Keira Knightley and Michael Caine kicking soccer balls. Rob Lowe and Russell Crowe on hockey skates. Madonna making a catch in the outfield, and Ray Liotta batting from the wrong side of the plate. Sports films are known for performances that stretch credibility, with actors trying to look like athletes (and athletes sometimes trying to look like actors). We asked some of our writers for their nominations for the worst attempts by an actor to play an athlete.
Ronald Reagan in Knute Rockne, All American. Though impeccably dressed by the costume department, Ronald Reagan is otherwise unwatchable as Notre Dame football player George Gipp. Allegedly, Reagan pushed hard for the role and even boasted that he had met Gipp, which is highly unlikely as he was nine years old when the latter died. Particularly egregious is the famous deathbed scene in which a dying Gipp implores his coach to “win just one for the Gipper.” Reagan is so oily, and unsurprisingly (pitifully?) this line went on to christen Reagan “the Gipper” in his political life as well as to energize the entire Republican Party. The only good thing to come from this terrible performance is Leslie Nielsen’s parody in Airplane!.
-Lucia Trimbur teaches sociology at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is author of Come Out Swinging: The Changing World of Boxing at Gleason’s Gym.
Kevin Costner is the worst ever. In everything. The dude just makes the same movie over and over – insert Sport X, pretend you’re an Everyman, overcome adversity, rinse and repeat. I bet he would make Dances with Wolves now only if it was a movie about wolf hunting (or maybe if it was an animal dancing competition, and he was the grizzled-but-likable Everyman dance coach.)
–Aram Goudsouzian is author of King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution. He is chair of the History Department at the University of Memphis.
I am sure there are worse portrayals of athletes by actors, but I will go with Michael Jordan as himself in Space Jam. Jordan’s basketball skills did not translate particularly well into acting prowess – and the film itself, a hammy Looney Tunes vehicle, does not help the cause.
–Mark Norman is editor of the website Hockey in Society. He is PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, specializing in sociocultural studies of sport.
Keanu Reeves as quarterback Shane Falco in The Replacements. Everything about him playing football is just wrong wrong wrong. The movie could’ve been possibly salvaged if he’d revealed at the very end that he was, à la Point Break, an FBI agent, but alas: no. “Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever.” Ugh.
–Amy Bass is author of Not the Triumph But the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete. She teaches history at The College of New Rochelle.
Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer in Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War. The television mini-series tells the story of the rise of one-day cricket and the decline of amateurism following the Australian media mogul’s determination to control the broadcast rights to the summer game. Hulme’s acting is actually very good, but the glorification of Packer’s bullying and bombast leaves a sour taste. An apology for a thuggish brand of unreconstructed sexism and masculinity that is best forgotten.
-Brett Hutchins teaches in the School of Film, Media & Journalism at Monash University. He is co-author of Sport Beyond Television: The Internet, Digital Media & the Rise of Networked Media Sport.
Kathy Ireland in Necessary Roughness. It’s not entirely her fault. It’s a terrible part: Lucy Draper, a college soccer star turned football kicker, becoming the beleaguered Texas State University football team’s first female player. Ireland was absolutely awful in this role. Whether she’s pretending to kick footballs, kicking the opposing team’s player in the balls, or prancing around in her towel – perfectly coiffed – in an obligatory locker room scene, Ireland is utterly unconvincing as an athlete. There is nothing here that is even slightly strong, rough, or tough, although there is one scene in which it appears she somehow got dirt on her right palm.
–Devoney Looser is professor of English at Arizona State University.
Wayne Gretzky’s entire oeuvre of dramatic performances in which he plays a character other than himself. There are two. The first came in 1981, still relatively early in Gretzky’s NHL career, when the young superstar appeared in an episode of the soap opera The Young and The Restless as a mafia thug. Gretzky had only one line to deliver in this role, and it was deliciously referential for those in the know: “I’m Wayne from the Edmonton operation.” Gretzky’s second character performance didn’t come until 2011, when he appeared as an “additional soccer player” in the film Robotropolis. The idea of Gretzky as a soccer-playing extra in a B-movie about killer robots strikes me as so bizarre that it may be a hoax – even after watching the relevant scene in slow motion, I wasn’t able to identify Gretzky with definitive certainty. Nonetheless, I like the prospect so much that I really hope it’s true.
