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Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Champs (originally published 12/01)

The single most rousing moment of the 1997 Academy Awards show may well have been the standing ovation given to Muhammad Ali as he was escorted to the stage. He hadn't won an Oscar, of course, but "When We Were Kings," the documentary about his 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman, had.

It may seem odd that the movie community, on the occasion of its annual orgy of self-congratulatory mutual backslapping, should reserve one of its most enthusiastic ovations for a retired prizefighter, however distinguished, rather than one of their own. The deeper truth, however, is that boxers are, for all intents and purposes, honorary movie stars. Indeed, Ali himself starred in the film of his own life story, "The Greatest," back in 1977. Now, a new movie has been released featuring Will Smith as the immortal Ali.

Moviemakers were drawn to boxing as a subject matter right from the beginning. A cynic might assume that part of the attraction lies in the fact that a boxing match makes for an agreeably low-budget action scene. Actually, it probably has more to do with the reduction of the protagonist-antagonist conflict that lies at the heart of all drama to its most basic elements. Whatever the reasons, filmmakers love making movies about boxers. If you love watching them, here are a few to look for on video.

"Gentleman Jim" (1942). The handsome, flamboyant Erroll Flynn was ideally cast as James J. Corbett, the boxer who ushered in the era of scientific boxing by defeating the legendary John L. Sullivan. The reign of the seemingly invincible Sullivan ended when bare knuckles and toe-to-toe slugfests were replaced with boxing gloves and Marquis of Queensbury Rules. The great character actor Ward Bond is outstanding in the role of Sullivan.

"The Joe Louis Story" (1953). Given the level of hero worship that surrounded Joe Louis, it was inevitable that a film biography would be made sooner or later. What is remarkable is that the filmmakers chose to portray Louis in very human terms, warts and all, rather than taking the easy road of using dramatic license to confer sainthood on him. Coley Wallace is excellent in the title role. His physical resemblance to Louis permitted the use of actual fight footage throughout the film.

"Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956). Following a disastrous screen debut in "The Silver Chalice" (1954), Paul Newman established himself as a significant new Hollywood talent with this portrayal of boxer Rocky Graziano. Based on the fighter's autobiography, the film follows Graziano's rise from a troubled youth and dishonorable discharge from the military to a championship in the boxing ring, where his aggression finds release without getting him into trouble.

"The Great White Hope" (1970). Howard Sackler's Pulitzer Prize winning play, from which this film is adapted, is a fictionalized account of the life and career of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. Johnson, whose name is changed here to Jack Jefferson, was a decidedly unpopular champion with the white establishment for two reasons. First, he took the championship from an Irish-American, prompting a nationwide search for a "Great White Hope" who could reclaim the title from this black upstart. Second, he had the effrontery to have an affair with a white woman. James Earl Jones gives one of his finest performances in the lead role, which he had previously performed on the stage.

"Raging Bull" (1980). Director Martin Scorsese took the boxing movie genre to a new level with this classic portrait of former world middleweight champion Jake La Motta. Scorsese shot the film in black and white, partly to evoke the look of the boxing movies he had seen and loved as a child and partly to protest the cavalier attitude of Hollywood studios toward preserving the color negatives in their vaults, which fade badly over time unless costly precautions are taken. In the role of La Motta, Robert De Niro, ever the method actor, scorned the use of body make-up in the scenes showing the fighter in his latter days, old and out of shape. Instead, he deliberately overate until his weight went up sufficiently to play the scenes.

These few titles by no means cover the full range of boxing movies. So far, we've only looked at films based on the lives of real boxers. Next time, we'll look at some classic boxing movies drawn entirely from the imaginations of screenwriters.

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