Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait; Harold Lloyd in The Freshman (Photos: Heaven Can Wait, Paramount; The Freshman, Criterion)
Including preseason and the playoffs, the NFL generally offers gridiron action for 26 consecutive weeks. All that remains for this season is the Pro Bowl and, of course, the Super Bowl. But fret not, football fans: If you find yourself already suffering from post-SB pigskin withdrawal and need a fix to tide you over until next season, then turn to the movies, where you can at least find some Hollywood-manufactured facsimiles of pro action. Here, then, are 35 highlights, low points, and extra points of gridiron cinema.
I. While boxing has Raging Bull and baseball and basketball can respectively claim Bull Durham and Hoop Dreams, there’s never been a truly great football film (at least during the sound era; see XXI. below). Still, there have been plenty of damn fine ones, and leading the draft is Heaven Can Wait, the comic fantasy (and remake of 1941’s delightful Here Comes Mr. Jordan) in which L.A. Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) is accidentally killed before his time and must find a way to return to his team and lead them to victory. Back in 1978, this was a huge box office hit and the recipient of nine Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture); today, it’s still an irresistible crowd-pleaser, and, as a lifelong Rams fan, I’d rank Joe Pendleton right up there with Norm Van Brocklin, Roman Gabriel, and Kurt Warner (OK, so he’s fictional; sue me).
II. On the other end of the spectrum, the worst football flick would arguably be Johnny Be Good, a 1988 dud notable only for introducing Uma Thurman to the moviegoing masses. Otherwise, this is a thoroughly wretched effort in which a miscast Anthony Michael Hall (yes, the dork from The Breakfast Club) plays a hotshot high school quarterback being illegally wooed by college scouts.
III. Did I mention that Johnny Be Good includes a song by admitted pedophile and all-around scumbag Ted Nugent? It’s titled “Skintight,” and it earned a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Original Song. Nugent refuses to allow the lyrics to be printed anywhere, meaning even he knows he’s a terrible songwriter.
IV. Any Given Sunday (1999), Oliver Stone’s epic endeavor, clearly wanted to be the end-all and be-all of football films, yet the most notable thing about this disappointing movie is the number of gaffes. My favorite is the ever-changing scoreboard: In one shot during a critical game, it reads 35-24, yet a moment later, it’s 14-10!
V. Any Given Sunday probably also represents the only time in film history (and, aside from the short-lived World Football League, the only time in actual history) that a team scoring a touchdown is automatically awarded seven points even before the extra point is attempted.
VI. Show me the Oscar! Cuba Gooding Jr. won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his spirited turn as a grandstanding football player in 1996’s Jerry Maguire.
VII. Speaking of Jerry Maguire, star Tom Cruise was no stranger to football films when he took the part of a sports agent in that mega-hit, as he had previously portrayed a high school football star in 1983’s All the Right Moves.
VIII. The best performance as a coach in a football film? Denzel Washington is worthy for Remember the Titans (2000), but my ballot is cast in favor of Jack Warden’s Oscar-nominated turn in 1978’s Heaven Can Wait.
IX. The best performance as a fan in a football film? I expect many would say Sandra Bullock for her Oscar-winning work in 2009’s The Blind Side. However, my pick would have to be Patton Oswalt, superb as a potentially deranged New York Giants supporter in 2009’s Big Fan.
X. If you ever wondered why Burt Reynolds looked so at ease playing football in The Longest Yard (1974) and Semi-Tough (1977), that’s because he was a real-life star running back at Florida State University. He was thinking about going pro and was reportedly being considered by the Baltimore Colts, but a knee injury forced him to make new career choices.
XI. When it comes to the worst performance ever given by a former football player, the competition is fierce. Forced to choose, I’d probably have to go with former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus in the rightfully forgotten Hamburger: The Motion Picture (1985). Butkus plays Drootin, a fast-food restaurant manager who enjoys torturing his employees and calling people “peter cheese.”
XII. Butkus’ Hall of Shame competition includes Joe Namath in Avalanche Express (1979), Terry Bradshaw in The Cannonball Run (1981), and Howie Long in Firestorm (1998).
XIII. When it comes to cameos, Brett Favre’s quick appearance may be the capper to a great running gag in There’s Something About Mary (1998), but, good Lord, the poor guy can’t adequately deliver a line to save his life.
XIV. As for the worst performance ever given by a former football coach, that would have to go to Tommy Tuberville, the college coach recently elected to the U.S. Senate. His insincere emoting as one of the corrupt GOP politicians who attempted to overturn a just election was shameless and embarrassing.
XV. Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown enjoyed a healthy screen career (credits include The Dirty Dozen, Three the Hard Way, Mars Attacks! and the aforementioned Any Given Sunday), yet one of his best appearances was in name only — specifically, the hilarious scene in Sleepless In Seattle (1993) in which Tom Hanks and Victor Garber tearfully discuss his demise at the end of The Dirty Dozen.