–Michael Buma is author of Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels.
Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder. This is a pretty naff movie all round. However, I tend to feel sorry for actors who have to perform roles involving sport because it’s so difficult to recreate the sense of spontaneity. I guess that’s partly why we love to watch sports as opposed to drama, which has a rehearsed element.
–Jean Williams is senior research fellow at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University.
Vinnie Jones in the 2001 film Mean Machine. As an actor, Jones does a good turn in quirky cinematic thuggishness, notably in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He was not much different during his football career. But in Mean Machine Jones is called on to extend his acting range a little in the role of the disgraced England football team captain. Banned for match fixing and jailed for assaulting the police, Danny “The Mean Machine” Meehan becomes player-coach of a team of inmates who play a match against the prison officers. Pressured to throw another game, Meehan redeems himself by leading the prisoners to a satisfying victory against the “screws.” In the process, he attempts to show empathy, comedic facility and a certain nobility. Given the clichéd narrative and well-worn path to resolution, this should not have been too demanding a task for its lead actor. But Jones’s virtuoso woodenness demonstrated that the role was beyond him, and “The Mean Machine” was as mechanical as his nickname.
–David Rowe is professor of cultural research in the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney.
Sylvester Stallone, for the cumulative badness of the later Rocky films. The original Rocky is undoubtedly one of the finest films ever made and Stallone’s performance is sublime – he very nearly grabbed my pick for best ever. But by the time Rocky IV came about the character had collapsed into over-blown Reaganite hyper-patriotism and had ceased to have any kind of genuine meaning beyond (to borrow from a hilarious parody) “America, Fuck Yeah!” In channelling his inner Reaganite, Stallone failed to realise, I think, that what had made Rocky Balboa so exceptional a character was not the patriotism and hyper-masculinity but the vulnerability and determination of a working-class man trying to do his best in a world that was otherwise hostile to people like him.
-Daryl Leeworthy teaches history at the University of Huddersfield.
Sylvester Stallone and Pelé in John Huston’s 1981 Escape to Victory. The film not only presents the quintessentially implausible course of a game, but it also features incredibly bad acting.
–Markus Stauff is a member of the media studies department at the University of Amsterdam. He is co-editor of the book Filmgenres: Sportfilm.
For the worst performance, it’s got to be Sylvester Stallone. Not for the Rocky films, which I rather like, though they are ridiculous enough in themselves, but for his truly risible role in Escape to Victory (released as Victory in the USA). This 1981 farrago, about a World War II soccer match between English prisoners of war and a German side, featured a number of real soccer players including Pelé and Bobby Moore. The convoluted plot climaxes with the American character played by Stallone standing in for the English goalie (even though everybody both inside and outside the film knows Sly is a far inferior player), saving a crucial penalty to clinch the match, and then pulling off the tried-and-tested cinematic trick of escaping with the rest of his team under cover of the applause.
–David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King’s College London.
Tim Robbins gets the award for least believable athlete as a top young pitching prospect in Bull Durham. He has the height to be a Major League pitcher, but he throws the ball awkwardly, like a Little Leaguer who’s having trouble controlling a body that’s growing too fast. One critic has written that casting Robbins was the equivalent of putting Charles Barkley in a golf movie. My other choice for least believable performance has to go to John Goodman in The Babe. I really like Goodman as an actor, but he’s insulting Ruth’s legacy in this role. The Bambino may have eaten and drank too much, but he was never as overweight as Goodman is in this movie. Batting from the left side, Goodman reaches for the ball and is so off-balance that it’s hard to believe the ball would go a long way after he hits it.
–Aaron Baker is author of Contesting Identity: Sports in American Film. He teaches film and media at Arizona State University.