Cinematic knockouts

Boxing films often floor the Acad, all while examining the human condition

Director Clint Eastwood and actress Hilary Swank have been saying that “Million Dollar Baby” isn’t really a boxing movie, but when it comes to the Oscars, they might hope that voters disagree.

That’s because Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members often are knocked out by boxing films, at least if the nominations for movies from “The Champ” (1931) to “Ali” (2001) are any indication.

“Million Dollar Baby” goes into Oscar night with more than a puncher’s chance, having received seven noms, including for picture, director, actor (Eastwood), actress (Swank) and a supporting mention for Morgan Freeman.

Dating back 74 years, King Vidor’s “The Champ,” a melodrama about a washed-up boxer’s relationship with his son, received four nominations, including picture, and it won for actor (Wallace Beery, actually in a tie with Frederic March of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) and original story. (Franco Zeffirelli’s poorly received 1979 remake netted an original score nomination.)

Alexander Hall’s comedy “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (1941), in which Robert Montgomery’s prizefighter dies before his time and returns to occupy another boxer’s body, scored seven nominations, including picture, and it took home the golden fellas for original story and screenplay. (Warren Beatty’s 1978 remake, “Heaven Can Wait,” changed the sport to football.)

John Garfield scored an actor nomination for his portrayal of ascendant, ruthless champion Charlie Davis in Robert Rossen’s “Body and Soul” (1947), which also was nominated for original screenplay and won for editing. Playing a boxer also paid off for Kirk Douglas, who received his first Oscar nom for his portrayal of the unscrupulous Midge Kelly in Mark Robson’s “Champion” (1949). That movie collected six mentions and won for cinematography.

“Somebody up There Likes Me” (1956), Robert Wise’s biopic about Rocky Graziano, received three noms and collected Oscars for cinematography and art direction.

Skip ahead to the 1970s, and you’ve got James Earl Jones snagging an actor nom for playing heavyweight champ Jack Jefferson in Martin Ritt’s 1970 drama “The Great White Hope.” (Jane Alexander received an actress nom as Jefferson’s mistress.)

Then came the one true boxing movie actually to wear the championship belt: John Avildsen’s “Rocky” (1976), which won for picture, director and editing, and tallied seven other noms, including Sylvester Stallone in the writing and lead actor categories. (1982’s “Rocky III” is the only other Rocky movie to score an Oscar nom — for, yes, Survivor’s chest-thumping “Eye of the Tiger” as song.)

Often considered the brutal king of boxing movies, Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (1980) brought Robert De Niro an actor Oscar for his transformative performance as Jake LaMotta. The movie also won for editing among its eight noms.

More recently, Denzel Washington received an actor mention for playing the wrongly convicted for murder middleweight Ruben Carter in Norman Jewison’s “The Hurricane” (1999), the same year that Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s “On the Ropes” — the real-life story of three young boxers — was nominated for documentary feature.

Two years later, Will Smith became another actor nominee as the title character of Michael Mann’s “Ali” (which also snagged a supporting actor nomination for Jon Voight’s Howard Cosell).

“That’s a significant list,” Academy historian Patrick Stockstill agrees, noting that although he’s never researched which sport has been featured in the most Oscar-nominated movies, he was hard-pressed to think of another one that rivals boxing’s track record.

And given the resumes of those involved, don’t be surprised a year from now if the discussion has shifted to Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man,” starring Russell Crowe as Depression-era heavyweight upstart Jim Braddock.

What is it about boxing that makes the trip from the ring to the red carpet such a natural?

“Boxing, if you do it right, is unbelievably dramatic because it’s the only sport in the world that is one on one for your life,” “Cinderella Man” producer Brian Grazer says, noting that great actors often are drawn to such roles.

“If the movie turns out to be great and the actor is great, you find yourself going all the way,” Grazer notes. “Certainly in the case of ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ it’s a tremendous tour de force for the director and the star. The stakes are so high.”

“Million Dollar Baby” editor Joel Cox agrees, saying boxing taps into a society’s deep well of competitiveness. “There seems to be something about two combatants going against each other,” says Cox, Eastwood’s longtime editor who already has received an American Cinema Editors nom for “Million Dollar Baby.” “You go back to ‘Ben-Hur,’ the chariot race, two combatants. It really goes back to those gladiator days when it started. The public was enamored of it.”

Subject matter aside, boxing is particularly cinematic. With football you’ve got to deal with those helmets that get in the way of facial expressions. In baseball the two main antagonists — pitcher and batter — stand 90 feet apart.

Boxing allows filmmakers to get in close, establish a rhythm and let ‘er rip. It’s no wonder so many boxing films have been recognized for their editing. “Doing a fight scene is just like a very emotional scene. It’s the hits and the reactions and the choreography of the movement of the fighters,” says Cox. “Obviously in films we can’t actually hit people any more than we can shoot people, so it’s an important thing in editing to make it look like people are hitting people.”

In fact, the biggest problem regarding boxing’s filmability might be that so many other filmmakers already have taken their swings. For every “Million Dollar Baby,” after all, there’s “Against the Ropes” or “Play It to the Bone.”

“You have to make it different from what you’ve seen before,” Grazer affirms. “The great ones stand out, and the other ones don’t. You have to find a way to show a sport in a different light.”

While Scorsese’s in-the-ring action was a dizzying jumble of quick cuts, close-ups and flashbulbs, Eastwood shoots his boxing scenes with a minimum of dazzle.

“I keep my (camera) moves to a minimum and work to make them seem like you’d never notice them,” Eastwood told Variety late last year. “I don’t try to feature the camera and the director to an obvious degree because we’re trying to feature the story and the characters.”

“I had to convince (Warner Bros.) that ‘Million Dollar Baby’ wasn’t a boxing movie. … To me ‘Million Dollar Baby’ is a love story, a father-daughter love story.”

Swank is in the same corner.

“Yes, boxing is an element of the movie, but to me it’s about relationships and love and the power of those relationships and the power of someone believing in you and how you don’t have to be blood to be family,” she explains.

In other words, the best boxing movies thrive on story, not just action. Nevertheless, the sport did get under Swank’s skin during her five months of preparing for the role.

“I love boxing,” she says. “I’d like to go in and train every once in a while.”

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