OFF THE GRIDIRON
February 7, 2017
Happy Super Bowl Sunday, everyone!
Today, it's all about the big game. But after the last post-game show is over, and Super Bowl LI highlights run their course on the 11:00 news, we can all still find post-season thrills in the many football-themed movies from the last several decades. Many football classics are also all about the big game. Classic football movies that lead up to the exciting climax of the big game? Far too many to list here.
Others give us inspiration as we follow the journeys of the players off the gridiron. In this blog entry, I'll concentrate on the latter category. Here a few of my personal favorites.
Note: Most of the following films have been out for many years, but just in case: Possible spoilers ahead.
All the Right Moves (1983)
A great example of a football movie that uses the gridiron as a backdrop to explore the lives of its extraordinary characters. There isn't anyone who grew up in a small town, who wondered if there might be more to the world beyond those city limits, who can't identify with Stefen Djordjevic (Tom Cruise) and Lisa (Lea Thompson). The big game takes place about one-third into the movie, but its the challenges that follow that really count. The coach and two players each make excruciating mistakes in the final seconds that turn a certain victory for the underdog team into a devastating loss. One character doesn't recover, the other two do. Not from a subsequent game, but from the results in another team effort in life. Craig T. Nelson plays a very different kind of coach than the one he would later play in the hilarious ABC sitcom. It's also a lot of fun to see Nelson in this role before he took on poltergeists, and Thompson before she went back to the future.
The Best of Times (1986)
Another small town, but a completely different environment. Frequently funny, and often poignant, this follows the burden carried by Jack Dundee (the late, great Robin Williams), who also made a critical error in the final moments of the big game: He dropped the ball. Unlike the characters in the previous film, who found redemption before the school year was done, poor Jack has waited nearly 15 years for his second chance. Will Jack catch the ball on his second attempt? With the help of his high school buddy, Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell), quite possibly. But Reno needs his second chance too: To live up to the inflated and exaggerated memories of his high school quarterback career. The teaming of Williams and Russell is inspired, and this is really an underrated classic.
The Longest Yard (1974)
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. And, look how they can rise again once humbled in a completely different environment: a maximum security prison. No, I'm not talking about Stir Crazy, with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. This is a very different kind of victory than the jailbreak after the rodeo in the other film. Here, Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds) walks the "longest yard," with many other hard-luck cases, and comes out redeemed on the other side. One of Burt Reynolds most multi-layered and moving performances, second only to his portrayal of Jack Horner in Boogie Nights. (You were robbed at the Oscars, Burt!) Look for a great performance by Eddie Albert as Warden Hazen (very different from his great comedic work in Green Acres). Also, the always adorable Bernadette Peters appears in two early scenes that, by themselves are worth the price of admission. (Remake Alert No. 1: There's a decent Adam Sandler remake from 2005. There's a lot to enjoy in that version, but stick with the original.)
Brian's Song (1971)
Get the tissues ready. This classic football-themed tear-jerker, made on a low budget as a TV-movie for ABC, reminds us that an incredibly moving film need to rely on special effects and CGI when the writing and performances are so strong. This film is not lacking star power, however. James Caan and Billy Dee Williams breathe life into Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers from the opening minutes, and we become only more involved with these two friends as the film progresses. Beginning their relationship as rivals, which evolves into a strong bond, especially at Sayers is seriously injured and Piccolo is diagnosed with Cancer. The only way to not be profoundly moved by this incredible movie (based on a true story) is to have ice water in your veins. Jack Warden, Bernie Casey and Shelley Fabares also deliver fine performances. (Remake Alert No. 2: While a remake may seem unnecessary to us older folks, the 2001 version released by Disney is also a great effort, and brings this powerful story to a new generation of TV viewers.)
Before The Lost Boys and Two and a Half Men, there was Lucas. Corey Haim, Charlie Sheen and Kerry Green play the trio of friends here. All three have very different experiences and backgrounds, but they have their friendship in common. While Lucas may be a little dated (although mainly because we see several actors, still going strong today, in fantastic early roles), Lucas is still the embodiment of the forgotten and invisible. Life's realities continue to disappoint our diminutive hero. Maggie (Green) is the first girl to show him compassion, which is mistaken by him for romantic interest. (If only he would acknowledge the interest of Rina - Winona Ryder in her debut role.) As Lucas is finally permitted to enter the game as a player, in a uniform three sizes too bid, we cheer for him to shock us all and help win the game! (No such luck.) But Lucas has earned something much more precious. In the classic final scenes, Lucas has earned the respect of all his schoolmates (even those who picked on him). Unless I'm mistaken, this film gave us the first "slow clap" in the movies.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Los Angeles Ram Quarterback Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) is robbed of his big game when a clerical foul-up in Heaven removes him from a near-fatal accident prematurely, and his body is cremated before the error can be corrected. Initially, Joe wants only one thing: To get a suitable temporary body he can condition to play that one Super Bowl. However, along the way, and with the help of his coach, Max Corkle (again, the great Jack Warden), Joe discovers there are many things he can do to help others. Often hilarious, and always touching. (Remake Alert No. 3: This film is a remake of the classic Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), and was remade again as Down to Earth with Chris Rock (2001). Only Heaven Can Wait uses football as the backdrop, but it hardly matters. All three versions provide different types and levels of inspiration. All are worth your time, but this one is the best.)
Blue Chips (1994)
Football is extremely peripheral here, as this is actually a movie about a once-winning college basketball team. But there are lessons to be learned here, under the time-honored category of "absolute power corrupts absolutely." Head Basketball Coach Pete Bell (Nick Nolte, perfectly cast) is feeling the pressure to bring his hardcourt team back to its former glory days. The easy answer is: Work under the table with "Happy" (the late, great J.T. Walsh), smug and obnoxious mouthpiece for the "Friends of the Program," a crooked alumni group eager to "buy" new blood. Why not? The football coach did it. Only when does he learn that a student has been convinced to shave points, does Pete Bell comprehend how badly he has been seduced into a quick and easy path to a winning (and profitable) team. Ultimately, Bell confesses publicly and redeems himself. He returns to the roots, simplicity and true meaning of the game and sportsmanship.
The best sports-themed movies excite and inspire us, especially when the underdog emerges victorious. In competition in all its forms, including life itself.
As I write this blog posting, I'm distracted by the thrilling action in the final quarter of Super Bowl LI. In today's big game, mistakes have been made, but tremendous advances have been achieved. Just like life itself!
Even a casual sports fan like myself can see the old saying remains true: It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game. In life, it's also how you played the games of the past, and how you play the ones yet to come.