LATE IN NORTH DALLAS FORTY, the 1979 film adaptation of former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Peter Gent’s roman à clef, actor Mac Davis is washing down unprescribed painkillers with Budweiser while recounting a community-service visit with a YMCA team: “I give ’em my usual bullshit,” he tells a teammate played by Nick Nolte. “Y’know, football, character development . . . all that crap.”
Davis might as well have been summing up the modern sports movie. In real life, sports are about passion, hatred, winning, and above all, suspense. We huddle in bars, grip the steering wheel too tight, or explode with tension on the couch because we don’t know how it will end. But when sports go to the multiplex, every team is one of destiny. The credit “based on a true story” is code for “you know exactly what will happen.” The competition at hand will be either “more than just a game” or the thing that teaches us “there’s more to life than games.” And above all, the underdog will prevail—or at least lose with dignity intact. One reason so many people objected to the movie version of Seabiscuit is that they wanted something worthy of the top-of-the-line cast, with the same texture and insights as the book. Me, I expected a sepia Karate Kid, though I’m not sure if the Ralph Macchio role was filled by Tobey Maguire or the horse.
But wouldn’t it be nice to be surprised once in a while? With three Texas-bred sports movies currently making headlines around Hollywood, I’m hoping it might happen. First up, with an October theatrical release, is Friday Night Lights. Fourteen years after it was originally published, H. G. Bissinger’s bittersweet best-seller about high school football in Odessa finally hits the big screen, co-written and directed by Peter Berg, with a cast that includes Billy Bob Thornton, country singer Tim McGraw, and young actors Derek Luke and Jay Hernandez. Second, with production set to start this summer, is Glory Road, about the 1966 Texas Western (now University of Texas-El Paso) team that won the NCAA basketball tournament with five African American starters, the first-ever such squad to do so. Ben Affleck stars as Hall of Fame coach Don “the Bear” Haskins. And finally, a bit further in the future is Walk On, a biopic of seventies teenage Texas Rangers pitching phenom David Clyde. Producer Mike Julian hopes to make the picture independently; MTV Newlyweds pop tart (and Dallas native) Jessica Simpson has signed up to play Clyde’s wife.
The biggest challenge these three projects face is presenting something true to life. That’s because sports movies have become Disney movies—literally in many cases and figuratively in that shades of gray are not allowed and simplistic life lessons are easy to dole out. When there are flaws, demons, or men behaving badly, that’s just a prelude to the knee-jerk healing to come. That was true of The Rookie, Disney’s 2002 feel-good hit about high school science teacher turned late-blooming major leaguer Jim Morris. The Rookie happens to be a good film; star Dennis Quaid is full of grace and gravity, and director John Lee Hancock has an eye for details both Texas-big and Big Lake-small. But it still left out the scene of Morris strolling through a crowded hotel lobby in a dress and a wig—the traditional major league baseball hazing ritual probably would have cost the movie its G rating.
That’s a long way from North Dallas Forty, a film in which the athletes were closer to the ones we find in real life—more likely to curse and spit and grab their crotches than to bridge racial divides by singing Motown songs after a friendly round of “your mama” jokes (à la 2000’s parable about a newly integrated 1971 Virginia high school football team, Remember the Titans, another Disney release). But Ted Kotcheff’s film is a product of the cinematic golden age Peter Biskind documents in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, when the X-rated Midnight Cowboy could win the Oscar for best picture and moral ambiguity was not just for the art house. In Peter Gent’s world, winning the game of football doesn’t mean you win the game of life, and football is the cause of loneliness and pain (psychic and physical), not a cure for them. Love? Hard to come by. Redemption? Even the born-again backup quarterback can’t find it. Only comedy can ease the hurt, but that wears off just like codeine.
Ironically, North Dallas Forty is also a movie about sports that doesn’t show you any sports. There’s no slow-motion montage of triumphant moments or endless scenes of bone-crunching, quick-cut, close-up “realism” that lose sight of the big picture (see Any Given Sunday). The film is 34 minutes old before you see the team assembled, and the only pigskin action in the first 89 is a handful of highlights replayed in Nolte’s head. The characters are so well drawn that you don’t need the clichéd metaphorical crutch of on-field drama or the easy emotional shorthand of cheering masses and concerned friends and family.
