There are few genres more rousing or captivating than sports movies. The story isn't always the same: sometimes it's a tale of unlikely success, sometimes it's a rise and fall, sometimes it's a bit of both! Regardless, there is an unspoken requirement that the actor cast as the great athlete looks the role. If you're cast as a baseball player, you should be able to throw a baseball. Play a boxer, you should pack a believable punch. This summer, when we saw Kevin Costner take the Field of Dreams in Iowa, we were reminded how much his athleticism contributed to his stardom. With that in mind, let's remember the actors who won us over with their physical gifts, and those that fell really, really short.
Costner set the gold standard for onscreen athleticism with his 1980s run of “American Flyers”, “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams”. He was especially credible as journeyman catcher Crash Davis, exploding out of his crouch to make throws on defense and evincing a sweet swing at the plate. Costner looked terrific on the mound a decade later in “For Love of the Game”, but his finest hour as a big-screen athlete might’ve come in 1996’s “Tin Cup”, where he demonstrated professional form as golfer Roy McAvoy.
A standout running back as a freshman at Florida State in 1955, Burt Reynolds was likely headed to the NFL were it not for a series of injuries to his knees. So it’s kind of cheating to place him on this list for his highly believable turns as incarcerated pro quarterback Paul “Wrecking” Crewe in “The Longest Yard” and wide receiver Marvin “Shake” Tiller in “Semi-Tough”. The Bandit looked like he could excel at just about every position out there.
To be completely fair to Robbins, his highly unorthodox wind-up and delivery as minor league phenom Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh was entirely on purpose. The problem was that it was so exaggerated (basically a boneless variation on Fernando Valenzuela), those with even a passing familiarity with baseball knew that ball wasn’t going anywhere near the plate or the bull mascot or the netting behind home with any regularity. With his thick 6’5” frame, Robbins looks the part of a hurler, but his form, even when it's “fixed” in the movie, is not ready for The Show.
Perkins turns in an unforgettable performance as mentally tormented Boston Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall, but, after a recent viewing, we’re going to disagree with NY Times critic Bosley Crowther’s assessment that the young actor looks the part at the plate. As with Tim Robbins in “Bull Durham”, Perkins looks overly coached. It could be that his gawkiness owes to his emphasis on the psychological aspects of his character; he’s so deep in Piersall’s mind that the technical mechanics of running, catching, and hitting are secondary concerns.
She was “The Next Karate Kid”, so Hilary Swank’s physical transformation into a more-than-believable bruiser for “Million Dollar Baby” shouldn’t have come as a complete shock. Swank packed on nineteen pounds of muscle and picked up the sweet science like a pro. Eastwood isn’t one for rehearsal, so what you see in the ring is the real deal. Mess around and Swank will swiftly serve you a two-piece/biscuit combo.
Ever wonder what FBI agent Johnny Utah looked like on the gridiron? The otherwise execrable “The Replacements” gives you a clear indication that, if nothing else, Keanu Reeves looks the part of a pro-caliber quarterback. Along with being a skilled martial artist and, evidently, a solid hockey player, the guy can hurl the pigskin. How is that at all fair?
Atrocious. Freddie Prinze, Jr.’s stiff, painfully rehearsed wind-up is often shot in closeups so as not to subject viewers to its unnatural horror. There are also many cutaways to his pitching double completing the motion in a competent manner. It’s a hideous thing to behold, but this is what you get for watching “Summer Catch”.
An accomplished archer (and a semifinalist for the United States’ 2000 Olympics Team), no one’s going to question Geena Davis’s athleticism. But as the home-run-belting Dottie Hinson in “A League of Their Own”..., that’s just a really long distance to hit a baseball with that swing. Penny Marshall’s film is so beautifully written and performed that the realism of the baseball scenes is basically secondary. But Marshall’s decision to frame it as a classic sports film, right up to the big game, was dead on.
