On June 13, 1935, at Madison Square Garden, a miracle happened. On that dreary but fateful day in the heart of the Great Depression, a poverty-stricken Irish dockworker from North Bergen, N.J., made sports history. In the kind of heroic display of indomitable courage that breaks the rules, beats the odds and makes great motion pictures, a broken, battered, beaten has-been named James J. Braddock hobbled into the ring and became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Damon Runyon tagged him the “Cinderella Man,” and the label stuck. James J. Braddock was to boxing what Seabiscuit was to the racetrack-a symbol of hope for a nation in despair.
This is a human-interest saga loaded with the potential to become a riveting, heartbreaking and memorable film, and Ron Howard has done exactly that. Cinderella Man has the beauty, truth and galvanizing emotional force to become a classic. Like Rocky, Ali and Raging Bull, it turns an underdog into a simile for survival in a hard-luck life and provides the movies with someone to cheer for all time. A lot of this has to do with the powerful and inspired performances of Oscar winners Russell Crowe, as the fighter who risked his life to make a better future for his family, and Renée Zellweger as the loyal, loving and long-suffering wife who stood by him all the way.
But the film soars on several levels at the same time. You scream, you applaud, you hide your eyes from the blows, you feel your pulse to check your blood pressure, you take deep breaths to steady your nerves, and yes, you are advised to bring Kleenex. At the screening I attended, I saw grown men weeping. It’s as great a film about boxing as anything ever filmed, it sucks you into the autobiographical elements of a man common as dirt whose grit was thus doubly deserving of victory, while it chronicles the sounds, smells and details of an age of jazz and desperation. Ron Howard fills the screen with unforgettable images of flappers, breadlines, record unemployment, decent people turned homeless and violent in dangerous shantytowns called “Hoovervilles,” and people from every social class plunged into shock and hopelessness.
James J. Braddock was an amateur with a right-fist punch that had already launched him as a promising boxer. But in 1929 he broke his right hand, suffered a string of crushing defeats and watched his life collapse along with the stock market. The boxing commission revoked his license and drove him to apply for relief assistance. Trying to keep his wife and three kids from starving, he could no longer afford food, gas or electricity. His oldest son was so hungry that he disgraced the family by stealing a salami from the neighborhood butcher. His wife Mae was forced to add tap water to the milk to make it go around. By 1933, the man they once called the “Bulldog of Bergen” was a defeated has-been with nothing left to sell, his children removed to his wife’s relatives to stay alive. Jimmy was at the end of his rope and all prayed out. In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Braddock boards the Weehawken Ferry, heads for Manhattan and doesn’t stop until he reaches Madison Square Garden, where he fights back tears, faces his old colleagues from better days and begs for enough nickels and dimes to get his children back. At this point, the narrative arc had spiraled in clean, easy narrative strokes, but I started to wonder how much more sadness and strife I could take. I didn’t have to wait long. Like Braddock’s life, the movie started to soar.
In 1934, Roosevelt’s New Deal was a sign on the bleak horizon that American life was starting to change, and so was the misery of Braddock’s downfall. His old friend and manager Joe Gould (another wonderful piece of work by Paul Giamatti of Sideways) came up with a match. Braddock ignored everyone’s advice, gambled on his life for $250 and won against overwhelming odds. By the time he paid off his creditors, he was left with only five bucks. But it was a comeback.
After Gould hocked everything he owned to finance Braddock’s training, the “second chance” paid off. Braddock started winning again. Suffering every broken rib and every dislodged retina-not for fame or publicity but to keep bread on the table for the family he loved-Jim brought pride to the hardscrabble Irish and honor to a hangdog nation. The return of the “Cinderella Man” didn’t entirely convince the skeptics or the hard-boiled press, but it did lead James J. Braddock to a world-championship title bout against Max Baer, a vicious sadist so unscrupulous that he had already been brought up on manslaughter charges for killing two men in the ring, and made it publicly known that he intended to massacre “Gentleman Jim.” In the remarkable screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, Max Baer is colorfully depicted as such an arrogant, insulting, celebrity-craving, obscenity-spouting brute that he doesn’t stand a chance to win any audience support, but he is so strongly and convincingly played by Craig Bierko that it’s hard to believe this is the same charming actor who conquered Broadway as the singing, dancing star of the recent hit revival of The Music Man. (Talk about versatility!)
On the day of the heavyweight title bout, Braddock was past his prime, stooped and arthritic, with scars and wounds and injuries that would never heal. The cynics predicted a knockout in the first round, but all of America’s downtrodden children believed Braddock was fighting for them personally with such unshakable faith that he lasted an unbelievable 15 rounds before he was declared the winner by unanimous decision in front of 35,000 cheering fans. The fight scenes are so realistic you won’t believe you are watching a movie, but so savage that by the 10th round I could no longer look at the screen. Legs gone, bones broken, vision impaired, Russell Crowe takes every blow like a bus crash, but his energy and rage seem to transcend the parameters of acting. Slow on his feet, weak in the clinches, missing teeth, wrists broken in three places-he’s road kill. Mr. Crowe lives through every injury with a mixture of dignity, humiliation, unbreakable spirit and indomitable bravery. As abrasive and unlikable as this prickly Australian often seems off the screen, he always manages to find the inner core of the person he’s playing on film. In the same way (and as his perfect partner), so does Ms. Zellweger, who connects with the humanity of Mae Braddock in myriad ways. With feed-sack fashions, a gummy Jersey accent and short black hair instead of her usual saffron tresses, she obviously didn’t take the role for cosmetic flattery. But she cuts through the character like oven cleaner.
