What is it about boxing movies that pulls in Oscar voters? I sent the question out to Twitter to see how many films about or featuring boxing that ended up doing well, Oscar-wise, by winning or receiving at least one nomination. There were more than I remembered. The biggest surprise was that I’d forgotten Million Dollar Baby in my first pass, remembering only Rocky and Raging Bull.
From Here to Eternity, The Quiet Man, Pulp Fiction, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Champion, Body & Soul (a great one), Ali, The Hurricane, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Great White Hope, and On the Waterfront were all brought up.
It is probably true that if there is a good movie made about boxing, the Academy will be all over it. There have been hopeful failures, too, like The Hurricane and Cinderella Man. When they depart too broadly from the formula, it doesn’t appear to register as strongly.
What your fight movie has to have, and The Fighter seems to have this in spades, is real emotion. It has to be tragic, not triumphant. No one is going to care if you are the winner so much as if you gave it your all and it damned near killed you.
The most successful Oscar winners were probably Rocky, Million Dollar Baby and Raging Bull by default.
With these three movies in mind, and in anticipation of David O’Russell’s eagerly awaited film, The Fighter, I wondered what was it about these movies that made them so appealing? Here is what I came up with.
1. A good boxing Oscar movie must include a bloody fight at or near the end. This fight should disfigure the face of the hero to the extent that one eye is swollen and bloody.
2. There has to be a scene where the mouth guard has blood all over it.It has to be taken out and put back in repeatedly.
3. During the fight, it is required that the fighter retreat momentarily to get rubbed down, stitched up, and sponged. During this time, the fighter is warned to back off because “it’s not worth it.” And if that doesn’t work, “cut me.”
4. Losing is better than winning. And if you are going to win, die very soon thereafter. Or at least be assisted suicided by Clint Eastwood.
5. If the hero does lose, he or she must manage to look like the winner because he or she won at the important stuff: he or she was a good person and tried hard. No matter what, never smash a champion belt for the jewels. It’s worth more intact and in its original condition.
6. The training scenes are vital. They must take place in a grubby, real-man’s gym. None of this 24 Hour Fitness mamsy pamsy spa gyms. The coach has to be there telling the hero that he or she is not working hard enough. And again! And again! And again!
7. There has to be something else at stake besides just playing the game. Palpable desperation for financial gain, for instance, personal recognition, a chance to play like the big boys do: nobody likes a rich fighter doing it just for sport.
8. Blood and spit must play a key role. Muscles also figure in prominently. The physical transformation of the actor is key. They trained this many hours a day, they gained or lost this many pounds – it helps with the realism.
9. Boxing is a game about winners and losers. You want your audience to side with the loser – a loser at life in general is always a good bet, like a waitress who has to steal food just to eat well, etc.
10. Pride goeth before the fall. Unless you’re prepared to lose the Oscar for Best Picture don’t make your hero an anti-hero. If you are as self-deluded and foolish as Jake LaMotta, you’ll have to sit this one out.