XVI. For a fictionalized version of Jim Brown, catch Aldis Hodge playing the gridiron great in the excellent new release One Night in Miami…
XVII. Like Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson also had a sustained run in film (until you-know-what), appearing in (among others) The Towering Inferno (1974), The Klansman (1974), Capricorn One (1978), and three Naked Gun films (1988-94).
XVIII. Howard Cosell, longtime sportscaster on NFL Monday Night Football, was hired by Woody Allen to play himself in 1971’s Bananas, where he offers a blow-by-blow account of a political assassination. Then in 1973’s futuristic Sleeper, Allen included a scene in which a historian watches footage of Cosell and surmises, “We weren’t sure at first what to make of this, but we developed a theory. We feel that when people committed great crimes against the state, they were forced to watch this.”
XIX. By the way, Cosell was born in Winston-Salem, NC.
XX. On the small screen, the most acclaimed football flick is Brian’s Song, the 1971 TV movie with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams respectively cast as real-life Chicago Bears players Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. It’s routinely called one of the most potent of all tearjerkers, with good reason.
XXI. Perhaps the earliest major movie to incorporate football into its storyline was the 1925 comedy The Freshman, a silent masterpiece which climaxes with star Harold Lloyd’s bumbling heroics during a university match-up.
XXII. The funniest football game can be spotted in the Marx Brothers’ insane Horse Feathers (1932), in which the boys somehow introduce a chariot to the sport.
XXIII. The runner-up award in the funniest game sweepstakes goes to the raucous skirmish in the film version of M*A*S*H (1970).
XXIV. Pat O’Brien may be playing the titular Notre Dame coach in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), but it was Ronald Reagan who earned plenty of good notices for his able performance as dying football star George Gipp (“Win one for the Gipper!”).
XXV. One for the kids: Gus (1976), a likable live-action Disney film about a football-playing mule. Although a theatrical release, the movie starred several actors known primarily for their television work: Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Don Knotts (The Andy Griffith Show), Bob Crane (Hogan’s Heroes), Tom Bosley (Happy Days), Dick Van Patten (Eight Is Enough), and Tim Conway (The Carol Burnett Show).
XXVI. The mid-70s saw the release of two pictures dealing with crazed killers terrorizing football games. First out of the gate was 1976’s terrible Two-Minute Warning, with Charlton Heston and John Cassavetes seeking to stop a sniper picking off patrons at a championship game.
XXVII. The other 70s football-frenzy flick was 1977’s exciting Black Sunday, with Bruce Dern as a crazed Vietnam vet hooking up with terrorists to destroy the Super Bowl with the help of the Goodyear Blimp. Infinitely superior to Two-Minute Warning, this one expertly melded its tense storyline with the real-life Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys.
XXVIII. Most unjustly overlooked football film? North Dallas Forty (1979), anchored by Nick Nolte’s excellent central performance and featuring a climactic game that doesn’t quite end as you might expect.
XXIX. The supporting cast of North Dallas Forty included former Oakland Raider John Matuszak, who appeared in a handful of films (most notably The Goonies) before ODing at the age of 38.
XXX. Six years before headlining White Men Can’t Jump and nine years before co-starring in Money Train, Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson first appeared together as two of football coach Goldie Hawn’s players in 1986’s Wildcats. Though cast as high school students, Snipes was actually 24 at the time and Harrelson was 25. Coincidentally, the movie marked the film debuts of both actors.
XXXI. The football flick The Program (1993), starring James Caan and Halle Berry, earned some notoriety in its day, thanks to a scene in which the dumb jocks lie down in the middle of a roaring highway to test their machismo. Real-life kids began emulating this stunt, leading to numerous injuries and even one death. While some columnists at the time saw this as a strengthening of the human gene pool, Disney nevertheless yanked the sequence from the picture a few weeks into its original run.
XXXII. The 1979 TV movie Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (starring Jane Seymour) was successful enough to warrant Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders II the next year.
XXXIII. The 1978 porn classic Debbie Does Dallas was successful enough to warrant multiple sequels (not to be confused with multiple orgasms), including Debbie Does Wall Street (1991), Debbie Does Dallas: The Next Generation (1998), and Debbie Does Dallas: The Revenge (2003).
XXXIV. The top moneymaking football film is the aforementioned 2009 Sandra Bullock hit The Blind Side, with a $256 million domestic gross. In second place is 1998’s The Waterboy, with Adam Sandler as a half-wit who becomes an unlikely gridiron hero. Its $161 million gross edges out Jerry Maguire‘s $153 million haul.
XXXV. Hollywood has yet to make a movie about the great sport of badminton.