoken by LaMotta after he’d been pummeled by Sugar Ray Robinson — that can be adapted to any situation in which you have been beaten but refuse to lose: “You never knocked me down, Ray. Ray. You never knocked me down.”