Burt Reynolds is to football films as Kevin Costner is to baseball ones: you’re surprised the ex-jock hasn’t spent his whole life playing athletes. That sort of deceptiveness serves Reynolds well as Billy Puckett, a pugnacious jock who isn’t comfortable anywhere off the football field, as if the ball was glued to the running back’s hand. His roommate Tiller (Kris Kristofferson) is low on confidence until he attends a new-age seminar service, developing an unforeseen skill level on the field and a new tension between Billy and love interest Barbara Jane (Jill Clayburgh), his two roommates. Not only does it create professional tension between Billy and Tiller, but it contaminates the engagement between Tiller and Barbara, with Barbara’s dubiousness and questioning the hippie policies, which include forced incontinence. Instead of making a move for Barbara by appealing to her rejection of the program, Billy instead enrolls. It leads to the sight of Reynolds, the portrait of a specific era of masculinity, forced to endure a series of emasculating activities that, in a way, made the aging star look like a man out of time. “Semi-Tough” effectively not only critiqued the era’s New Age movement (reportedly mocking real-life guru Werner Erhard and his “EST” training) but also the idea of the professional sports world embracing and emphasizing a rigid sense of sex roles; the picture sides with Reynolds’ Billy, but you get the sense director Michael Ritchie is also subtly suggesting football as eternally frozen in a very specific moment in history.
"Paper Lion" (1968)
George Plimpton led a full life, publishing several books and columns and becoming a pop culture superstar. He also lived to be a part of what he chronicled, leading him to pitch against All-Star hitters in the major leagues, and spar a couple of rounds with the best boxers in the world. But in his book “Paper Lion,” Plimpton discussed one of his greatest honors, playing backup quarterback in training camp for the Detroit Lions. Plimpton’s voice has been captured across all mediums, but it must have been a thrill to have his personality captured by Alan Alda at the peak of his career. The picture follows Plimpton as a dreamer masquerading as a writer, seeing the experience of being in uniform first as an amusing joke and an opportunity for a great Sports Illustrated piece, and then an honest chance to thrive performing alongside his heroes, despite being on the wrong side of 35. The charm of “Paper Lion” comes from Alda’s interactions with the real-life pros, including star Alex Karras, who becomes fast friends with Plimpton as he protects the writer from the razzing and mockery of fellow players. Ultimately, “Paper Lion” stretches the truth to get Plimpton on the field for a few plays in a preseason game, but ultimately it provides humanizing comic fodder to re-establish the divide between Plimpton and the pros he documents.
In the modern era of sports films, there has been a movement away from the depiction of superstar legends and towards true stories of minor successes, like the few pitches tossed in John Lee Hancock’s “The Rookie” or the handful of plays celebrated in Ericson Core’s “Invincible.” But the many films in that genre owe their existence to Michael Anspaugh’s spirited ode to never-say-die optimism. Short, portly, unassuming Rudy Ruettiger (Sean Astin) is everybody’s idea of a long shot to be even a collegiate athlete, but it can’t dull his enthusiasm for Notre Dame, and his dream of wearing the iconic blue and gold is defeated by a lack of good grades and a social awkwardness. Rudy’s journey to become a member of the Fightin’ Irish hits several snags as he’s defeated at every turn, but this straightforward, somewhat predictable drama is a paean to blind determination as Rudy fights his way up the food chain from the very bottom, if only for one glorified minute underneath the iconic helmet. “Rudy” could be remade ten times, and it’s likely all ten versions would be excessively obvious and unnecessary. This version, however, benefits from a one-of-a-kind performance by Astin, who captures both the sadsack persona of Rudy and his winning determination, as well as an epic score from Jerry Goldsmith that captures that sensation of pigskin glory, turning the film from a standard underdog story into a minor sports classic.
We’d be remiss in not mentioning the classic “Brian’s Song,” though we tried to avoid including TV movies. And though it's of an earlier era, the manic pleasures of Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman” still crack us up. Taylor Hackford’s two efforts “Against All Odds” and “Everybody’s All-American” are worth mentioning for the excellent superstar casting of Jeff Bridges and Dennis Quaid, respectively, though the latter film is fairly dull, and the former is most remembered for the classic Phil Collins theme. Football comedies usually feature the same dumb pratfalls, but kudos to the playful “Necessary Roughness” and George Clooney’s daffy, lightweight “Leatherheads” for finding new angles on that. Tom Cruise makes a convincing defensive back in “All The Right Moves,” moreso than Robert Downey Jr. and Anthony Michael Hall in “Johnny Be Good,” and especially James Van Der Beek in the cheeseball millennial staple “Varsity Blues.” And our favorite football character in cinema history has to be the ex-pro Harry Moseby, played by Gene Hackman, in Arthur Penn’s chilly noir “Night Moves.”