Playing alongside real professional hockey players like Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson and David Hanson (aka the Hanson Brothers) set a high bar for the on-ice performances of movie stars Paul Newman and Michael Ontkean. Newman is fine as washed-up player-coach Reggie Dunlop, but Ontkean looks almost recruitable as miserable prospect Ned Braden. He’s an excellent skater, plays with his head up, and displays some nifty stickwork. Ultimately, he settled down as a sheriff in the Pacific Northwest hamlet of Twin Peaks.
Kirsten Dunst is one of the finest actors of her generation and seemed perfectly cast as a bored, bratty tennis phenom who takes a shine to a fading veteran played by Paul Bettany. This was wheelhouse material for Kiki, and she does everything right in this mediocre movie except convey the illusion that she can hit a tennis ball. Bettany isn’t great, but he goes through the motions somewhat believably. Dunst’s service form in their second meet-cute would draw winces on a rec court.
As with Burt Reynolds, this is cheating. Carl Weathers played linebacker well enough to letter twice for San Diego State University and play eight games for the Oakland Raiders. But being a great athlete in one sport doesn’t make you believable in another (right, Nate Robinson?). What goes least remarked about the two big Balboa-Creed fights is how Apollo has to be undisciplined to even let Rocky have a shot. And Weathers is so technically skilled at certain moments of the first bout (which his character did not take seriously) that you have to suspend belief to a tremendous degree to entertain the puncher’s chance element of the film. Weathers’s performance makes this plain, Creed should’ve wiped the canvas with Balboa both times.
Jamie Foxx has always been a remarkably versatile performer, but few could’ve predicted his physical transformation from pipsqueak comedian to musclebound quarterback Willie Beaman in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday”. That’s because most people didn’t know Foxx was a standout football and basketball talent for Terrell High School in Texas. Even then, Foxx’s footwork and throwing form looked good enough for the pros.
The tragedy of Mickey Rourke’s career is that he couldn’t keep himself focused on acting. He had to prove himself in other arenas. He craved physical competition. And he found it in the boxing ring. He’s never made a good boxing movie, but his willingness to sacrifice his body found a bruisingly sad outlet in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”, where Rourke convincingly played a pro wrestler on the wrong end of everything. Rourke takes his bumps… and chairs… and staples. Every kid who grew up going to regional wrestling events saw this guy, and we all thought, “Wow, he must’ve been something ten or twenty years ago.” It’s the role Rourke was born to play, and he was robbed of a Best Actor Oscar.
Gary Cooper brought all the heart and dignity he could muster to his portrayal of “The Iron Horse”, Lou Gehrig, perhaps the most beloved New York Yankee of them all. A Bronx titan for seventeen seasons, Gehrig made seven All-Star teams, was an integral part of six World Series squads, and won the elusive Triple Crown in 1934 - and you’d never have guessed it from Cooper’s on-field performance. The right-handed Cooper “learned” to hit and throw left-handed, which was suboptimal when mimicking a generational talent. The movie works as a sentimental sledgehammer, but you’ve got to get past some hilariously bad baseball.
No one has ever watched the “High School Musical” movies for the verisimilitude of the basketball sequences, and Zac Efron’s career thanks you for this. Because outside of the ghastly ballhandling in the opening credits of “What’s Happening”, no one has ever looked more ill-at-ease with the rock in their palm than Efron. His court awareness is deeply concerning, and his shooting motion makes Markelle Fultz look like Ray Allen.
How great is Tony Scott’s “The Last Boy Scout”? We buy Damon Wayans as a world-class pro quarterback from the word go, and let slide the physically impossible feat of bombing a football 100 yards (or thereabouts) whilst astride a horse because we’re having such a great time. The lanky Wayans looks like he could maybe get the ball twenty yards downfield if he closed his eyes and threw with all his might.
