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Cuba Gooding Jr. celebrates his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for "Jerry Maguire."

5 Genre-Busting Sports Films

September 10, 2008
by Michael Koegel
Most sports films feature a plucky underdog team/player/coach who is battling poverty/his sordid past/the bottle and perseveres against the odds and makes it to the final game/match/championship. At the last possible second, in painstakingly slow motion, our hero makes the winning basket/homerun/touchdown to the amazement of his family/girlfriend/opposing team. Tears/kisses/fireworks ensue. Here are a few great sports films that break from that formula/genre/cliché.

The Hustler (1961)

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This is the film that deservedly made Paul Newman a star. Newman plays “Fast” Eddie, a California pool hustler who arrives in New York City to challenge the great Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). The film also stars Piper Laurie as an alcoholic “cripple” who may turn out to be Eddie’s only shot at redemption, and George C. Scott as a crooked gambler who ultimately controls Eddie’s destiny. Shot in black and white, “The Hustler” was hardly the feel-good movie of the year; its overriding lesson is that even in victory there is defeat. All four actors, as well as writer/director Robert Rossen, were nominated for Oscars, but none of them won. However, the somewhat contrite Academy finally gave Newman his first and only Oscar 26 years later in the film’s sequel, “The Color of Money,” directed by Martin Scorsese.

Paul Newman, a notoriously private movie star, went on to make a series of classic films including “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting.” He’s also been a serious sportsman and philanthropist. Newman is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest winner of a professionally sanctioned auto race and his company, Newman’s Own, has raised millions of dollars for charity. There seems to be some very sad news on the horizon, however; rumors are everywhere, including in Vanity Fair magazine that Newman is battling cancer and is gravely ill. True to his nature, Newman has no comment on the matter.

Breaking Away (1979)

A cross between “Stand by Me” and “Rocky,” “Breaking Away” is a quirky and compelling film. Dennis Christopher plays Dave, a kid so obsessed with bicycle racing that he feigns an Italian accent to be more like his heroes, the members of the Cinzano racing team. He and his three buddies, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley (recently nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Little Children”), are “cutters,” a derogatory term used by the local college students, referring to the local stonecutters in the area. As much a character study as a sports film, “Breaking Away” shifts into high gear during the compelling racing sequence.

“Breaking Away,” entered the movie field in the summer of 1979 as a sleeper, with its small budget and largely unknown cast (Dennis Quaid wasn’t a star yet; the film’s biggest names were Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley). But it met with a flurry of positive reviews and plays as well today as it did when it opened.

Caddyshack (1980)

This is the best comedy about golf ever made. (Not that there are too many contenders on the putting green. “Happy Gilmore,” anyone?) “Caddyshack” features Chevy Chase, Ted Knight, a cute furry gopher and Rodney Dangerfield. What’s the movie about? Who cares? It has Bill Murray. There’s golfing. Rodney Dangerfield wears red pants. Kenny Loggins sings “I’m Alright.” There’s a gopher!

Bill Murray plays a seriously deranged groundskeeper and would-be gopher terminator named Carl Spackler who mutters to himself and claims to have a “License to kill gophers by the government of the United Nations.” He also gets all the best scenes in the film, including one classic monologue about the time he caddied for the Dalai Lama.

Jerry Maguire (1996)

It’s a sports film and a chick flick. With lines like “Show me the money,” and “You had me at ‘Hello,’” Cameron Crowe’s film “Jerry Maguire” nearly became an instant cliché. But that’s only because the film’s writing is so sharp. The movie’s plot about greed and redemption hit a cultural nerve during the dot-com boom of the 1990s. Sure, being rich, famous, successful and handsome is really cool; but when it comes right down to it, wouldn’t you really rather marry Renée Zellweger?

Cameron Crowe, writer and director of “Say Anything” and “Almost Famous,” as well as “Jerry Maguire,” started his career as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine and during the making of “Maguire,” struck up a friendship with Billy Wilder, which prompted his book “Conversations with Wilder.” Katherine Lanpher interviewed Crowe about his writing career, his films and his relationship with Wilder on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

Gladiator (2000)

This film’s sporting event is an epic life-and-death exercise. Russell Crowe’s Maximus, a heroic general in the Roman army, is sold into slavery when his friend the Emperor is murdered by the evil Commodus (Latin for “toilet”?). Commodus is so evil that he also kills Maximus’s wife and son just for kicks. Maximus sweats his way up the gladiator circuit using a beastly array of brain-denting hardware and finally meets Commodus in the ring for one final battle. The graphic fight scenes in “Gladiator” make the real-life Ultimate Fighting Championships look like a disagreement over place settings at an English tea party. Variety’s film critic Todd McCarthy interviewed Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott.

Ridley Scott has directed his share of epics: the epic horror film (“Alien”), the epic war movie (“Black Hawk Down”), the epic science fiction adventure (“Blade Runner”),  even the epic chick flick (“Thelma and Louise”). Scott was interviewed about his career on NPR’s program “Fresh Air,” after being nominated for his third Oscar (he lost, again) for “Black Hawk Down.”
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