With the Oscars and the Razzies coming up, we recognize the best and worst performances by actors who have played athletes on film. After asking our writers to pick the worst, we salute the best – from well known classics to overlooked gems that deserve a spot in your Netflix queue.
Obviously, Bill Murray is the best ever as Ernie McCracken in Kingpin. Nothing makes the bowling underworld in the early 1980s come alive like Kingpin, and no one makes despicable people as lovable as Bill Murray. I would drink Tanqueray-and-Tabs with The Big Ern all day long.
–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’m a sucker for a good baseball movie. From Major League (hard to beat Charlie Sheen entering the game to the song “Wild Thing”) to Field of Dreams (swoon), Hollywood just makes baseball better.
I’m going to split my vote. My favorite character performance is Megan Cavanagh as Marla Hooch in A League of Their Own. Marla encompasses the stereotype of “mannishness” that many women in sports contend with: she is a rock-star hitter with a pathologically shy personality, which undoubtedly came from the fact that her father raised her to be an athlete in an age when women were supposed to get married and have babies. With her portrayal of Marla, Cavanagh exemplifies what a character actor can contribute to a film, balancing the young woman’s shy demeanor with her physical prowess. And oh my, can she knock it out of the park! The two parts of Marla’s character are finally fused together on a drunken night out with the team. She slurs the song “It Had To Be You” into a microphone at a dive bar and ends up getting the batting title and the boy. When does that ever happen?
But when thinking about actors portraying athletes, nothing comes close to Kevin Costner as Crash Davis in Bull Durham. Costner looks like baseball, feels like baseball, and sounds like baseball. From his worldly yet casual advice to the young prospect Nuke LaLoosh to his philosophical game strategies, Costner delivers the lines of the best-written sports movie with an air of knowledge and confidence that makes it all work. And when he utters “Yeah, I’ve been in the show” to a busload of minor league hopefuls with big dreams, your heart breaks for the athlete who never quite got to the top. By the end of the season, he breaks the batting record in the minor leagues, a feat that Crash recognizes should never even be acknowledged.
–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.
Matt Nable in a small 2007 film called The Final Winter. He plays an old-style and reasonably violent rugby league player in a fast professionalising game that no longer tolerates the “old ways.” Nable had been a professional rugby league player, and he wrote the screenplay himself. The film is an acute examination of class and business in a once suburban-based game.
–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.
Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber. Welch is proof that gorgeous actors can play stunning film athletes, even in mediocre roles. This isn’t a great movie, but Welch is riveting on skates as struggling divorced mom and roller derby star K. C. Carr. Despite displaying athletic grace, physical power, and hard-hitting competitiveness, Welch throws more than a few lousy punches in 1970s derby-style fake fights. But when she pushes another skater, flies around the rink with hands in the air, and grabs for the finish line in slow motion, you want to believe it. (Welch is said to have done much of her own skating for this film, even sustaining a broken wrist that delayed filming. Derby star Judy Arnold served as her double.)
–Devoney Looser is professor of English at Arizona State University.
Raging Bull is the best sports film I have seen, and Robert De Niro’s performance as troubled and violent boxer Jake LaMotta is one of the major reasons why. But I will give a darkhorse nomination to French Canadian actor Roy Dupuis for his impressive portrayal of ice hockey legend Maurice “The Rocket” Richard in the 2005 film The Rocket. In the province of Quebec, Richard is one of the most beloved figures, sporting or otherwise, to have ever lived – and capturing his both his fiery on-ice persona and his quieter off-ice life must have been a daunting task for Dupuis. But he succeeds admirably in the role and excellently portrays the legendary hockey star.
–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.
It’s a pity that the question explicitly asks for an actor performing the role of an athlete. For an actor performing the role of a coach, it would have been so much easier. The first performance that comes to mind is Kyle Chandler as Coach Taylor in the TV drama Friday Night Lights. While Chandler displays the authoritative, caring, masculine attitude so characteristic for most fictional coaches, his acting constantly allows for allusions to possibly different attitudes, including acceptance of failure (and even of women as equals).
