A Question of Sport
Talk about one-way traffic: Somehow I can't see Orlando Bloom being drafted into Sven's squad as a last minute replacement for Wayne Rooney - but it's surprising how many sports stars go the other way and get a shot at acting in multi-million dollar movies. As a rule, these athletes know as much about screen craft as Bloom knows about lifting the FA Cup. There has been no shortage of memorable performances, even if they often stick out for all the wrong reasons.
Even when they're playing themselves - like Alan Shearer in Purely Belter for instance, or Michael Jordan in Space Jam - acute embarrassment is always only a heartbeat away. Anyone who ever saw Shearer give a TV interview would have known what to expect, but even a natural extrovert like Muhammed Ali can come a cropper. Playing himself in The Greatest, the sparkling, ebullient Ali seemed crippled with self-consciousness. Anyone who had doubts about Will Smith's performance in Ali should compare and contrast, then marvel at what a real actor can bring to a role.
The inanities increase exponentially when you ask real sports stars to do their thing in a fictional context. Players - a soapy love story starring Ali Macgraw and Dean Paul Martin set against the jet-setting tennis pro circuit (with Guillermo Vilas, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase and John Lloyd all playing themselves). Producer Robert Evans - Ms Macgraw's husband at the time - was so devastated by the reviews he locked up the prints of this turkey and threw away the key.
On the other hand Escape to Victory just about works as an old fashioned boy's own adventure movie (it's about Allied POWs who have to choose between beating the Jerries at football and making their escape) but the footie content looks more like ballet. Director John Huston evidently didn't know too much about the game, and the all-star cast throws in Sylvester Stallone (keeping goal) and a portly Michael Caine with Bobby Moore, Pele and such Ipswich luminaries as John Wark and Russell Osman - who really can't believe their luck at this unexpected brush with greatness.
None of these greats went on to have much of a career, movie-wise. Stan Collymore's recent bit in Basic Instinct 2 is a fair measure of the charisma most sports stars seem to bring to the job - even engaging in 100 mph sex with Sharon Stone he's completely comatose. But there have been a few who have become popular with movie audiences.
Johnny Weismuller was an Olympic swimming champ who went on to star in some two dozen movies - though as the screen's best known Tarzan he never had too many lines. Norwegian ice skating champion Sonje Henie became a Hollywood star in the 1940s, until a photo of her shaking hands with Hitler at the 1936 Olympics dented her popularity.
Republic studio boss Herbert Yates tried to duplicate Henie's success with his Czech protégé Vera Hruba Ralston, though her thick accent and appalling acting made this an uphill struggle. "Whenever I think I've given a bad performance, I look through the TV Guide and try to find a Vera Hruba Ralston picture to watch," commented actress Maureen Stapleton. "I know no matter how bad a performance I may have given, I could never be as bad as she was."
Unsurprisingly, American football has supplied a couple of biggish movie stars. Burt Reynolds nearly qualifies - he was a college football star with a bright future until a knee injury forced him out of the game and into acting. A fella by the name of OJ Simpson had some success in Capricorn One and as Leslie Nielsen's sidekick in the Naked Gun films, although his movie career was well on the slide even before certain legal complications interrupted.
Jim Brown - some say the best football player ever - has put together quite an interesting filmography including The Dirty Dozen (re-released in a special edition this month), Ice Station Zebra, Fingers, Mars Attacks, He Got Game and Any Given Sunday.
Nominations for the sports/movie personality of all time? Unless we count bodybuilders (Arnie) and wrestlers (Hulk Hogan; The Rock) as sportsmen - which we don't - significant contenders might include Mike Tyson (Black and White; When Will I Be Loved) and Eric Cantona (Elizabeth; Le Bonheur). But the winner, hands down, would have to be Wimbledon's own... Vinnie Jones.
Jones doesn't owe his Hollywood career to his celebrity, but to his physique, his mug, and his palpable commitment. He was never a pretty footballer, but he made his presence felt - just ask Gazza - and that same attitude drives his acting. This former hod carrier doesn't coast and he asserts himself in the scene. Sure, he's typecast as a hard man, but within that niche Jones has revealed gradations of sadism, grim efficiency, and rough and ready humour. You may not see him to play Shakespeare soon, but he was the coach in She's the Man, which is close enough for now.
His deadpan "It's been emotional" was the perfect delivery to round off Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He was pretty funny as Bullet Tooth Tony in Snatch and Mad Maynard in Euro Trip, and no disgrace following in Burt Reynolds' footsteps in Mean Machine (even if the movie itself was a joke). In X-Men: The Last Stand he's Juggaurnaut, a human battering ram whose speciality is head-butting his way through walls - it ain't subtle, but it's one sure way to bring the house down.
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