There is crying in sports movies
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
There were probably others, but these are the times I remember:
I fell apart during a TV movie of the John and Joey Cappelletti story called "Something for Joey."
Cried watching the remake of "The Champ." I was 11, and my dad was with me. My parents had been divorced for a few years, and he was in town visiting my sister and me for the weekend. All I really remember is the end of the movie. Billy Flynn (Jon Voight) dies in a fight. He's laying on a table in the locker room and and his son T.J. (Ricky Schroder) is sobbing and calling out to him, "Champ! Champ!" I looked at Billy and T.J., I looked at my Dad in the dark sitting next to me, and maybe I thought about him leaving again soon or about the fact that he would die some day, too, and I lost it. I cried through the credits, and we stayed in our seats after the lights came up for what I think of now as several minutes; me blubbering and shaking, Dad wrapping his arms around me and holding on, steady and soft.
I didn't see "Brian's Song" until years after it came out. I watched it with my best friend David, on a 12-inch black-and-white television. I was at his house for a sleepover, it was a late-night broadcast, and we snuck into the kitchen when it was over to get glasses of Hawaiian Punch, tears streaming down our faces.
"Hoosiers." Absolutely cried. Drove to see the premier in Westwood, Calif., with a bunch of guys from high school. Giddy, guys-doing-stuff, happy-troublemaking kind of night. Easy to get caught up in the underdog thing. Easy to see ourselves in the selfless camraderie of the Hickory team and to get choked up by how crazy good it felt to be alive and together.
I saw "Rudy" for the first time about a month ago, so I'm late on this, but, yeah, I kinda cried a little, sure. Credit Jon Favreau and Ned Beatty, as Rudy's friend and father -- their enthusiasm is stirring and spot-on.
This one might surprise you: "The Sandlot." I was deep in the grad school anxiety closet at the time, studying for comprehensive exams -- shouting out book titles in my sleep, scribbling notes on ATM receipts and scraps of toilet paper, forgetting to breath for six, seven minutes at a stretch -- and I needed a break. So I rented a kid flick baseball movie, figuring it would be a nice, safe escape. Little did I know it would have that "Stand-By-Me," nostalgic voiceover, bittersweet-memories-and-enduring-old-friendships thing working.
My friend Michael, who I'd watched about a hundred baseball games with, had been killed in a car accident earlier that summer, and when Scotty (Arliss Howard) and Benny (Pablo Vitar) wave at each other from a distance near the end of the movie, silly as it sounds, that moment brought me as close as I have ever come to feeling the full weight and sadness of losing him.
And then, most recently, I found myself tearing-up over "The Rookie" on a crowded cross-country flight. Goofy plastic headphones, head and neck at a decidedly unhealthy angle, no elbow room, no foot room ... and none of that mattered, because Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid) was reaching up over the bullpen wall to hug his wife and kids, and I was right there with him, the water running.
So there it is. My secret is out. I cry at sports movies. The funny thing is, I don't cry at other kinds of movies, and, in fact, I don't cry much at all the rest of the time. When Page 2 began to put together this sports movies package, and as I started getting misty just at the thought of it, I tried to figure out why sports movies do it to me, and what they do for me.
Here's what I've come up with so far:
First, there is just the movie thing: All movies are sanctioned getaways, rips in the fabric of the so-called real world. The lights go down, the music rises, you slouch into your seat, and other worlds, other possibilities, open up. You can think of yourself differently watching a movie, you can play by a different set of rules. If you never admit you're scared to anyone, you can show fear at a movie. If you never cry in front of anyone, you can let it all out during a movie. The actors are acting, putting on masks, sure, but so are the audience members. We're playing at something when we watch a movie, we're practicing and getting close to emotions we keep at bay most of the time. I didn't come up with this idea, actually. I think the Greeks did. Called catharsis.
But why cry at sports movies and not others? Sports movies are familiar. I don't just mean that I've seen some of them dozens of times, though that's true, I mean their storylines are old-school, archetypal. (David Shields wrote a great piece about this as part of our movies package, and he says dozens of really smart things about the phenomenon.) This means I'm not spending time thinking about where the plot is going (I already know) or who the characters are (most of them are minor variations on a consistent theme).
Instead, I get the chance to turn inward, to think about how the characters and structures in the movie echo and evoke people and experiences in my own life. Because there is nothing new under the sports movie sun, the familiar patterns in the pictures become aids to memory, little nostalgic keys that unlock all sorts of feelings and stories I carry around with me all the time but don't often have the time or the emotional courage to revisit.
Sports -- stats, stories, favorite teams and players -- are the language my guys and I speak with each other. So when I watch a sports movie, I'm keenly aware of my male bonds. I'm especially grateful for the ongoing ones that make up my day-to-day life, and I'm particularly sad about the ones, like the one with Michael, that have been cut short.
I also cry in part, I think, because of the nature of sports movies themselves, the good ones anyway ("Rocky," "The Hustler," "The Rookie.") They let their emotions out in short, sharp, measured bursts. Most of the picture is understated, focused on the steely-eyed reserve of its hero, tapping into his hunger and strength. Then comes the payoff moment (think of how long it takes Jim Morris to make it to the bigs, think of how quietly and slowly the movie has built to that point), and when it comes, even though I know it's coming, even though I know I should be too savvy and ironic to be taken in by it, it's so bright and piercing and complete that, time and again, it hits me. It hits me because I want to be hit. It hits me because, like the movie, I'm also prone to letting me emotions out in short, sharp, measured bursts.
Identification -- that's probably the last piece of the puzzle. My whole life, even now as an ostensibly objective writer, I've imagined myself in my favorite athletes' shoes, pictured myself as the guy in the arena, face marred by dust, sweat and blood and all that. Show me a good movie about lawyers or cops, I'll be interested, but I'll have a cool, critical distance. I'll watch for camera angles, talk to you about lighting and writing. But show me a good sports movie, even just a decent sports movie, and the line between inside and out starts to waver, and I'm ripe for the emotional picking, vulnerable to what I might think of in another film as the most trite sort of melodrama.
That's the extent of my theorizing. That's all I've come up with. Maybe sports movies sometimes make me cry for one or all of these reasons, or maybe it has nothing to do with any of them. Maybe it's just that a guy needs a good cry once in a while. That would make sense, too, because as far back as I can remember, sports are where I go when I've got a need.
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.