Writer-director David S. Ward could’ve easily cut around Charlie Sheen’s pitching performance as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, but when it came to the wind-up and delivery, Sheen looked awfully credible as a fireballing closer. Movie magic takes care of a lot (and Ward’s movie is a beaut, as opposed to the garbage sequels), and it’s probably a blessing that Sheen didn’t throw out the first pitch for Game 7 of the 2016 World Series (for reasons that have nothing to do with throwing a baseball). But Sheen brought the heat.
In the words of the immortal Lou Brown (James Gammon), Snipes might run like Mays, but he hits like shıt. Snipes returned to the diamond for Tony Scott’s overheated thriller “The Fan”, which again proved that he was asea with a baseball bat in his hands. But he can hang and then some on the football field (“Wildcats”), in the boxing ring (the woefully underseen “Streets of Gold”) and the basketball court (“White Men Can’t Jump”). It’s in Ron Shelton’s pick-up-ball comedy that you get to see Snipes at his hot-dogging best (though his elbow’s got to come in on his jumper).
The method-acting De Niro had no real experience in the boxing ring, but when he committed to the role of former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, he hit the gym and learned the craft so completely that, within a couple of years of picking up the sport, he won two of three amateur bouts. LaMotta called De Niro one of the twenty best middleweights he’d ever seen. You can see it in every frame of Scorsese’s masterpiece.
Tom Berenger didn’t have to be Crash Davis, and that’s why his performance as broken-down catcher Jake Taylor in “Major League” is so affecting. Berenger’s playing a former star who’s hoping for a couple of more summers in the sun, preferably in the bigs. There’s overcompensation in everything he does: his swings at the plate, his throws to second… just crouching down to play his position looks like an ordeal. You’ve seen veteran players gut it out on the field before. Berenger embodies this, heart and soul.
John Goodman is one of our greatest living actors. For some remarkably stupid reason, he’s never been nominated for an Oscar. So it feels wrong to point out that, over the course of a brilliant, forty-plus-year career, he was once disastrously miscast as Babe Ruth. Arthur Hiller’s very bad 1992 biopic means to get at the alcoholic mess behind the newsreel charm but only winds up treating the Yankee legend as a tubby caricature. Goodman’s performance reeks of indifference, and that’s when he’s not supposed to look like, arguably, the greatest ballplayer of all time. It’s less a matter of looking like an athlete than looking like someone who won’t strike out in the summer heat.
Never one to back down from a fight, Raquel Welch actively took one on when she optioned Barry Sandler’s story about an ambitious roller derby star. The star trained incognito for months and suffered a broken wrist before shooting the movie. The filming was bruising, too; Welch wound up bloodied and bruised after a punch-up with costar Helena Kallioniotes. The effort more than paid off. Welch brings home the ferocity of roller derby with an iconic, lived-in portrayal that helped propel the sport into the (sorta) mainstream.
No one considered Will Smith ideal casting for the GOAT in 2001, and even today it seems like a horrible idea. But Smith went to work in the gym, studied film with the hyper-meticulous Michael Mann, and internalized the physicality of Muhammad Ali. It’s one of the rare cases of an American movie star working outside-in (like British-trained actors do), and by the end of the movie all you see is Ali. A man. A god.
The snarky thing to do would be to highlight D.B. Sweeney’s accurate portrayal of Shoeless Joe Jackson over Ray Liotta’s fantastical take on the man, but why bother when you’ve got the great David Strathairn playing the man who essentially set the Black Sox scandal in motion? As Eddie Cicotte, Strathairn embodies a battler of a pitcher who’s knuckleballed his way back to prominence, only to have his cheapskate owner bench him before he can cash in on a $10,000 bonus. It doesn’t take a great deal of athleticism to pull off a knuckleball pitcher, but Strathairn comes off like a third Niekro brother.
When you're dealing in myth, you can get away with an awful lot. So Roy Hobbs's stiff stance and late swing on that fastball in the bottom of the ninth is allowable. Just barely. It's better form than The Whammer's meaty cuts at Hobbs's telegraphed fastballs at the beginning of the movie. We prefer Redford at the plate.
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.