' ' Cinema Romantico: 5 Athletes Who Need A Biopic

Thursday, April 18, 2013

5 Athletes Who Need A Biopic

Currently “42”, the film telling the story of Jackie Robinson, the legendary figure who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, is in theaters. I’ll be honest – while I have the utmost respect for Robinson and his legacy, I have no desire to see the film. None at all. Middlebrow biopics don’t necessarily just drive me to sleepy-time, they can also drive me to outright anger. It’s like Wesley Morris says in writing about “42”: “Whenever it is that an icon passes from being human to being a saint is the point at which it's probably too late for a good movie. All you get is the lessons learned and very little of the naturalism or idiosyncrasy or personality that made the person iconic in the first place.” (“Lincoln” is the exception to this rule, but then “Lincoln” was as much about a single event as its title character.)

Joe Posnanski, a sportswriter I greatly admire, sort of disagreed with that take, writing: “If you are looking for shades of gray storytelling about the most consequential sports story in American history, this isn’t your movie. And, in so many ways, that was the right way to make this movie.” With all due respect to Mr. Posnanski, that is just such a cop out. It is. What was it Lester Bangs said in “Almost Famous”? Ah yes. “If you want to be a true friend to them, be honest and unmerciful.” If we wanted to be a true friend to Jackie Robinson and what he did, we should have been honest and unmerciful.

In any event, “42” got me to thinking. There are five sports biopics that I strongly believe should be made even though I simultaneously believe – and I want to stress this part – that they should NEVER EVER be made for the simple fact that Hollywood, in all its infinite wisdom, would TOTALLY f--- them up. On second thought, perhaps NEVER EVER is too strong a statement. Perhaps I should leave a little wiggle room. Perhaps I should have said, Never Ever. Better? I say Never Ever instead of NEVER EVER because if you got the proper filmmaker to make them they might have a puncher’s chance. Who should make them? I have a strong feeling in one case but not so much in the others.

All I know is that if these five sports biopics were made the right way – “honest and unmerciful” (although one might actually not be honest at all, but never mind) – they would tear the roof off the sucker.

5 Athletes Who Need A Biopic

Arvydas Sabonis. The real Sabonis, the supremely skilled Lithuanian basketball player whose greatest years were hidden to Americans on account of Soviet oppression, was interviewed in last year’s mostly ok doc “The Other Dream Team.” It chronicles, amongst other details, the infamous bronze medal game of the 1992 Olympics between the freed Lithuanian basketball team and Russia’s Unified Team. What it does not chronicle, however, is that game’s immediate aftermath. Let Jonathan Abrams tell it: “Sabonis and his teammates ventured back to the Olympic dormitory, where Sabonis challenged fellow Olympians in arm wrestling for shots. One by one, wrestlers and shot putters among them, Sabonis beat them. By the time of the award ceremony, three Lithuanians did not make it to the podium. Sabonis was one of them. … Sabonis was located a couple of days later in one of the women's Olympic dormitories.” Please tell me why that isn’t a movie.

Max Baer. You probably remember Baer from Ron Howard’s operatic “Cinderella Man” in which he was portrayed as the humongous, man-killing, immoral, heavyweight champion foil to Russell Crowe’s James J. Braddock. He was portrayed this way specifically to be the Villain since everything in Ron Howard’s world is BLACK!!! and WHITE!!! The real Baer, however, was cut from more complex cloth, a “clown”, a playboy, a sometimes actor who boxed as a means to make (a lot of) money and who suffered great guilt and drama from the death he caused in the ring. After losing to the “Cinderella Man” he would lose to Joe Louis when he took a punch and went down and stayed down. He was vilified and of that decision to stay down he said this: "Sure I quit. I got a family to think about, and if anybody wants to see the execution of Max Baer, he's got to pay more than $25 for a ringside seat. I never did like the fighting game, and this proves it." That’s the boxing movie climax I want to see.

Moe Berg. Let's just say this: “Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind” For Sports Fans.

Josh Gibson. Director Spike Lee had long wanted to do a Jackie Robinson biopic but for a myriad of reasons it never came into being and, thus, we have “42.” But I always felt Lee, a tough and unsentimental outsider while simultaneously a mythologizing romantic, was more suited to the telling of the (sort of) forgotten Josh Gibson, someone who has been romantically mythologized even though he was very much a tough and unsentimental outsider. He was the slugging catcher whose entire career was tragically relegated to the Negro Leagues, the slugging catcher who supposedly belted more home runs (in a season and in a career) than any Major League hitter (‘roided up or not) and once hit (do not adjust your TV screens) .517 for a season, the slugging catcher who lived a tortured life off the field and died too young. He is commonly referred to as "the black Babe Ruth" and that is a disservice. Someone needs to stand up, make a movie that doesn't compromise one damn thing and show everyone Josh Gibson was Josh Gibson.

Bo McMillian. The QB of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky who engineered arguably the greatest upset in college football history in 1921 (6-0 over Harvard, the modern day equivalent of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa defeating Alabama) would truly be a character worth an entire screenplay. Heartily religious, he never drank and never swore but also never went to class (he – and does this remind you of athletes of today? – openly admitted he went to school to play football) and – this is my favorite – sent teammates to Massachusetts ahead of their game with Harvard to both purposely talk down and, by extension, place bets on Centre. I repeat: the captain and star player GAMBLED ON HIS OWN TEAM in arguably the greatest upset in college football history. It would romanticize the sport while at the very same time acting as a sort of renunciation of its current incarnation. It could be epic. It could be perfect. And as terribly I wish I could one day see this movie...please, Hollywood, for the love of God, never try to make it.


Rory Larry said...

Gibson and Satchel Paige do get some biopic treatment in "Soul of the Game" which also covers the Jackie Robinson story. I can't attest to its historical accuracy but it does give a answer as to why Robinson was chosen despite the mythology of Gibson.

Max Baer's treatment in "Cinderella Man" is awful for the reasons you stated. Not that I need another reason to hate Opie or his overly sentimental crap movies.

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah, "Soul of the Game" was decent and all but we need a Gibson biopic that specifically focuses on him. With all due respect to HBO, it HAS to be Spike Lee. He's the one guy who won't compromise.