Ty Burr says, Skip the game -- rent a football movie instead

By Ty Burr
Updated January 24, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

What to do Superbowl Sunday

As a card-carrying member of the Professional Sports Avoiders Association, I always look forward to Super Bowl Sunday as a time of blessed relief. No traffic jams. No movie lines. Hard to get a drink in a bar, maybe, but I’ll stay home and mix a martini instead. And if I really think I’m missing out on the steroid saga that is pro football, I can always pop a video in and sit through one of the handful of watchable movies made about this sport.

But, first, a question: Why are there great baseball movies but no great, unflawed gridiron flicks? Where’s the pigskin equivalent of ”Bull Durham” or ”Bang the Drum Slowly” or ”Field of Dreams”? Baseball seems to attract a wordy, weary idealism that works well with cinema. Football, on the other hand, elicits either uninteresting boosterism or uneasy cynicism on screen. Yeah, Oliver Stone’s ”Any Given Sunday” is an ambitious look at life in the pigskin trenches, but what else is there? For now, the following good-but-not-great movies are as good as we’ve got. In order of okayness:

”North Dallas Forty” (1979) Pretty damn good, thanks to Nick Nolte’s full-blooded performance as a clearheaded but burnt-out pro, based on Dallas Cowboys’ Pete Gent, who wrote the original book. This was made around the time that Nolte started looking like he prepared for his roles by sleeping in a trash can — and that just happens to dovetail nicely with this benched, trashed-knee tight end. You can keep Mac Davis as his party-hearty buddy, though.

”Brian’s Song” (1971) James Caan plays cancer-stricken Brian Piccolo of the Chicago Bears and Billy Dee Williams is his teammate Gale Sayers in a landmark TV movie that can turn the most hard-nosed jock into a whimpering bowl of pudding. Music by Michel Legrand, no less.

”Knute Rockne, All American” (1940) Iconic corn, laying out ground rules for the mythos of football that, rightly or wrongly, continue to resonate today. Pat O’Brian is the legendary Notre Dame coach, and Ronald Reagan, of course, is George Gipp, of ”Win one for the Gipper” fame.

”The Best of Times” (1986) Little-known gem starring Robin Williams as the small-town nerd who dropped the pass in the big game 20 years ago and is still living with the shame. Kurt Russell’s the former quarterback hero — now living in a trailer. Sentimental, to be sure, but gets under the skin of macho desperation better than any other film on the subject.

”The Longest Yard” (1974) Former pro-turned-convict Burt Reynolds fields a jailbird team against warden Eddie Albert’s goon squad. Brutally funny, it’s one of the few football films to own up to the notion that the game’s really about violence, and that violence can be fun.

”Horse Feathers” (1932) The Marx Brothers do to college football what they would later do to politics in ”Duck Soup.” And if you think it’s not relevant anymore, check out the scene where Groucho finds the hulking ringers playing for the rival team in the most obvious place: getting squiffed in a speakeasy. All this, and Chico’s quarterback calls, too: ”Hey diddle-diddle/The cat and the fiddle/This time I think we go through the middle.” Beats the halftime show anyday.