Actors’ performances as athletes are so much defined by the particular kind of sport that it seems unfair to make comparisons: Track-and-field (as in Chariots of Fire or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) restricts the acting in the actual sport scenes, while boxing offers all the possibilities of drama. Boxing also can be much easier staged and imitated, especially through editing and close-ups, than soccer for example. Somewhere in between lies basketball, and maybe this is why I would hand the award to two actors in films about that sport. In Spike Lee’s much-criticized He Got Game, NBA player Ray Allen competes with the great actor Denzel Washington – and in my eyes does very well. His combination of credible basketball moves with the personification of a stubborn adolescent contributes much to the political statement the film aims at. And in the film Love & Basketball, Sanaa Lathan offers a subtle depiction of an athlete’s life over more than a decade. The film’s story – which is sometimes slightly kitschy – would be much less convincing without her determined acting and play.
–Markus Stauff is a member of the media studies department at the University of Amsterdam. He is co-editor of the book Filmgenres: Sportfilm.
Denzel Washington as Rubin Carter in Hurricane. Although the film doesn’t involve a large amount of boxing scenes, there is a huge dignity that the actor brings to an athlete who is forced to be still for long periods of time.
One of my favourite films in terms of actors as athletic performers is The Wrestler featuring Mickey Rourke, partly because it is a brilliant commentary on ageing in both an acting and sporting context. As the promo for the film said, “Mickey Rourke is the Wrestler,” and the arc of his acting career is mirrored in the story of the film. Mickey was once beautiful but certainly isn’t any more. His current fascination with boxing suggests that more than method acting was involved in his comeback role.
And if you would indulge me, my all-time favorite athletic performance by a female – rather than a strictly sporting role – is Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films. The incredible set-piece fights that Thurman performed show a degree of athleticism and dynamism that is rarely captured on screen with female actors.
–Jean Williams is senior research fellow at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University.
I expect that many of the panel will go for Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. While I agree that is a great performance, I can’t warm to the film. When I was a kid in South Africa in the 1950s, I was a junior boxer and a huge fan. Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta – the very names glowed in lights. I can’t help feeling that Scorcese didn’t properly appreciate the stature of his subject.
Apart from De Niro, there are many excellent contenders. Katherine Hepburn as a golfer and tennis player in Pat and Mike, Matt Damon in Invictus, Kevin Costner in the glorious Tin Cup. But I vote for the British actor Jack Warner in The Last Test (1953). Warner plays an aging international cricketer who desperately wants his son to see him play in his final game for England. But the boy is an aesthete who cares nothing for cricket, and spends most of the film trying to gain an audience with an eminent poet (Robert Morley) – who turns out to be an avid cricket fan and bustles the son down to the Oval just in time. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but Warner is moving in a role he must have modelled on the greatest of all English batsmen, Jack Hobbs.
–David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King’s College London and the CUNY Graduate Center.
The only real “contender” for best performance of an athlete in a film is Robert De Niro’s portrayal of the boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. However, since this is a rather boring and predictable answer, I’d like to shift the criteria and suggest a possible runner-up: Jonah Hill’s portrayal of Peter Brand, a Yale-educated stats wonk whose brain becomes the basis for the sabermetric makeover of the Oakland A’s in Moneyball (the character is based in part on Paul DePodesta, a former assistant to A’s general manager Billy Beane). Hill’s performance was good enough to earn him an Oscar nomination, and demonstrated a capacity for dramatic depth well beyond anything suggested by his earlier work. But what makes his performance especially noteworthy is its contribution toward shifting popular perceptions of sports fandom. We have reached a moment when the kind of data-crunching super-fan that dedicates hours to spreadsheets and advanced fantasy pools is, if not entirely mainstream, generally accepted and possibly even cool. With professional sports franchises hiring real-life Peter Brands and new stats blogs and metrics springing up every day, Jonah Hill’s portrayal of the baseball intellectual-turned-insider as a cautious, kind-hearted, slightly awkward, and essentially normal guy has surely been a significant factor in this development.
–Michael Buma is author of Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels.
Tom Courtenay as Colin in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the film adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s short story. The film is a central work in the British “new wave” of the early 1960s, when the novels and stories of the “angry young men” of the British literary world were translated and adapted into iconic films. Colin (in Sillitoe’s story, he’s known as Smith) is a teenager from a poor, working-class home in Nottingham. Despite the possibilities often talked about by historians in this post-war “age of affluence,” for most working-class people this wasn’t entirely a time of great opportunity. Boredom and frustration lead Colin to petty crime and eventually to a Borstal institution (a youth correction facility, in essence), where his athletic ability comes to the attention of the governor. Courtenay’s performance is utterly brilliant because it is entirely authentic: he grew up in a working-class home in Hull and had experienced the frustrations and challenges of that background in a society dominated by hierarchies of class. With that authenticity at the heart of Courtenay’s acting, we catch a brilliant glimpse of the dehumanising effects of a class-structured society that limits the opportunities of its poorest members. Given all that has happened over the last ten years, it’s no surprise that this film feels very modern even though it is over half a century old.