The trajectory leads up to the championship title, and Ron Howard doesn’t drag the biographical facts beyond its limitations. But I was so enveloped by James Braddock’s story that I was grateful for the information cards preceding the end titles. Two years after his historic championship fight in 1935, the 32-year-old Braddock lost the heavyweight title to 23-year-old Joe Louis. Although his legacy is documented in every Hall of Fame in the boxing firmament, he never maintained the celebrity that other boxers have enjoyed, but his family never went hungry again. He and Mae spent the rest of their lives in the same house in Jersey they bought with the winnings from his 1935 fight, surrounded by children and grandchildren. In the 1960’s he helped build the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and he died in 1974 at the age of 69.
From the empowered performances to the immaculate period ambiance to the buttery camerawork of the talented Salvatore Totino, Cinderella Man boasts much to savor and applaud, but it’s the pure “ordinariness” of James J. Braddock that Ron Howard has emphasized that makes this such a memorable picture. Sports fans will love the authenticity of the fights in the ring, re-created just as you can see them in archival newsreel footage, and women will favor the story of an American family triumphing over adversity to hold their values together. Cinderella Man is a timeless rags-to-riches comeback story everyone will love, but the thing that ultimately makes it a classic in the pantheon of American movies is the way it reveals something about the idealism, strength, grace and grit of the American Dream.
Chips off the old block can sometimes leave splinters. Jane Fonda’s son, Troy Garity, is making a dent in his famous family’s tree. I thought he was enormously sensitive, rounded and affecting as the real-life soldier who was murdered on an Army training base because he fell in love with a transgendered cabaret performer in Frank Pierson’s acclaimed drama, Soldier’s Girl. Now he more than lives up to his potential in Milwaukee, Minnesota, an odd, quirky little independent feature directed by newcomer Allan Mindel that is every bit as offbeat as its title. Filled with eccentrics and told from the angularly myopic view of a 30-year-old man with the mind of a 10-year-old child, it’s not a film you will walk away from sighing, “Same old, same old. “
Mr. Garity, who has some of his mother’s querulous, wide-eyed drollery and some of grandfather Henry Fonda’s sleepy, aw-shucks resistance to fakery, totally immerses himself in the role of Albert Burroughs, a grown man who has never excelled at anything except ice fishing in the frozen sink of a Wisconsin winter. Nobody understands this, but Albert has a secret: The fish talk to him under the ice. He lures them with a line and a pole like candy for children. Despite the fact that his protective, selfish and antisocial shrew of a mother (Debra Monk) has never allowed him one day of independence, Albert has won so many tournaments and collected so many medals and cash prizes that he has become a wealthy fellow. Now a lot of people with evil agendas are hell-bent on finding out where Albert is hiding all of his loot. He’s sweet, gentle and harmless, but it’s easy to take advantage of him, and a lot of people are suddenly trying. Making him believe he cannot live without her, his mom is a big threat to the vultures waiting to pounce on Albert.
Enter a sexy con artist named Tuey (Alison Folland), who disposes of the mother by running her down in a hit-and-run killing that leaves Albert alone and more vulnerable than ever. Convinced that “retards” are easy prey (“They have enormous penises and no concept of money”), Tuey poses as a reporter for Time who wants to do a feature on his talent. But a traveling salesman with dollar signs in his eyes named Jerry James (Randy Quaid) gets there first, pretending to be Albert’s long-lost father. But this can’t be, because the real father is the town loony (Bruce Dern).
Jockeying for win, place and show in the screwball sweepstakes, there is also Tuey’s freaky sidekick and possible relative, Stan (Hank Harris), a hypochondriac who thinks he’s got testicular cancer; a transvestite (Holly Woodlawn); and a sadistic, sexually confused hunk in ruby lipstick, platform heels and mesh stockings, lace panties and a garter belt, played by (are you ready?) Josh Brolin.
It’s a stretch for everybody, but the only one who captures attention and holds it for 95 minutes is Mr. Garity, who walks all over town dragging a little wagon containing his fishing supplies. God always protects fools, and Albert manages to outsmart every villain with his crooked, innocent smile and almost-handsome look of seductive man-boy charm. Everybody tries to hook him the way fish head for his bait, but no matter what they tell him, Albert knows Milwaukee is not in Minnesota. In the end, Albert keeps his fortune and, fueled by a newfound self-reliance, enters the biggest ice-fishing contest of them all. As the camera moves back in a long, reverse pan shot, all of the other contestants follow their shy, stoic leader across the vast whiteness, little dots of color peppered on an endless landscape of snow and ice, keeping a respectful distance like germs in the vicinity of penicillin. What a strange, compelling film, with Mr. Garity as a likeable, winning centerpiece. See Milwaukee, Minnesota and discover a new talent on his way to stardom. There is apparently no end to the Fonda legacy. The beat goes on.