Legendary football Coach Vince Lombardi once said, ”Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” And with no disrespect to the gridiron sage of Green Bay, when it comes to the spotty track record of sports movies at the Academy Awards, there’s another cliché that may be more appropriate: Sometimes it’s an honor just to be nominated.
Take Breaking Away. Twenty-five years ago, Peter Yates’ working-class saga of an Indiana teenager (Dennis Christopher) with a passion for bicycle racing and all things Italian came from out of nowhere with five Oscar nods, including Best Picture, by combining tragedy, triumph, and redemption — a winning trifecta that all the best sports films parlay into universal truths.
That year, 1979, saw an Oscar season marked by big-budget bombast (Apocalypse Now), razzmatastic dance numbers (All That Jazz), and A-list star turns (Kramer vs. Kramer, Norma Rae). By contrast, Breaking Away, which was made for a measly $2.4 million and featured a cast of no-names, was ”the little movie that could.”
Though it won only one Oscar, for Steve Tesich’s screenplay, Breaking Away joined an elite club of sports films to score a nomination for Best Picture. (And no, Forrest Gump doesn’t count just because he played Ping-Pong.) Only two have won. All of which makes the Oscar buzz that greeted Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby such a rarity. And so, let’s give a cheer for that ragtag squad of underdogs that even Coach Lombardi might have smiled upon and patted on the ass.
THE CHAMP 1931
Forget the cheesy, manipulative 1979 remake starring Jon Voight and little Ricky Schroder. King Vidor’s classic about a heavyweight fighter with a sweet tooth for booze and gambling named Andy ”Champ” Purcell (Wallace Beery) and his devoted, cute-as-a-button son, Dink (Jackie Cooper), is like a boxing version of It’s a Wonderful Life — a timeless tearjerker with a father-son story that would make even Cat Stevens reach for the Kleenex.
Try to overlook the sped-up scenes in the ring in which Beery comes off looking a tad too tubby and cement-footed to be a convincing pugilist. The Academy did, giving Beery the Oscar for Best Actor along with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde‘s Fredric March in a rare Oscar tie. (Actually, March got one more vote than Beery, but Academy rules at the time stated that such a razor-thin margin would result in a tie.) Either way, when it came to the Best Picture category, The Champ got KO’d by Grand Hotel.
THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES 1942
Lord knows, it’s easy to hate the New York Yankees these days, what with their deep-pocketed owner and roster of multimillionaires. But you’d have to be made of stone not to become a blubbering mess by the time Gary Cooper steps up to the microphone to deliver Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell speech while disease ravages his body: ”Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth….” Released just one year after the Iron Horse first baseman’s death, The Pride of the Yankees is the sports film as three-hankie tribute — a cinematic eulogy to the kind of athlete whose love of the game today seems as quaint as black and white.