Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Review: Glory Road, Sports Movie Awards

As Sports Movies Go…

Walt Disney Pictures’ latest sports story to hit the big screen delivers a great narrative of American sports history, but Glory Road suffers from some of the same ailments that so many other sports movies do. The typical sports movie ailments range from the over-romanticizing effect, or hit-over-head sentimentality, to historical inaccuracy to, most commonly, the horribly unrealistic portrayal of live sports action.

While Miracle (2004) might be the best of Disney’s recent sports flicks simply because the on-ice action looked realistic, and Remember the Titans (2000) might be the worst because of the overdone sentimentality, Glory Road fits somewhere in between the two due to its historical inaccuracy. The inaccuracy is due in large part to the fact that a story which developed over several years is reduced to a 106-minute Hollywood version.

One of the major casualties of the story’s time constraints is the lacking biographical information on Coach Haskins and the building of his Texas Western team. Haskins first year at TWC was 1961-62, and with players like Jim “Bad News” Barnes and Nolan Richardson, he had already made two trips to the NCAA Tournament prior to his 1966 championship. The other major casualty is the poetic license used to increase the social significance of Haskins’ 1966 team and their title game victory over Kentucky.

It’s true that the Miners were the first team to start five African Americans in the title game; it’s true that Kentucky was entirely white; and unfortunately for Kentucky fans who argue otherwise, it’s also true that Adolph Rupp was indeed a harsh bigot – he left too many quotes behind to prove otherwise. But the racial and social significance of the 1966 game has been entirely in retrospect, contrary to the film’s treatment. Not only was this aspect not used by Haskins, it virtually wasn’t mentioned before, during, or after the game.

The retrospective social significance of the Miner’s win in 1966 can’t be downplayed, but the 1963 NCAA Championship of Loyola-Illinois or the back-to-back titles of the San Francisco Dons in 1955 and 1956 might have been much more important to the plight of black athletes and the racial integration of college sports. Multi-sport stars K.C. Jones and Bill Russell became pioneers of integration when they led San Francisco to the 1955 and 1956 titles, while the 1963 Loyola team became the first champion to feature a majority of black starters.

While it might not include a character with the emotional depth of Don Haskins, a story better representing the integration of college basketball could indeed be found with the 1963 Loyola, Illinois Ramblers. In the second round of the 1963 tournament, Loyola defeated SEC champion Mississippi State, who had declined NCAA bids the previous two seasons because of the state policy forbidding integrated athletic events, and who had to flee the state in the middle of the night before being served an injunction to stop them in order to play in 1963.

For a final word on Glory Road, actor Josh Lewis offers a fantastic performance as legendary coach Don Haskins and the film’s message makes it a nice choice for younger viewers, but the racial integration of college sports, particularly in the South, is far too important to be mishandled the way Glory Road does. Examining race relations through the historical lens of something that is now seen as perhaps one of the most racially-equitable features of American culture can help to not only measure our progress, but also to serve as a reminder why it remains such a sensitive subject.

Now that my movie criticism (or cynicism) is done, here is a look at some sports movie award nominees just in time for the Oscars:

** The best sports movies (Documentary category):
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg – Great bio of MLB’s greatest Jewish player.
Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story – Boxing fans can’t miss this one, trust me!
When We Were Kings – Filmed in Zaire in 1974, but released in 1996 (Ali vs. Foreman)
Baseball – I have never enjoyed anything more than Ken Burns’ 1994 nine-part PBS series.
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson – Burns’ latest release.
Hoop Dreams – Often called the best, but not as good as all of the above.
** The best sports movies (Biopic category):
The Pride of the Yankees – The immortal Gehrig portrayed by the immortal Cooper.
Raging Bull - DeNiro won an Oscar for his portrayal of Bull LaMotta.
Chariots of Fire – Inspirational story revisiting the 1924 Olympics, won Best Picture in 1981.
Jim Thorpe: All American – Burt Lancaster is admirable as Thorpe.
** The Best sports movies (General):
Hoosiers – Predictable underdog story, but great nonetheless.
Body and Soul and Campion – Boxing Noirs of the 40s; old films, like old athletes, always overlooked.
This Sporting Life - The 1963 British film began an entire sub-genre; Rugby star character study (a very athletic Richard Harris).
Million Dollar Baby – Became just the third sports-themed Best Picture winner.
Slap Shot – Not great, but cult status makes it worthy.
Bull Durham – Best character names ever; know the term “baseball Annie?”
Seabiscuit – The best of many horse racing films.
Eight Men Out – John Sayle’s well done period piece.
Damn Yankees – Adapted from stage; the best (and maybe only) sports musical.
The Natural – Is Harriet Bird a baseball Annie?
** The best sports movies which never, ever get mentioned as great ones:
The Great White Hope – James Earl Jones as Jack Johnson; adapted from stage.
Downhill Racer – Incorporates Redford’s own skiing with 1968 Olympic footage.
A League of their Own – Hanks’ character is based on Jimmie Foxx.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - Ranks behind Sporting Life and Chariots, but a great British drama; more angry young Brits.
** The best sports movies on the periphery of sports:
The Hustler – Paul Newman as pool shark anti-hero Fast Eddie Felson.
The Cincinnati Kid – Steve McQueen and Ann-Margret in the best poker flick.
Best in Show – Hilarious mockumentary about the pro dog show circuit.
Woman of the Year – Tracy and Hepburn as sportswriter and socialite.
** The best example of legitimate and realistic action (we’ll call it best actor):
Matthew Modine in Vision Quest – The story is typical 1980s fare (plus Madonna's first screen appearance), but the wrestling action is excellent. Modine trained extensivly and the extras were all high school champions.

** The worst examples of legitimate and realistic action (or worst actor - tie):
Anthony Perkins in Fear Strikes Out – He’s no Jimmy Piersall.
Rocky (the entire series) – Rocky I won Best picture, but not because of the realistic fight scenes.

** The best example of legitimate and realistic action by a female lead (or best actress - tie): Gena Davis in A League of their Own - More convincing as a ballplayer than the prez.
Mariel Hemingway in Personal Best - Co-starring olympic athlete Patrice Donnelly, this was the first major film to tackle sexuality, gender, and sport.
Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby - Won 2005's Best Actress Oscar.

** The worst example of legitimate and realistic action by a female lead (or worst actress):
Since I'm sticking mainly to theatrical releases and can't skewer Helen Hunt for TV's The Quarterback Princess, I'll pick Janet Jones-Gretzky in American Anthem.
** The worst historical inaccuracy in sports movie history:
Field of Dreams portrays Shoeless Joe Jackson batting right-handed and throwing left. They were wrong on both counts!