Film and Footballers: A Dialogue

Still funny, if not relevant.

Adams and contributor Matthew McGraw discuss how soccer and cinema can be understood in similar lights.

Adams: Let me ask you a question, Matthew. In a few weeks Billy Crystal’s animated corpse will once more walk among the living, stirred by a golden idol to deliver tired jokes for one dreadful evening. That’s right – Oscar season is in full swing. Although we’re both fairly cynical about the Academy Awards, there’s no denying that some really stellar films get recognized. That got me thinking about some of my favorite movies and I think, for me, the best ones are propelled by the performances of great actors. So here’s your question: what do really good soccer players and really good cinematic characters share in common? As a self-acclaimed pop culture connoisseur, and as the only person I trust with movie recommendations, I know you’ll have some insight.

Matt: That’s an interesting question, Adams—especially this year, where the acting categories, or at least the ones that matter,[1] are driven by star performances. The three leading contenders, Brad Pitt for Moneyball, George Clooney for The Descendants, and Jean Dujardin for The Artist,[2] all rely on their charm and gravitas to drive their performances, and a lot of critics seem to simply evaluate their performances based on this quality they exude. Their performances appear effortless, and that is always the word you hear the critics throw around when they talk about one of Clooney’s or a Pitt’s performances, like they’re hypnotizing us with their charm and good looks to make up for their lack of talent. But it seems like a point of jealousy on the critics’ part, like there’s no way that charm and awareness of one’s appearance can be utilized by an actor, that those qualities are separate from the performance itself.  The same kind of thing seems to be especially present in sports, too, where the intangible star quality that an athlete has serves to diminish his performance, as if we can’t marvel at LeBron or Kobe scoring 40 points in a game or Wayne Rooney scoring multiple goals in a game. It’s just something that we expect them to do. Do you think this trend holds true, Adams?

Jean Dujardin (right).

A: I think there’s some truth to that notion. In many a soccer game, the enraptured commentator marvels at a star’s  exploits – whether it be dribbling through defenders, curling a free kick toward goal, or tackling away a contested ball – with the line, He makes it look so effortless. But such a sentiment hardly diminishes the performance; I would argue that it emboldens the performance. Actors and footballers share in common a kind of dramaturgic impulse, in that each is executing a role that requires a constant interpretation of his environment. In that regard, both occupations are dynamic. Trying to condense a film or soccer match into a rote performance is an impossible task, so for a critic to comment on the automaticity of an actor or player is really quite the compliment. It’s saying, this is by no means an easy task, but by God you manage to make it look that way.

That said, I’m also interested in your comment on Pitt, Clooney, and newcomer-to-the-American-screen Jean Dujardin, three ostensibly handsome men. Film watching is foremost a visceral experience, and so an actor’s performance is largely shaped by his or her appearance. Whether Depardieu or Depp is chosen for the role boils down to whether it calls for a hunchback pariah or a sultry mascara’d pirate. In soccer, one’s attractiveness doesn’t necessarily inform his ability, but often it affects our appreciation of the player. Case in point: Cristiano Ronaldo. He bagged another hat trick last night, the highlight of which was a curvaceous shot that would make my old TI-83 spit out error messages, and yet we’ve relegated him to the back stage in what has become over the last three years the Messi show. Part of the reason we all love Messi and tend to cringe when Ronaldo plays (despite the latter’s undeniable brilliance) is exactly that divide. The Portuguese forward’s manicureific tanfest of a visage rubs us the wrong way, while Messi’s comparatively unkempt appearance makes us root for him all the more. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he has a touching backstory that Danny Boyle would do well to buy the rights for. Is there a parallel in film? The first name that comes to my mind is Viola Davis, who has that kind of underdog appeal, as well as a self-deprecating attitude toward her own appearance (as she’s said before, there isn’t much room for black actresses in Hollywood who aren’t Halle Berry).

Jonah Hill - on a train to Oscartown?

M: The immediate example for me is the wave of Apatow Leading Men, like Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Jason Segal. In comparison to the likes of Clooney, Pitt, and DiCaprio, they’re pretty ghastly specimens of the human form, each just being another gooey white-lump. Yet, each is a bonafide box-office star. And it has become this brand of comedy that has taken over the mainstream, where the most unlikely, and by unlikely, I mean ugly, people are stepping up and becoming the heroes, banging Katherine Heigel and Jon Hamm,[3] and pushing Kristen Bell away from their exposed and strangely flaccid penis.[4] But, of course, these people are working in the realm of comedy, not drama, where expectations are able to be suspended a little more easily. Yet, here we have Jonah Hill nominated for an Oscar for playing opposite to none other than Brad Pitt. Can you think of a player who has been pigeon-holed, where everyone was like, “he’s good for what he does,” but has transcended that role?