An alternative to the Disney model is 1999’s Texas high school football exploitation film Varsity Blues, even though it’s a shameless rip-off/dumbing down of Friday Night Lights. But just as the guise of comedy allows South Park and The Daily Show to be more politically trenchant than Tim Russert, Varsity Blues‘ license to raunch (cheerleader Ali Larter in a whipped cream bikini) and built-in teenage audience (at the time, leading man James Van Der Beek was red-hot on Dawson’s Creek) makes it more honest and less grating. The clichés aren’t as hoary when they’re played for laughs instead of pathos; cartoons like the pushy father character (“Don’t do this to me!” he snarls when his quarterback son is injured) work better when the film is an actual cartoon.
Walk On may tread in Varsity Blues‘ footsteps, at least in terms of casting. Having already lined up Simpson, producer Mike Julian would love to get one of “the kids from The O.C.,” (translation: Austin native Benjamin McKenzie) to play David Clyde, whose 1973 major league debut is often credited with saving the flagging Texas Rangers franchise. Unlike Varsity Blues, Walk On will be rated PG, even though the Whitey-Herzog-and-Billy-Martin-managed Rangers of that era, as documented in Mike Shropshire’s book Seasons in Hell, most decidedly were not.
Clyde’s tale is another one of those stories that just wouldn’t be believable in fiction. He took the mound in Arlington just weeks after the state finals and his senior prom, giving the team its first-ever sellout, along with a winning effort. It was too much too soon, and six years later he was done, 36 days short of earning any kind of major league pension, with a career record of 18-33. But after more than a decade in the lumber business, Clyde was recently honored by the Rangers and is considering a return to baseball as a coach (which would help him get his pension after all these years). Meaning even this cautionary tale will inevitably wind up with a happy ending. These days, there’s no such thing as a movie without one. “Can’t do it,” Julian acknowledges.
At least the filmmakers behind Glory Road don’t have to change the ending; the story of Haskins’s Texas Western team may be as compelling and feel-good as it gets. But since those filmmakers include the Titans team of Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer and the story line sets up with an unavoidable message of race overcoming adversity, don’t expect anything but the same sort of fuzzy “can’t we all just get along” approach, let alone a movie that transcends the by-the-numbers hallmarks of the sports genre.
Friday Night Lights can—maybe. After all, Permian’s Panthers didn’t actually win the state championship in 1988, though the film now has them losing in the final rather than the semis. And studios don’t often make movies about the team that doesn’t overcome adversity, or even the team that generally wins easily—the powerhouse Panthers were certainly no underdog. What’s more, Friday Night Lights the book didn’t shy away from asking the right questions and exposing hard truths between the touchdowns. It was very much a product of Ronald Reagan’s America, written by a Yankee with Great Society values as the Bush-Dukakis election loomed. A decade and a half later, with the same sorts of political issues polarizing the country, the filmmakers have an opportunity to cast the same sorts of doubts about what sports are and how important they should be to us.
Thus far, Berg’s comments on how hard-hitting the film might be have varied. On the one hand, “I was never interested in an in-depth, investigative profile of the sociological issues surrounding the community,” he said in the San Antonio Express-News. “I wanted to make a movie about high school football.” Then Berg told the Houston Chronicle that his movie will be “very true to the book, especially in tone. . . . It is a very real look at an intense and sophisticated program.” Either way, expect his film to be softer than the book, less because Berg is worried about sparing Odessans’ feelings than because in Hollywood, you just don’t show a coach saying, as one does in the book, that without football, his prize running back is just “a big ol’ dumb n—-er.”
Maybe all three of these Texas movies will stick to the formula. Clichés and conventions are what Hollywood does best, and no studio has ever gone out of business giving the moviegoing public a familiar story competently told. Yet if sports films were ever made for sports fans, there’d be no need to gloss over the imperfect world of the athletes they’re trying to portray. Every time they enter the stadium, after all, fans demonstrate their willingness to buy high-priced tickets and endure character flaws and unhappy endings. They know it’s only a game and that the linebacker is on steroids and the owner doesn’t care about the players and the quarterback doesn’t think he’s making enough money, but so what. Go team! If only they had a chance to take the same leap of faith at the multiplex.