Knockout Performances

Christian Bale was nominated for an Academy Award this week for “The Fighter.” If he wins, it will be about the hundredth award the English actor has nabbed for his electric portrayal of crack-addicted, boxing washout Dicky Eklund. With Bale as the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar, it got me thinking about some other actors who have received major praise for playing real-life pugilists.

denirobull.jpgRobert DeNiro
Robert DeNiro delivered his most legendary performance in “Raging Bull,” Martin Scorsese’s classic 1980 film about the turbulent life of boxer Jake LaMotta. Film buffs point to the actor’s 60-pound weight gain as the pinnacle of “method acting,” but what’s much more impressive is the shape DeNiro got into to play LaMotta in his prime. The star was so committed to authenticity, that he actually boxed in three amateur bouts and won two of them. It all paid off as he won an Oscar for the role that year.

Paul Newman
Originally intended as a vehicle for James Dean, the 1956 boxing movie “Somebody Up There Likes Me” starred Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano, a tough street kid who made the unbelievable journey from prison to the army to middleweight champion. One of Newman’s first starring roles, this overlooked classic helped launch the young actor’s career and won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for its visceral fight scenes.

markfighter.jpgMark Wahlberg
The counterpart to Bale in “The Fighter,” Wahlberg was perfectly cast as “Irish” Micky Ward, a working class kid from the rough city of Lowell, Massachusetts who brawled his way into boxing history. Delivering a much more quiet, reserved performance than Bale, the Boston-bred actor hasn’t received as much attention as his co-star, but he was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Denzel Washington
Washington received an Academy Award
nomination in 1999 for his starring role in “The Hurricane”–the story
of middleweight boxer’s Ruben “Hurricane” Carter’s harrowing journey to
prove his innocence after spending 20 years in prison for a triple
homicide he didn’t commit. The film is gripping thanks to Washington’s
performance, but has been criticized for many inaccuracies and
distortions. Former middleweight champion Joey Giardello actually sued
the producers of the film for a scene that misrepresented his 1964 bout
against Carter.

crowebox.jpgRussell Crowe
The grizzled Australian actor was nominated for a Golden Globe for his starring role in this 2005 film about the life of James J. Braddock, a struggling fighter from Depression-era New Jersey who achieved the impossible when he defeated massive German bruiser Max Baer to become the heavyweight champion of the world in 1935. If Crowe’s in-ring skills looked authentic, it was because he worked with Muhammad Ali’s legendary trainer, Angelo Dundee, to prepare for the role.

Errol Flynn
The 1942 film “Gentleman Jim” starred Errol Flynn as James J. Corbett, a hard-hitting fighter who introduced a scientific approach to the sport in the late 1800s and famously defeated John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight championship in 1892. Although a barroom brawler in real life, the rakish Flynn had some trouble mimicking “Gentleman Jim’s” ring work and actually suffered a heart attack during filming.

smithali.jpgWill Smith
A dream project for Will Smith, Michael Mann’s 2001 biopic, “Ali,” was looked at as a disappointment by many fans that had waited for decades to see the amazing story of Muhammad Ali’s life on screen (The brilliant 1996 documentary “When We Were Kings” about Ali’s famous “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman in 1974 did a far better job of this). No one criticized Smith’s fantastic lead performance, however, which saw the actor perfectly capture everything from the legendary fighter’s cadence to his amazing physique.

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