Great Boxing Movies
When I first wrote this article, I hadn't seen several "great boxing movies" which I hope to add to this essay soon. Among them are: Champion (1949) with Kirk Douglas, The Set-Up (1949) with Robert Ryan, and Kid Galahad (1937) with Bette Davis & Edward G. Robinson which includes a funny reference to Body and Soul (1947) (below). Plus, thanks to TCM I have also now seen The Champ (1931) with Wallace Beery!
There are a lot of GREAT movies which feature boxing. One of the first was The Champ (1931), about a washed-up prizefighter and his adoring son (played by Jackie Cooper). Wallace Beery, a terrific actor from the 30's, won the Best Actor Oscar in this King Vidor (nominated for Best Director) film which was also nominated for Best Picture and took home the Best Writing, Original Story statuette as well. The other great boxing film from that decade was William Holden's first starring role, the somewhat dated Golden Boy (1939) (one nomination) about a street fighter named Joe Bonaparte, who also happens to be a talented violinist. This part was originally written for actor John Garfield by a friend, but Jack Warner owned Garfield's contract and would not loan him to Columbia for the film (I think I heard Robert Osborne mention this just before I watched the film on TCM).
The 40's gave us three more excellent films featuring boxing starting with Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), starring Robert Montgomery and always terrific supporting role actor James Gleason (both were nominated for Academy Awards; the film was nominated for seven, and won the two Writing awards). Many who haven't seen this picture about a man accidentally sent to heaven before his time have probably seen the remake (Heaven Can Wait (1978) with Warren Beatty as a football player instead of a boxer). Raoul Walsh's Gentleman Jim (1942) is perhaps my favorite early boxing movie and, incredibly, it's a true story. Errol Flynn portrays Jim Corbett who became the first heavyweight champion of the world under the new Marquis of Queensberry rules. The last great boxing film from the decade was Body and Soul (1947) which explores the darker side of the sport('s past?). It received three Oscar nominations (won Editing) including John Garfield's second for Best Actor.
NOTE: On 4/18/2005, I reviewed another great boxing movie from the 1940's called City for Conquest (1940).
If you haven't already figured it out by now, Oscar loves Pugilism. In fact, it's become almost a given that a good boxing movie will at the very least earn an Editing nomination. Not only that but, as you watch these earlier films AND the later ones, you'll see that they are effectively showcases for some of the "macho men" of their time & movie history.
The fifties gave us three more great films about the fight game, if you count From Here to Eternity (1953) which doesn't actually show much action of the sport. However, the fact that Montgomery Clift's character is a former boxer that doesn't want to fight on the base team IS central to the entire movie's plot. Of course, the Academy loved the film, nominating it for a record 13 (it won 8 including Best Picture). Robert Wise's Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) is the true story of Rocky Graziano, portrayed by Paul Newman (who was actually filling in for James Dean, who had tragically died young). It won 2 out of the 3 AAs for which it was nominated. The last great film from this decade was also Humphrey Bogart's last, The Harder They Fall (1956), though obviously he didn't play the boxer. He plays a has-been sportswriter hired as a publicist by Rod Steiger's character to promote a phony fighter imported from Argentina. Though this picture only received one nomination (B&W Cinematography), there are some great scenes between these two heavyweight actors as the verbally spar over how to treat/use their "boxer".
NOTE: On 8/24/2006, I watched and reviewed a pretty good boxing movie from the 1960's called Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962).
Hollywood waited until the 70's before it revived the boxing genre. I don't know a lot about Martin Ritt's The Great White Hope (1970) which earned Best Actor Oscar nominations for its two leads, James Earl Jones & Jane Alexander, except that it used the sport as a backdrop to explore interracial relationships (and most Martin Ritt films are great!). Charles Bronson and James Coburn paired in Hard Times (1975), which probably couldn't be considered "great", but I love those guys work. Bronson is an aging, loner with a powerful punch that hooks up with street fight promoter Coburn during the Depression. Strother Martin plays a drunken "doctor" who joins their team; Jill Ireland plays a woman who's husband is in prison, that Bronson's character "courts". No awards, just fun to watch. And then, finally, we were rewarded for our patience with Sylvester Stallone's Rocky (1976). The story behind this film and its "million-to-one shot" tale are legendary, of course. Not only did it win 3 (out of 10 nominations) Academy Awards including Best Picture, but it started boxing's only film franchise and spawned (or revived) several actors' careers.
There was really only one major boxing film in the eighties and thankfully it is one of the best ever made, Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), based on the tragic life of Jake La Motta, won Robert De Niro his second Best Actor Oscar (and one other out of its 8 total nominations) in the year that Ordinary People took home Best Picture honors.
I haven't seen Norman Jewison's The Hurricane (1999) or Michael Mann's Ali (2001), which earned both Denzel Washington and Will Smith (& Jon Voight) Oscar nominations, respectively, so I really don't know if they warrant inclusion in this essay. Clint Eastwood's brilliant Million Dollar Baby (2004) certainly does.
In 2005, Cinderella Man (2005), from director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind (2001)) and starring Russell Crowe (Gladiator (2000)) as real life boxer (and improbable champion) Jim Braddock and Renee Zellweger (Cold Mountain (2003)), who's not given much to do besides grimace & whine as his wife, was released. Though it's done disappointing business to date, it's certainly a good (if overlong) film with one of its strengths being the relationships between the boxer, his family, and his trainer-promoter-friend (well played by Paul Giamatti). Giamatti received his only Academy recognition to date with a Best Supporting Actor nomination; the film's Editing & Makeup were also nominated. Braddock's real life title opponent Max Baer actually appeared in several films starting with the run-of-the-mill boxing movie called The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) with Myrna Loy, Walter Huston, and Otto Kruger; he was also in the aforementioned The Harder They Fall (1956).
In 2010, The Fighter (2010) picked up seven Academy Award nominations (and two Oscars), including for Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Achievement in Directing, Screenplay Writing and Editing (naturally), and Supporting Acting Performances by Christian Bale (his first nomination, he won), Amy Adams (her third) and Melissa Leo (her second, she won). Except as producer, lead Mark Wahlberg was snubbed.