Cinderella Man (9/10)
by Tony Medley
This story about James J.
Braddock (Russell Crowe), heavyweight champ from 1935-37, is Crowe’s
movie. Every time I see him I become more and more convinced he’s the best
actor of his generation, by far, and maybe any generation. He is given a
big assist by Renée Zellweger, who plays his wife, Mae, Paul Giamatti as
his manager, Joe Gould, and the guys who play the heavies, Bruce McGill as
Madison Square Garden promoter Jimmy Johnston, and Craig Bierko, who is a
terrifically hateful Max Baer.
Although burdened by the most
maudlin music imaginable, the movie is more than just a biopic of a boxer.
In fact, the first hour is a gritty display of what life was like during
the Great Depression. Braddock and his wife were the poorest of the poor,
trying to scrounge out a life for them and their three children with no
money, no job, and no hope. This is so authentic it makes “Grapes of
Wrath” (1940) seem like a cartoon.
Mike (Paddy Considine) is the
one fictional character in the movie. He’s a composite, a stockbroker who
fell far from grace to try to survive in a Hooverville, a shantytown in
New York’s Central Park, epitomizing the millions of people who went from
prosperity to poverty in the blink of an eye.
The only flight from reality in
the film is that the Braddock’s children, Howard (Patrick Lewis), Jay
(Connor Price), and Rosemarie (Ariel Walker), don’t age during the two
years we follow them. They are the same children in 1935 that they were in
1933. Children change substantially in two years and Director Ron Howard
would have been wise to cast older children in the later year.
Angelo Dundee, former trainer
of my former neighbor Muhammad Ali, was a technical advisor and may be
seen in Braddock’s corner during the fights. According to Giamatti, Dundee
was so in to the competition that scenes had to be reshot constantly
because Angelo would utter a profanity that was unacceptable in a PG rated
Crowe went from a hefty 228
pounds to Braddock’s fighting weight of 178 just by training the way they
did in the ‘30s, without the weights everyone does today. One week before
filming was scheduled to begin, Crowe dislocated his shoulder,
necessitating surgery. Even so, one week out of surgery, he was back in
the ring working to strengthen his shoulder back to fighting level. But
the injury delayed filming for seven weeks. Crowe was so committed to
boxing realism that he suffered several concussions and cracked teeth
during the course of the shooting. One of what Director Ron Howard called
“happy accidents” occurred during the filming of Braddock’s fight with Art
Lasky (Brad Simmons, a current heavyweight boxer). Simmons connected with Crowe and the camera cuts to Giamatti who has a look of pure horror on his face. The look wasn’t
acting. Giamatti says, “Everyone could hear the glove connect with
Russell’s head and quite honestly I don’t know how he continued with the
fight. I fully expected him to go down.” No fool, Howard put both of these
scenes into the final cut.
In order to recreate the
Madison Square Garden of the 1930s, which was one of the grand sports
arenas of the era, Howard went to Toronto and used Maple Leaf Garden, the
only 1930s era arena extant, and long since abandoned. It serves as the
locale for the Braddock-Baer Championship match of 1935 before 35,000
One Oscar this film should be
in keen competition for is Art Direction by Production Designer Wynn
Thomas. The recreation of the depression world of the ‘30s has been
painstakingly done, including the dreary, depressing apartment where Jim
and Mae lived.
As anybody who has read my
critiques should know by now, I not only despise boxing, I generally hate
boxing movies. But I liked this. Even though there is a lot of boxing in
it, it’s not a boxing movie, per se. It’s a Hollywood enigma, a
film with good moral values, applauding marriage and commitment and
personal responsibility. The best part of the film, for me, was when
Braddock, who had been on the dole, applying for, and collecting from the
Public Relief fund, got his money from the fight with John “Corn” Griffin
(Art Binkowski, another current heavyweight boxer),
stood in line to pay back all the money he had received from the
government. But that’s not all. Braddock is pictured as a loving and
caring father, and in total love with his wife. His wife is a real person,
dedicated to Jim, but also to her children. She is called upon to make a
terribly difficult decision and it becomes a vital point of their
relationship. This is a movie that shows a strong marriage and close
On the negative side, Howard
succumbs to the pressure of his Hollywood predecessors and makes the audio
of the fights unrealistically loud. Left jabs sound as if North Korea
exploded an atomic bomb. The noises Hollywood creates for fights (and
other sports movies as well) have no relationship to what one can actually
hear on the field of combat. This type of audio greatly diminishes the
film because it is so pervasive. Fortunately, the audio is the only
cartoonish part of this movie.
Another criticism is that the
brutality of fights is exaggerated. I don’t mind this too much because
fights are brutal and it’s good to show them as such. But they aren’t as
much of a horror as this movie shows them to be. Someone gets hit in the
face by a left jab and Howard portrays it as a life-threatening event.
While it is unrealistic, I really don’t mind that the brutality of fights
is exaggerated because boxing is an anachronistic remnant of Roman
gladiatorial contests and has no place in a civilized society.
Finally, there was one scene
that made me gag. Mae is shown scouring a cast iron skillet. Maybe in
today’s world of Teflon a homemaker might commit this mortal sin out of
ignorance. But not in the ‘30s when every self respecting mom knew that
the only way to clean a cast iron skillet is to pour boiling water in it,
let it sit for five minutes, dry it thoroughly (and I mean thoroughly!),
and then coat it with lard. If you scour it, you might as well trash it.
This is everything a movie
should be, interesting, entertaining, educational, and with high moral
values, if you can forget about the boxing and the audio enhancements.
June 2, 2005