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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

It's been thirty years since Rocky won the Best Picture Oscar. And now Sylvester Stallone is out this holiday season with what he calls the final installment of the Rocky epic, Rocky Balboa. As do a lot of people, I list Rocky near the top of my all-time favorite sports flicks. In every era of filmmaking, insider buzz has it that women will not take an interest in sports stories. But to take Rocky as box office proof against that theory, this is not fundamentally a boxing story. It is 1976, post-Vietnam, and the soul of the film embraces the American credo, that even a poor puhlooka from Philly can reach for, and touch, the highest star.

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I picked up a book this week that I'm going to recommend to you for a terrific holiday gift. It's called Sports Cinema: 100 Movies--the Best of Hollywood's Athletic Heroes, Losers, Myths, and Misfits. Author Randy Williams taps into the draw many of us, men and women, feel toward both the drama and the heartbreak of sports. I couldn't put the book down. Read it cover to cover over a couple of hours.

Even though the full gamut of sports have been the focus of so many great sports films--horses from National Velvet to Seabiscuit, pool from The Hustler to The Color of Money, football from Knute Rockne to North Dallas Forty--boxing does seem to weigh in decade after decade with some of most memorable stories. I had seen television replays of the stirring Requiem for a Heavyweight when I was a kid but had forgotten some of the details until reading this new Sports Cinema book. Cassius Clay, for instance, played himself. Rod Serling wrote it. And it turns out Requiem actually first aired on television, in 1956, as the first original 90-minute drama in TV history. It was six years later that the humanity of the Anthony Quinn washed-up fighter made it to the silver screen.

Martin Scorsese's 1970 masterpiece, Raging Bull, is both cutting character study--Robert DeNiro shutting down production while he gained 50 pounds to play the troubled middleweight Jake LaMotta--and it is insightful period piece, swinging us into the late-night clubs of the post-War Bronx. Reading about Raging Bull made me want to see it again, in all its gritty black-and-white power. Speaking of grit and power, Clint Eastwood nearly swept the Oscars in 2004 with his surprise hit Million Dollar Baby. Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Actress for Hilary Swank, Best Supporting Actor for Morgan Freeman. The Sports Cinema book reminded me of Freeman's poetic line in the film, “If there's magic in boxing, it's the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.”

In cozying down with this book the other night, before opening it, I would have told you, unequivocally, that my favorite sports film of all time was Jim Thorpe: All American. I cry buckets every time Burt Lancaster sits alone in the stands, broke and broken, his Olympic glory a faded memory.

But in going through the 100 films discussed in the book, I remembered The Pride of the Yankees. Yeah. I cry buckets every time Gary Cooper gingerly and understatedly gives the Lou Gehrig farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. He will never play again. He will die a horrible death from what is now called Lou Gehrig's disease. And yet he says to the adoring crowd, “People all say that I've had a bad break. But today, today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Kleenex is not enough. I need buckets, I tell you.

And then there's Brian's Song, another real-life story, this time of the tragic death of 26-year old football star Brian Piccolo and his inspiring friendship and race relations with Bears teammate Gale Sayers.

This book, Sports Cinema, brings to life 100 poignant films, 100 moving stories from the textured world of sports. Enjoy! And happy holidays to all of you... and your loved ones.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.


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