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A Resource by Mark D. Roberts

Cinderella Man:
Some Reflections

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at . Thank you.

Table of Contents
Part 1 The Faces of Cinderella Man
Part 2 Cinderella Man and the Power of Truth

The Faces of Cinderella Man
Posted for Wednesday, June 8, 2005

I'm interrupting my series "No Holds Barred: Ruminations on Publishing and Prayer" to put up a few comments on the film Cinderella Man. I'll get back to the series in a couple of days, I imagine.

My wife and I saw Cinderella Man last night. It was a compelling film. I spent at least half of the movie's 144 minutes on the edge of my seat, largely because of the grueling fight sequences. These were not gratuitous, but absolutely integral to the story which is, after all, about a professional boxer. But the graphic nature of these scenes calls for a word of warning:

Parents: This film is rated PG-13 for "intense boxing violence and some language." The boxing scenes are truly intense, often painful to watch, and sometimes bloody. I can't imagine too many 12 year olds (or younger) who would be okay seeing this film.

Now, back to the movie . . .

What makes Cinderella Man such a great film? Certain obvious characteristics come quickly to mind: a "Cinderella" story this is truly inspiration; solid screenwriting; tremendous performances by Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti; movie storytelling that captures the desperate "feel" of the Depression; some of the most realistic and exciting boxing scenes ever.

But I would add something else that makes Cinderella Man such a fine movie: the faces. That's right, the faces. In fact I'd almost be willing to argue that the faces make this movie.

What do I mean? Well, most obviously there are the faces of Russell Crowe, who plays Jim Braddock, the "Cinderella Man." Crowe is an amazing actor. Even though I've seen him as a dominant character in a number of films (Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander, The Insider), I still find myself watching Jim Braddock, not Russell Crowe acting the part of Jim Braddock. In Cinderella Man we see many different faces of Russell Crowe/Jim Braddock: the face of athletic intensity; the face of a man taking a terrible beating in the ring; the face of a desperate, loving father, and many more.

The face of Renée Zellweger also figures prominently in Cinderella Man. She's got a trademarked pucker-pout face, and she uses it generously in this movie. She also has the "I'm pretty darn worried but I support you because you're my husband" face down pat.

Many of the faces in Cinderella Man are nameless. They're the faces of men caught in the web of the Great Depression: faces of fathers who can't provide for their children, of men who would love to work but can't find anything, of men who are willing to be in order to feed their families. These faces aren't merely the backdrop of Cinderella Man. In many ways they are the real story in which the fantastic tale of Jim Braddock is merely a chapter.

Perhaps one of the most refreshing and expressive faces in the film belongs to Paul Giamatti, who plays Jim Braddock's manager, Joe Gould. Whether shouting commands to Jim at ringside, or sharing in his desperation, or exulting in his victories, Giamatti's face expresses his soul. I'd say the chance to watch Giamatti in this movie is worth the price of admission.

My favorite faces in this movie are the faces of a family together, whether in desperation and fear, or in love and joy. Of course, as a husband and father, I'm easily a sucker for family scenes. But when they are well-drawn, as in Cinderella Man, I'm unashamed of my sentimentality.

Part of what makes all of this work, I would contend, is the fact that it's based on a true story. I want to reflect on this a bit in my next post.


Cinderella Man and the Power of Truth
Posted for Thursday, June 9, 2005

The recent hit film Cinderella Man portrays a fictionalized account of what is basically a true story. James J. Braddock was in fact a washed-up, down-on-his-luck boxer who was caught in the tailspin of the Great Depression. And he did indeed end up fighting again, ultimately winning the heavyweight championship, to the utter amazement of the boxing establishment. (For more info on the real Braddock, check out the official website.)

The story of Braddock's astonishing comeback, told in Jeremy Schaap's recent book, is truly compelling. It grabs the heart, not only as a sports redemption story, but also as a tale of national inspiration. Braddock's comeback touched the heart of a country that was itself being battered by the Depression. His victory over Max Baer for the title became, in the national psyche, a glorious moment of hope.

The film, Cinderella Man, was truly gripping. And, not surprisingly, the ending provided a Rocky-like high (well, Rocky II, III, IV, that is, since Rocky lost in the first film). As I enjoyed Braddock's victory, I realized that if the story had not been true, if it had been simply a creation of some clever writer, I wouldn't have enjoyed the movie nearly as much. Why? Because I would have felt jerked around by the unrealistic sentimentality of the predictable happy ending.