-Daryl Leeworthy teaches history at the University of Huddersfield.
Anthony Quinn as Mountain Rivera in the 1962 film version of Requiem for a Heavyweight. I am not a fan of the boxing film genre (being a little too squeamish), but I could not fail to be moved by the performance of Anthony Quinn (who is by no means my favourite actor). Quinn does a beautiful job of bringing out the pathos of the boxer’s predicament, surrounded by sharks and confronted by its unremitting brutality. He tries to break away, but loyalty and foolishness deprive him of a better life (including a budding romantic relationship). His inarticulacy is evident not only in his difficulty with words, but in the disposition of his muscular body. Quinn’s sad fate in performing as the faux Native American wrestler “Big Chief” Mountain Rivera, is captured perfectly through his haunted figure trapped in a ring of artifice, seemingly for eternity.
–David Rowe is professor of cultural research in the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney.
I would love to argue that Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald (Million Dollar Baby), Christian Bale as Dickey Eklund (The Fighter), Denzel Washington as Rubin Carter (The Hurricane), or even Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward (The Fighter) come close to Robert DeNiro as Jack LaMotta. But they don’t. From the opening sequence of Raging Bull (which is so gorgeous it can make you cry), in which DeNiro uncannily captures LaMotta’s hunched stance, reliance on uppercuts, and penchant for body shots, to the final scene of a washed-up LaMotta preparing himself for an absurd stand-up performance, DeNiro is flawless. In non-boxing scenes, he’s tense, terrifying, and pitch perfect. In boxing scenes that nail the black-and-white Golden Age of New York City pugilism, DeNiro holds his own, the result not only of a year of training under LaMotta’s watchful eye but also of some natural athletic ability. Much has been made of DeNiro’s 60-pound weight gain and the dangerous health effects, but he’s the winner to my mind because he brilliantly portrays LaMotta over time – from the fit, aggressive, unpleasant fighter of the 1940s to the relentlessly unlikeable circus show of the 1960s and everything in between.
-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.
I have to start with Raging Bull, the biopic of middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta. In playing this role Robert De Niro raised the bar for film actor preparation, training with LaMotta for nearly a year, boxing some 1,000 rounds in a gym in lower Manhattan, and adding twenty pounds of muscle to his 145-pound frame. De Niro got so good that he fought three professional bouts and won two of them. LaMotta was quoted as saying that he thought De Niro had enough ability to be a ranked contender.
Another deserving nominee is Kevin Costner, who gets a career award for his baseball movies, three of which, Bull Durham (1988), Field of Dreams (1989) and For the Love of the Game (1999) stand out. For me as a fan, Costner’s performance as Crash Davis in Bull Durham is his best. Costner throws well and his swing is good, but just as important is that he has the mannerisms down – and he talks like a ballplayer. Case in point is a scene of Crash in the batter’s box, telling himself to stay back and shorten up and then, after fouling one off, yelling to the pitcher: “Throw that shit again, meat. Throw that weak-ass shit again.”
Two of my favorite basketball movies involve actors who can actually play ball. The first is the 2000 Gina Prince-Bythewood film Love and Basketball about Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan), and Quincy McCall (Omar Epps), who grow up together in LA, and both play at USC and as professionals. Prince-Bythewood is mostly concerned with their relationship, but the action scenes are done well: Lathan and Epps can dribble and shoot, and most of the action on the court is filmed with the camera far enough away that we can actually see them playing. This film is also memorable for its final scene of Quincy watching Monica in a WNBA game, sitting with their young daughter. This ending offers a picture of the successful results that Title IX has produced for female athletes, and the need for men to support that progress.
The other basketball movie with good action scenes is White Men Can’t Jump. Like Love and Basketball, it features a pair of believable athletic performances. Directed by former Baltimore Orioles farmhand Ron Shelton (who also did Bull Durham), White Men Can’t Jump tells the story of two hustlers playing basketball for money on the hard courts of Los Angeles. Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson in the lead roles have the basketball skills to walk the walk, enough in fact that Shelton can show them ballin’ in slow motion. And both Snipes and Harrelson trash talk throughout the action without it seeming too ridiculous.
–Aaron Baker is author of Contesting Identity: Sports in American Film. He teaches film and media at Arizona State University.