[On June 13th, 1935, underdog boxer James “Cinderella Man” Braddock won a stunning upset decision over heavyweight champion Max Baer. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied that story and other ways in which this complex sport reflects American histories. Leading up to this weekend post on some of the undisputed champs in the realm of boxing films!]
On how three boxing movies present multi-layered, complex American themes.
1) Raging Bull (1980): Longtime readers of this blog will remember that I’m not a big fan of Martin Scorcese’s films; while that post focused mostly on his Mafia/crime films, many of the same critiques would apply to his boxing film Raging Bull (which even starred two of his favorite crime-film actors, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci). But interestingly enough, I would say that this earlier Scorcese film (which to be clear I only watched once, many many years ago) is better able to turn a critical lens on the toxic masculinity of its protagonist than are his later movies (which too often, I would argue, celebrate that masculinity even as they portray its downfall). Indeed, in many ways it is Jake Lamotta’s toxic temper and violence that undo his athletic and American success—and while the same could be argued for many Scorcese characters, to my mind Raging Bull, not coincidentally a film about one of our most violent sports, explores those themes more overtly and compellingly than do his other works.
2) Million Dollar Baby (2004): Clint Eastwood’s directorial efforts have explored masculinity, toxic and otherwise, since at least the greatness that is Unforgiven (1992); if in recent years his protagonists (usually played by Eastwood himself) have gotten a bit more racist than I’d prefer, I suppose we could call that another layer of 21st century American toxic masculinity. But interestingly enough, Eastwood’s film about boxing focuses instead on one of his few female leading characters, Hilary’s Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald. Moreover, while Eastwood does also appear as Maggie’s grizzled, reluctant trainer Frankie Dunn, the film’s surprising plot twists end up leading to a focus on Frankie as a father-figure to Maggie, and one who is forced to deal with some of the most difficult and emotional questions a parent could ever face. And not just a parent—given the brutal nature of boxing, it seems likely that many if not most trainers eventually have to decide between the health and safety and the athletic successes of their fighters, maxing Million a compelling twist on the boxing film as well.
3) The Fighter (2010): I’ve written elsewhere in this space about David O. Russell’s pair of quirky sports films, with The Fighter the slightly more conventional of the two (I know it’s a bit of a stretch to call Silver Linings Playbook a sports film, but I do think it qualifies). As a slightly more conventional sports film, Fighter features a lot of familiar themes: a hero who overcomes seemingly impossible odds, narratives of lost potential and failure and second chances and redemption, a romantic relationship that offers vital support. But thanks to Christian Bale’s virtuoso turn as Dicky Eklund, Russell’s film is also able to grapple with a couple of distinct social issues: life and poverty in a post-industrial American city like Lowell (MA); and drug addiction and its multi-layered effects. The stunning sequence where an imprisoned Dicky watches a documentary about himself, believing it will focus on his own past boxing glories but gradually realizing it depicts instead the depths to which his life has sunk, reflects the cultural and social layers to this unique boxing and sports film.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other boxing films (or stories or histories) you’d highlight?
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