It’s not easy being a movie fan and a baseball fan in Marin.
Why? Because October is when your team, if they have done their job, move into the post-season and push toward a spot in the World Series. October is also when the Mill Valley Film Festival takes place. For an audience member, it’s a uniquely MVFF thing to have a movie end and see cellphones light up all over the theater amid many echoes of softly whispered “Who’s winning?” and “What’s the score?”
In honor of the whole baseball-meets-movie convergence that is October in Marin, here are some recommendations for films that capture the passion and excitement of competitive athletics. With any luck, there may be a sports movie or two in the film festival lineup this year, too — whether or not the S.F. Giants are still in the running to compete with it.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way.
The Natural is, to its fans, the greatest baseball movie of all time. At least, the greatest that is actually about baseball: one could argue that Field of Dreams, except for the moment at the end where James Earl Jones lectures Kevin Costner about baseball and America, is actually a road-trip/fantasy movie with occasional baseball flourishes. Bull Durham, also with Costner, has a bit more actual ball-field action, but it’s basically a love story featuring two baseball players (Costner and Tim Robbins) and a groupie (Susan Sarandon) who likes them both; still, its baseball scenes, by any measure, are amazing and are more grounded in reality than The Natural’s.
The Natural, starring former Marinite Robert Redford and directed by onetime Marin resident Barry Levinson, shows us the day-in, day-out grind of baseball in the 1930s — though with a strong Arthurian twist that plays better in Bernard Malamud’s significantly darker book. Regardless of its faults, The Natural is a visually stunning film, and the baseballgame scenes with Redford as Roy Hobbs and his Excalibur-like bat Wonderboy are as magnificent as they are preposterous.
And there they are, the big three baseball movies.
“Those are the pantheon films,” says KNBR morning-man and author Brian Murphy, whose sports books include Worth the Wait as well as Never. Say. Die.: The San Francisco Giants—2012 World Series Champions and The San Francisco 49ers: From Kezar to Levi Stadium. “There have been a lot of great baseball movies over the years,” he adds, “but those three films are the essentials.” Despite their flaws, which he grudgingly concedes to, Murphy believes these films capture a love for baseball that resonates with true fans. “They are things of beauty,” he says. “They are pure and perfect. Bull Durham for realism. The Natural for the epic mythology. And Field of Dreams standing in between them both, soaking up a little of each.”
No discussion of baseball movies should overlook A League of Their Own, however. Penny Marshall’s 1992 homage to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which kept baseball alive during the 1940s when most pro players were drafted into the war effort, is famous for the Tom Hanks line “There’s no crying in baseball.” But it’s the performances by Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna that anchor the film in the sheer, pure love of getting to play baseball. No other sports film so thoroughly captures the infectious joy of playing the game and playing it hard.
Before I move on to other sports, there’s one more Kevin Costner film that deserves a mention for its observations about the love of the baseball. Actually titled For Love of the Game, the 1999 film is about a big-league pitcher attempting to throw a perfect game on his final day as a player. The film cuts back and forth to his on-again off-again romance with a single mother.
“The scenes of Costner on the mound are easily some of the best baseball stuff ever put on film,” Murphy says. “His way of talking to himself, his rapport with the catcher — played by the great John C. Reilly — it’s just golden. But all of the other stuff is crap. It’s awful. If you could take that movie and edit it down to just Costner and Reilly and the ball and the mound, you’d have one of the best baseball movies of all time.”
As for films about other feats of athletic prowess, Murphy says the best are always about the underdogs. From Bend It Like Beckham, the 2002 comedy-drama about a driven English soccer player from a strict Indian family that does not approve of its women playing sports, to 2015’s Creed, the best of the Rocky movies, focused on the coming-of-age of the Italian Stallion’s dead best friend’s angry son, there’s nothing more inspiring than watching a person struggling and succeeding when no one believes he or she actually can.
Finally, although it’s a controversial choice, some local writers (guilty as charged) have named the locally shot 1986 Bruce Dern drama On the Edge the greatest sports movie of all time. Directed by MVFF favorite Rob Nilsson, it’s the tale of a disgraced 40-something former cross-country runner (Dern), defying odds and everyone he knows to compete in a grueling race based on the annual Dipsea race. Featuring a thrilling scene in which the other runners help keep Dern on the trail as officials wait around every corner to pull him out, as well as a climax that still draws tears for its sheer beauty and sense of surprise, On the Edge is the ultimate underdog-makesgood story. And it’s all the better for being so little known — an underdog film about an underdog athlete.
“Every good sports story is the story of an underdog,” Murphy says. “It’s about an underdog achieving greatness against all odds, or at least getting close enough to smell it and falling short. That’s drama, man. That’s sports.”
Photo Credits: AF Archive/Alamy Stock Photo (top); Screenprod/Photononstop/Alamy Stock Photo (bottom); Pictoral Press LTD/Alamy Stock Photo (middle)