Gene Collier: Sports movies are, like life, a box of chocolates

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Today we bring you, in the time of social distancing and in lieu of actual sports, plenty of heartfelt reflections on sports movies, even if it’s just to fill the silence that follows the common question:

You got any better ideas?

Among sportswriters and journalists and throughout large swaths of America’s sports-addled public, sports movies that were originally intended as pleasant and even highly artistic diversions are now primarily touchstones for arguments, much like the various Halls of Fame.

You may like and revere “Field of Dreams,” but there’s a small army of filmgoers ready to remind you it’s a load of sentimental horse crap. Whenever I say that I think “The Natural” is the best sports movie ever, I almost immediately hear that it’s too weird and too much a betrayal of the book, like that’s a thing. I also hear it’s a load of sentimental horse crap.

But, refreshingly enough, what you’ll find elsewhere on these pages are some very compelling insights on what makes a particular sports film the absolute favorite of people who cover sports, and regardless of the individual senses and sensibilities involved, that’s a high compliment.

For my part, I love movies almost as much as books, but if they’re about sports, I’ve generally avoided them. Sport has largely been my living and when I’m not working, I much prefer other subjects, which has left what many consider a shocking hole in my cultural bona fides. It’s true that I’ve never seen “Rudy,” “The Longest Yard,” (either one), “Miracle,” “Hoop Dreams,” or “Bang the Drum Slowly,” and that I’ve never read “Ball Four,” or “The Boys of Summer.”

This week, in order to boost my credentials in this area by, um, less than 1%, I re-watched “Eight Men Out,” because I’d been advised to reconsider the whole best-sports-movie-ever thing, and then I watched “Hoosiers” for the first time. I know, I know.

Two fine films, obviously, but both contain the unfortunate sports movie scar caused when someone (almost always a sportswriter) says something that is so spectacularly obvious it would never have been said in real life. In “Eight Men Out,” a sportswriter tells the manager of the Chicago White (soon to be black) Sox that Cincinnati needs only one more win to take the 1919 World Series. Does anyone think the manager might not know that? In “Hoosiers,” when the small kid goes to the free-throw line and makes the first of two shots to tie the regional final in the fading seconds, coach Gene Hackman screams from the bench, “One more.”

Yeah, we know.

“Eight Men Out,” is a beautiful film, brilliantly shot and scored, and it’s the rare sports movie in which the sportswriters are not either scoundrels or morons. In fact, they help expose the scandal (spoiler alert: eight of Chicago’s players conspired with gamblers to throw the series). It has great cinematic muscle but not enough to dislodge “The Natural” from my own best-of mantle.

“Hoosiers” is based on the most inspiring part of the gospel from Indiana’s ecumenical relationship with basketball, with just enough of it being true for the inspiration to have enjoyed a perpetual shelf life. Still, it’s a little ridiculous even for Hollywood that in “Hoosiers” Jimmy Chitwood shoots 98% from the floor (not in the state championship game — in the entire film) and that the love story between the 50-year-old coach and the young high school teacher (Barbara Hershey) is plainly a half court shot that doesn’t reach the foul line. Hackman is reliably believable, and when Hershey talks to him about how pretty it is near her farm in the spring — that it reminds her of Ireland, at least as she imagines it or has seen in it books — he somehow keeps himself from blurting, “Lady, you’re lookin’ at the wrong books.”

But our assignment this week was to reflect on our favorite sports movies, not necessarily the best, so I should include that my favorite is still “Major League,” which stops me in my tracks any time I come across it with the remote. Bob Uecker’s priceless, acerbic performance as Cleveland Indians play-by-play man Harry Doyle nearly steals the show, but there are abundant laughs in every scene.

For me, it’s not incidental that both “The Natural” and “Major League” are flawlessly buttressed by evocative scores from composer Randy Newman, he of the 22 Oscar nominations in the Best Original Score and Best Original Song categories.

For what it’s worth then, here are my five favorites, my five best-of-genre, and, just for the hell of it, my five worst sports movies of all time.

Favorites (in reverse order): “A League of Their Own,” “Slap Shot,” “The Sandlot,” “Seabiscuit,” “Major League.”

Best (in reverse order): “Eight Men Out,” “Raging Bull,” “The Wrestler,” “Rocky,” “The Natural.”

Worst (in reverse order): “Trouble With The Curve,” “The Babe,” “Safe At Home,” “For Love of the Game,” and just for emphasis, “For Love of the Game.”

I mean, I like Kevin Costner, but c’mon.


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