29.05.05 – By Wray Edwards: When I was ten years old my Father took me to Ptomaine Tommy’s for lunch. The restaurant/bar was on North Broadway in East L.A. There was sawdust on the floors, wooden chairs, and pictures on the walls. Pointing to one I asked, “Who’s that Dad?” “Why, that’s James J. Braddock, he was the Heavyweight Champion of the world.” I’ll never forget the look in his eyes when he said the name. It would be many years before the cause of that look would be revealed. The revelation came this evening while sitting with hundreds of people in a dark room watching a movie.
Of course sports writers are familiar with the boxer’s career. What was not obvious, until tonight, was the great story behind that career. The movie opens in a 1935 setting on a bright moment in Braddock’s career. It then flashes back to tell the story of his rise, fall and final victory in professional sports and life. Many who read this will have had parents and grand parents who lived through the Great Depression. This movie will serve well to help us understand what these people went
About half-way through the presentation I realized that very few in the audience had any clue about how things would turn out from fight to fight and in the man’s life. You could cut the tension with a knife and do the backstroke through the tears. The boxing sequences are realistic and powerful without the cartoonish quality of a Rocky movie. It is, of course, a period piece and the buildings, cars, costumes and locations are impeccable. The cameos by Angelo Dundee are heartwarming and a nice touch of homage to a real guy from our sport.
The casting is flawless with many of the characters bearing an uncanny resemblance to the real-life heroes. Ron Howard’s dedication to biographical truth is sullied by only a few dramatic licenses. Though he has a reputation as an Aussie bad-boy of sorts, Russell Crowe’s commitment to his art is flawless. Paul Giamatti’s trainer and Rennee Zellweger’s wife portrayals are twin pillars of support for Crowe’s great performance. The theater was packed for the preview showing and many were squirming, gasping and ooing-and-awing during the fights which were filmed with excruciating realism. More than half the audience were women who, no doubt, had come to see the handsome and rugged Mr. Crowe, but they were soon seduced by the essence and portrayal of Braddock’s life which Russell cleverly channeled to their hearts and minds by stepping aside and
letting Braddock shine through.
HBO has been airing a presentation about the movie in their “Making of” format. The behind-the-scenes vignettes and interviews with Braddock’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren are very revealing. Their affection and nostalgia for Braddock’s courage, honesty and fidelity beams in their eyes and echoes in their words. In fact it is obvious that the entire cast and crew felt that they were on an enjoyable mission to bring this Irish-American story to the screen.
Damon Runyon, who is said to have coined the alias “Cinderella Man” for Braddock, was a hard-bitten and often cynical author, playwright and sports writer who hob-knobbed with Al Capone and other marginal citizens. Runyon was softened and amazed by Braddock’s heart and sportsmanship. Damon is emulated to by two or three of the reporters in the movie who followed Braddock’s career.
At one point in the movie when Giamatti (playing Braddock’s trainer) is negotiating with “Big Jim” for a fight he says “James, you know what we are talking about, and it ain’t pugilism.” Money was the name of the game, and the essence of the depression.
The movie was obviously a labor of love both inside and out. The cast and crew were obviously in love with their project and spared no effort to present authentic events right down to the thousands of extras and Vitalis-slicked hair on the radio fight caller. Their affection for the project serves as a mirror of Braddock’s life, which was also a labor of love. He was painfully dedicated to his children and deeply in love with his wife.
The post scripts to the movie reveal other very impressive accomplishments of the man after he retired from boxing. Braddock was the beneficiary of one of the most savvy fight contracts in boxing history. His representatives managed to negotiate a percentage of Joe Louis’ earnings after their fight, which Louis won. If you are champ and have to lose to somebody, there’s certainly no disgrace in losing to the “Brown Bomber.”
There was spontaneous applause as the credits began to roll. I was surrounded on all sides by women who were buzzing with satisfaction and eagerly discussing Braddock and the excitement of the sport of boxing. I stood with a studio representative as the smiling audience filed from the theater. She thanked everyone and was offered gratitude and congratulations in return for Universal’s handsome portrait of this gallant man.
This is an honest and respectful representation of the sport of boxing. All of us who cherish and protect the sport owe Mr. Howard and Penny Marshall a debt of gratitude for their sterling effort.
Driving home, it came to mind that this movie tends to inspire one to look inward and evaluate one’s own struggles and motivations. After having seen such a dramatic story about a real human life, it is nearly impossible for a thoughtful person not to take pause. For boxing fans this is a must see. For movie-goers in general it is an exciting work of art. Don’t miss it. It’s a big screen movie, and that’s where it should be seen.