Sports Movies and the Academy Award for Best Picture

Sports Movies and the Academy Award for Best Picture

As noted in February 2010 in the Personal Journal section of the WSJ there haven’t been very many sports-related movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. While the sport of boxing has received the most attention from the Academy only two other sports have had more than a single nominee among the year’s best over its 82 year history: America’s former and current pastimes – baseball and football respectively. Last year’s dramatization of football’s Michael Oher story – The Blind Side (2009) – just received a nomination but was likely aided by Sandra Bullock’s performance (and nomination for Best Actress) and the fact that AMPAS increased the number of nominees from 5 to 10 for the first time since 1943 when Casablanca (1942) won.

During the Academy’s tenure only 14 of 479 (less than 3%) nominees for Best Picture – arguably its most vaunted certainly its most remembered and discussed if not always most acclaimed category – have been sports-related movies despite the inherent drama in stories like that of Jim Braddock (Cinderella Man (2005)) which failed to earn a BP nomination. One can only speculate whether The Champ (1931) – one of eight nominees for the top award that year Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and even The Pride of the Yankees (1942) would have been nominated if the Academy had limited the category to 5 nominees as it did from 1944 through 2008.

But a more interesting question might be: which sports movies “woulda coulda shoulda” been contenders if there had been 10 Best Picture nominees in their respective years?

First an accounting of the sports-related movies that did receive Best Picture nominations (and won):

Boxing: The Champ (1931) Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) From Here to Eternity (1953) Rocky (1976) Raging Bull (1980) Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Football: Heaven Can Wait (1978) Jerry Maguire (1996) The Blind Side (2009)

Baseball: The Pride of the Yankees (1942) Field of Dreams (1989)

Cycling: Breaking Away (1979)

Horse Racing: Seabiscuit (2003)

Pool: The Hustler (1961) – this was on the WSJ’s list (I didn’t know pool was considered a sport!)

Running/Track: Chariots of Fire (1981)

As you can see my definition of “sports-related” is that a sport is integral to the story e.g. Jack Lemmon’s character using a tennis racquet to strain spaghetti for Shirley MacLaine’s doesn’t qualify The Apartment (1960) however Prewitt’s refusal to box for his army unit is a key element in From Here to Eternity’s plot. One could also argue that the sport of swimming (and even sailing too) is an important part of the Oscar winning Ordinary People (1980).

Here are some films that I believe might have been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar had the number of nominees been 10 (instead of 5) in their year of eligibility (with an obvious bias towards movies that the Academy recognized with at least one nomination in another category):

Horse Racing

  • National Velvet (1944) which was subsequently added to the National Film Registry; it received five Oscar nominations – winning two including for Anne Revere (Supporting Actress) just two years after the change from 10 to 5
  • The Black Stallion (1979) also added to the National Film Registry it won a Special Achievement Award and received two other nominations including one for Mickey Rooney Supporting Actor


  • Damn Yankees! (1958) which received a nomination for Best Music Score
  • The Natural (1984) was nominated in four other categories and included Glenn Close’s third consecutive Supporting Actress nomination
  • Bull Durham (1988) which received a Best Writing Original Screenplay nomination


  • Hoosiers (1986) added to the National Film Registry; it received two nominations including one for Dennis Hopper (Supporting Actor)


  • Body and Soul (1947) won for Best Editing; earned a Best Actor nomination for John Garfield and its Original Screenplay
  • Champion (1949) won for Best Editing; earned a Best Actor nomination for Kirk Douglas and a Supporting Actor nomination for Arthur Kennedy another for its Screenplay to go with two others
  • The Set-Up (1949) a highly regarded drama featuring Robert Ryan likely hurt by the presence of the more mainstream Champion (1949) but did win two awards at the Cannes Film Festival one of which was for its director Robert Wise
  • Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) this Rocky Graziano biography featuring Paul Newman won two Oscars and was nominated for another
  • Cinderella Man (2005) Ron Howard’s Braddock bio featuring Russell Crowe and Renée Zellweger received three nominations including one for Supporting Actor Paul Giamatti

I couldn’t include City for Conquest (1940) or Gentleman Jim (1942) two of my favorite boxing movies; both were released in years that there were 10 Best Picture nominees and that neither was nominated in any category.


  • The Color of Money (1986) Paul Newman finally won his Best Actor Oscar plus three other nominations


  • This Sporting Life (1963) included Best Actor and Best Actress nominations for Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts



  • The Wrestler (2008) which earned Mickey Rourke (Best Actor) and Marisa Tomei (Supporting Actress) nominations

Honorary mentions:

Football’s Remember the Titans (2000) and Olympic Hockey’s Miracle (2004) – how does this movie’s editing not get nominated? because both stories transcend sport

Other worthy and/or nominated sports-related movies:

Auto Racing

  • Cars (2006) – which could have been like 2010’s Up (2009) – nominated for Best Picture but was instead nominated in the Animated Feature of the Year category


  • The Stratton Story (1949) – won a writing Oscar
  • It Happens Every Spring (1949) – earned a writing nomination
  • Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) – for which Vincent Gardenia earned a Supporting Actor nomination
  • The Bad News Bears (1976)
  • A League of Their Own (1992)
  • The Rookie (2002)


  • The Big Lebowski (1998)


  • The Harder They Fall (1956) – received a nomination for its cinematography
  • Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)
  • The Hurricane (1999) – for which Denzel Washington received a Best Actor nomination
  • Ali (2001) – which earned Will Smith a Best Actor nomination and Jon Voight a Supporting Actor nomination


  • The Longest Yard (1974) – received a Best Editing nomination but comedies are also rarely nominated for Best Picture
  • Rudy (1993)
  • The Express (2008)


  • Caddyshack (1980)


  • Slap Shot (1977)


  • The Karate Kid (1984) – which earned Pat Morita a Supporting Actor nomination


  • Match Point (2005) – Woody Allen received a writing nomination

Lest we forget: Pat and Mike (1952) – although that year featured several other essentials that didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination: 5 Fingers The Bad and the Beautiful Come Back Little Sheba and Singin’ in the Rain; The Great Race (1965) and The Endless Summer (1966) … and one could make a case for Trader Horn (1931) big game hunting or even possibly The Sting (1973).

© 2010 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog

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