Many films that depict historical events don't require truth to work. Titanic, for example, would have been a cinematic masterpiece if the main storyline had been fictitious. And Saving Private Ryan, though largely fictional after the opening scene, is not impoverished because the events depicted didn't really happen. But certain films, especially when they tell the story of some very unlikely overcoming of nearly insurmountable odds, rely upon their truthfulness for much of their power.

I know what I'm saying will bother some artistic purists, who would argue that any work of art, whether a movie or anything else, should stand on its own artistic merits. "Art doesn't have to represent reality," or so we are told. But I think some stories and movies work much better when the essential events are as depicted. Seabiscuit would offer another salient and relevant example.

So, my simple point is that Cinderella Man is a much more powerful movie because the story it tells is basically true.

Now this leads to a very curious and ironic true story. When I was watching Cinderella Man, I was bothered by the familiarity of the name "Max Baer." I was sure I knew this name, and knew it rather well, even though I'm no fan of boxing. When I got home from the film I sought to solve the mystery. Entering "Max Baer" into Google, my puzzle was quickly solved. I did indeed know the name "Max Baer," though more accurately, I was familiar with "Max Baer, Jr." Why? Because he played Jethro Bodine, the unforgettable character on the television series The Beverly Hillbillies.

Now here's where this bit of historical irony becomes even more interesting. In Cinderella Man, Max Baer is portrayed as a vicious boxer and inveterate womanizer. The womaninzing part seems to have been true of the real Baer, but the vicious part was greatly overdone, at least according to Max Baer, Jr. In a headline that's worth remembering, the New York Daily News reports, "Jethro Says Opie Distorts Baer Facts." This alludes to the fact that Cinderella Man was directed by Ron Howard, who played Opie in the Andy Griffith Show. At any rate, Max Jr. insists that the portrayal of his father as an unrepentant murderer in the ring is wrong. According to Max Jr.: "My father cried about what happened to [Baer ring victim] Frankie Campbell. He had nightmares. He helped put Frankie's children through college."

A spokesperson for Ron Howard defended the film in this way: "The script was written from the point of view of the Braddock family. To them, Max Baer was a real threat. Ron felt that was how the character needed to be drafted." But Max Jr. lamented, "I have great respect for Ronny Howard. But he never called me for any factual information about my father. They distorted his character. They didn't have to make him an ogre to make Jimmy Braddock a hero."

Actually, I tend to go with Jethro over Opie this time. The story didn't need Max Baer to be so unpalatable. The fact was that he was an awesome puncher who had killed a man with his powerful swing. It seems that, in reality, Baer was so troubled by what had happened that he lost several succeeding fights because he didn't want to pummel his opponents as hard. Moreover, he gave a good chunk of his purses to the family of his deceased opponent, Frankie Campbell. (For more on the real Max Baer, Sr., check out the website describing his park in Livermore, California.)

The picture above shows Max Baer, Jr. (the one on the right), in a serious moment Jethro moment. (For a bit of musical notalgia, click here [.mov 36k].) You can see the Baer family resemblance if you compare this picture with the one below, which shows Max Baer, Sr. in a boxing stance. Below this picture is a shot of Craig Bierko, who played Baer Sr. in Cinderella Man. Not a bad resemblance, if you ask me.

So, given my belief that Cinderella Man is so successful, partly because the story is basically true, does the exaggerated portrayal of Max Baer actually weaken the movie? It won't do this for the vast majority of moviegoers, who will have no idea that Jethro is mad at Opie. But for those of us who know the truth about Max Baer, I don't think Cinderella Man loses much of its glow. Why? Because the remorseless quality of Max Baer's character doesn't contribute all that much to the film. I do think, however, that if moviegoers believed that Max Baer had in fact been exceedingly contrite about killing a man, this would have diminished the perceived threat to Braddock. So, to some extent I think Ron Howard was right.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from all of this is that we must always be careful about taking historical fiction as fully factual. It's just fine to see Cinderella Man, to enjoy the film, and to go about your business thereafter. But if you believe that all of what you saw in the movie was basically true, then you've got a problem. In the case of Cinderella Man, the damage is minor. But when the subject matter has profound historical or contemporary significance, then the risk of putting too much faith in a movie is more serious.

To this end, I am concerned about the Ron Howard film coming out a year from now (May 19, 2006). I'm talking about The Da Vinci Code, directed by Howard and starring Tom Hanks. I expect that this film, though based on a fictional novel, will lead many uncritical moviegoers to think that Jesus was in fact married to Mary Magdalene. Yet don't expect to see me on the Christian picket lines when this film comes out. I see it as a fantastic opportunity to set the record straight about Jesus. (I've done some writing on this topic already, which you can access in my series "Was Jesus Married?", or in my book, Jesus Revealed.)