When promising light heavyweight Jimmy Braddock (Russell Crowe) goes home after winning the bout at the top of Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, the congratulatory air of celebration surrounding him evaporates as he stands with a hangdog expression before his silent wife (Renée Zellweger).
It’s a familiar-looking setup. Wives and girlfriends in sports movies widely disapprove of the obsessiveness or danger of their man’s occupation, and are forever berating them for getting caught up in the competition or glory of it all, if not for risking their necks. (See last year’s Miracle for a typical example.)
But then Braddock cracks a grin and admits, “I won,” and Mae rushes into his arms, and we realize the real significance of Jimmy’s sad-sack look and Mae’s silence. No typical sports-movie marriage, this. For Braddock, a devoted husband and father and an all-around righteous guy, there’s never any doubt that family is his first and last priority; boxing is merely a means of putting bread on the table.
Of course Mae worries herself sick about Jimmy in the ring, but her pride in what he accomplishes and sacrifices for them counterbalances her fears. Then, too, there’s the practical side of things, especially after the Depression wipes out their investments, and the Braddocks exchange their comfortable suburban home for a chilly basement apartment. When Jimmy, whose career has been taking a beating, comes home with the painful news that he’s lost his boxing license, Mae can’t afford to savor her relief: They need that money too badly. (That said, she is relieved — and later, when he goes back to boxing, she finds it harder than ever to cope with.)
The film is based on the true story of James J. Braddock, whose inspiring rags-to-riches comeback in the dark days of the Depression prompted newspaper writer Damon Runyon to slap him with the epithet “the Cinderella man” — a rather milksop moniker for a boxer, and even for a boxing movie. I guess the fairy-tale reference made more sense to Runyon’s readers and Braddock’s fans than, say, “the Nicholas Nickleby of boxing,” though that would have been more accurate on several levels. Of course, it would have made an even worse movie title.
Still, as portrayed in Cinderella Man, for sheer decency and dogged heroism Braddock is every bit the match of Dickens’ archetypal hero. G. K. Chesterton’s characterization of Nickleby as “poor, brave, unimpeachable, and ultimately triumphant” applies equally well to Braddock, whose Depression slump is as grueling and unremitting as anything in Dickens.
Barred from boxing, he takes what few hours he can get down at the dock, doing his best to hide his broken hand. Mae cuts the milk with water after the milkman stops delivering, and Jimmy skips breakfast to give his young daughter Rosemarie (Ariel Waller) an extra slice of bologna. When his son Jay (Connor Price) steals a sausage from a neighborhood butcher store, Jimmy marches him right back and makes him return it — and then comes a heart-tugging scene in which Jay confesses to his father that he stooped to stealing because he’s terrified that his parents will be forced to give up their children, like other families he knows, and Braddock vows to him that their family will never be separated. Even then it doesn’t stop: Crushing circumstances prevent him from making good that promise, and there is no humiliation he will spare himself in his efforts to reunite his family.
In A Beautiful Mind, Howard and Crowe’s first collaboration, Crowe played a troubled genius who — in a refreshing departure from the Hollywood wisdom that troubled geniuses are always misunderstood saints — was a jerk. Here Crowe overturns another Hollywood convention in an equally strong performance as a boxer who isn’t a morally checkered, socially alienated single man with a history of extracurricular violence and troubling relationship issues (cf. Rocky, Raging Bull, The Boxer), but a wholly decent, self-controlled, devoted family man. He’s not only Cinderella, he’s Prince Charming too.
Braddock doesn’t crawl into a bottle when his life spirals out of control. He doesn’t smack around Mae or the kids and regret it later. He doesn’t withdraw from his family. He doesn’t even swear — though there is a fair bit of profanity in the film, mostly from Braddock’s manager (played with gusto by Paul Giamatti in a performance likely to garner a supporting-actor nomination from Academy members embarrassed about overlooking him in Sideways).
He does seem to struggle, at least for a time, with anger at God. Though the Braddocks’ Irish Catholic milieu is positively portrayed, Braddock tells Mae at one point to pray without him, tersely explaining that he’s “all prayed out.” If there’s no mention of Braddock eventually coming to terms with God, Mae’s faith never wavers, and she spends part of the climactic fight at church — where she finds the priest and a crowd of parishioners already in prayer for her husband, whose comeback has become an inspiration to a struggling nation.
If Million Dollar Baby was a boxing movie from the culture of death, Cinderella Man reflects the culture of life. Pugilism itself may be morally problematic — many sports carry varying levels of risk to life and limb, but in boxing the whole point is to try to injure the another man, ideally inflicting sufficient punishment to render him unable to stand for at least ten seconds — though historically it was viewed more positively, especially in Irish culture. But even in the ring the virtues Cinderella Man celebrates are not Braddock’s right hook or determination to win, but his courage, fortitude, and self-sacrifice.
Which is not to say that Cinderella Man, like Million Dollar Baby, is a boxing movie that doesn’t really care about boxing. The ringside action is front and center here, and under Howard’s assured direction the fights are as visceral and compelling as any I’ve seen.
But Howard knows that what keeps the audience caring about the action in the ring is the action outside the ring, and he never loses track of the story’s human dimension. Both Million Dollar Baby and Cinderella Man are substantially about things other than boxing; but whereas Million Dollar Baby has all the boxing upfront and then abandons the ring halfway through to go in another direction, Cinderella Man leaves the ring in the first half and returns for the second half.
It’s not without flaws. Braddock has a fine speech early on about not looking down on his opponents as “bums,” and the film avoids making most of his antagonists into Bad Guys simply to make us feel better about rooting against them — but then his final opponent, fearsome heavyweight champion Max Baer (intimidating Craig Bierko), is a scowling, swaggering creep who provokes Braddock before and during the fight with indecent taunts involving Mae. I’m glad Cinderella Man celebrates Braddock’s virtues, but I can’t help wondering if the film did justice to Baer in depicting him as such a sneering cad.
Even so, Cinderella Man is a rousing picture and a genuinely inspiring one, and represents some of Howard’s best work. It’s one Cinderella story that goes the distance without turning into a pumpkin, and fully earns its happily ever after.
Postscript: Now it turns out that Max Baer Jr., an actor who played Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies, has publicly criticized the film’s portrayal of his father. It’s an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise commendable film.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.