A: There have been numerous players recently who have done just that. Two that come to mind are Yaya Toure and Kevin Prince-Boateng, each of whom became famous in more defensive capacities but graduated from such a reputation into a revered attacking role. For Toure, that transition was between Barcelona and Manchester City; for Boateng, it was between Portsmouth and Milan. Here’s the thing, though: in spite of so many people claiming these players underwent total metamorphoses, they really had the right stuff for the attacking role all along. Toure played in an advanced position in France years before, as did Boateng in Germany. In other words, they were always multi-dimensional players; it was only when they were asked to suppress certain aspects of their talent that they earned a reputation for being “holding midfielders.”

KPB, the moonwalker who won Milan's heart.

That raises an interesting question for me. In the Barcelona/Portsmouth years, Toure and Boateng filled positions that didn’t necessarily match their potential. Their performance was limited by factors they couldn’t always control. That’s one of the biggest sticking points when we talk about the greatest players ever – context. We talk about Pele being so great because he played with great players; of Messi achieving success perhaps due to his supporting cast; or Maradona dominating in spite of it. Certainly there are footballers in history who could’ve been saints but the right set of factors didn’t coalesce for their fame to be realized. Do we see this happening in Hollywood? Are the big guns winning plaudits at the podium because of their supporting casts? And are there actors out there who you think have what it takes to win a little golden man, but probably won’t?

M: For actors, it’s not so much their supporting cast as the person behind the camera. Brad Pitt wouldn’t have developed if it weren’t for the help of David Fincher, Geroge Clooney wouldn’t have made his mark without Steven Soderbergh, and Leonardo DiCaprio would still be living in the shadow of Titanic if it weren’t for Martin Scorcese. And this is where sports and film differ fundamentally: film is ultimately an expression of the director, not a direct byproduct of the performance. Of course, you could make the Theo Epstein/Billy Beane argument that GMs are basically the directors of teams, but there is so much less control in sports. A coach can tell someone to do something, but after they utter the words, they have no control over it. If an actor is uncooperative, a director can change the performance through editing, blocking, and in any number of ways to suss out of the actor what he wants. Thus, the best actors are the ones that can flourish from direction. In the past several years, we’ve seen an abundance of young actors crash on the scene who are as good, if not better than the people up for the gold this year: Gosling, Fassbender, Hardy are all terrific, and certainly deserve to win the gold, but I don’t think they will. Ever.

Ryan Gosling, spawn of Clooney?

Because these are director’s actors, individuals willing to give themselves over to someone else’s vision. Gosling and Hardy have both bloomed under the tutelage of Nicholas Winding Refn, while Fassbender has done his best work under Steve McQueen. But these two directors are so auteuristic and idiosyncratic that the Academy, no matter how avant-garde it gets in the future, will never embrace them. But this is where these guys are at their best. They’re perfectly serviceable under other directors, but there’s nothing as raw and as mesmerizing as when they’re working with those directors. But Messi, Ronaldo, they can be great almost anywhere. In sports, talent is talent, but in film, talent is only relative to the vision that’s trying to be expressed.

A: Perhaps so. And in spite of the differences you’ve brought to light, you nonetheless revealed an evident similarity: that many actors and footballers alike deliver performances that may never receive the recognition they deserve. In the end, it seems the onus is on the cinephile and the footy fanatic to decide which roles are worth remembering. And I think you’d agree that we fans are fortunate that there is no dearth of performances to choose from.


1. Sorry, Ladies, but Best Actress is about as thin as the Best Song category this year: there’s only one film nominated for Best Picture with any of its female performers nominated, and that’s The Help. It’s the same thing every year, it seems, where male performances drive great films, while the great female performances are pretty much the only thing keeping their respective films from debuting on Lifetime. It seems kind of harsh, but seriously, The Iron Lady and My Week With Marilyn are hella weak.


2. Okay, so you may be unfamiliar with this guy if you’re not French, but trust me, this guy is like the George Clooney of the Riviera.


3. I know I said Leading Men, but Apatow just extended his brand to ladies this year, so I have to give a nod to the awkwardly attractive Kristen Wiig here.


4. To be fair, though, outside of Veronica Mars, I kind of get not getting it up for Kristen Bell. She cried over a sloth for christsake. It was a little weird and made Forgetting Sarah Marshall a little more realistic.

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