Of Men and Balls: Ron Shelton on The Freshman and This Sporting Life

Over on the Criterion Channel, for Super Bowl weekend, we’re showing the first football movie ever made, Harold Lloyd’s crackerjack comedy The Freshman (1925), and the first rugby-football movie ever made, Lindsay Anderson’s heart-pounding drama This Sporting Life (1963). And we could think of no one better to talk with about them than Ron Shelton, the filmmaker best known for directing sports movies that transcend the genre, whether he’s doing baseball in Bull Durham (1988), golf in Tin Cup (1996), boxing in Play It to the Bone (1999), or basketball in White Men Can’t Jump (1992)—one of Stanley Kubrick’s all-time favorite films.

Shelton numbers Lloyd among the top American filmmakers—the list also includes Robert Altman, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Buster Keaton, and Sam Peckinpah. To him, silent comedy remains a vital art that should be prized. “A well-turned pratfall is incredibly satisfying,” Shelton says. “Pratfalls have been disparaged because for a long time they haven’t been done the way Lloyd or Keaton did them.” As for This Sporting Life, seeing this psychologically charged depiction of the angst and elation of competing when it came out was a seminal experience for him as a young athlete. Twenty years later, Shelton got to discuss the film with Karel Reisz, its producer and a friend and colleague of Shelton’s early collaborator Roger Spottiswoode, who directed his scripts for the ace political thriller Under Fire (1983) and the engaging football comedy The Best of Times (1986).

Shelton played baseball and basketball in high school and college and spent five years at second base in the minor leagues for the Baltimore Orioles organization. “When I played baseball on the road, that’s when I started watching movies everyday,” Shelton says, “partly to get out of the hotel or the motel. So I was catching up late to Keaton and Lloyd.”

To celebrate Lloyd’s virtuosity and Anderson’s veracity, Shelton took a time-out from post-production for his latest film, Villa Capri (starring Tommy Lee Jones and Morgan Freeman). He began by asking a fundamental question about silent comedy: “Why is it that the hero was always some version of the same guy? Put-upon, the outsider, tricked by everybody, powerless—a kind of holy fool.”

Do you like Lloyd because he’s less like a holy fool than the other great silent clowns?

No, it’s just that he’s got a will and a good heart and he keeps trying hard. He never wallows. And he’s more modern in a certain way—he’s more of an “I’m-going-to-do-something-about-it” kind of guy. In The Freshman, he’s the one who rallies the football team. Now that he knows that he’s being treated like a fool, he’s going to fix it! He’s not going to go off and look in the mirror and be sad and do a Chaplinesque turn.

I love physical comedy. I think partly because I’m known for my dialogue, I’m always happiest when I’m doing a scene without any talking in it—and that’s all these guys did. I’m a big Keaton and Lloyd fan and a big Laurel and Hardy fan. Keaton and Lloyd are both really physical—they’re Gene Kelly to Chaplin’s Astaire. Lloyd is athletic in The Freshman: we don’t know he is right away, because he’s playing the schlump. But at the end we totally believe him spinning and diving and jumping over guys on the football field.

And he’s doing it in long takes—those are 100-yard-football-field takes captured on whatever equipment they had in 1925. Cameras didn’t move much in 1925. Chaplin would rehearse something for six months and stage it on a proscenium and pull off this precise piece of violin music. Keaton would stage wars—trains running into each other. What Lloyd does in the football game in The Freshman is move the camera! And we’re talking a hundred yards! And this is not a dolly shot recording something moving in front of you. This is the camera chasing the action or leading the action. That’s much more difficult than moving the camera on a track to record the action as it unfolds. In The Freshman the camera has to move at you or away from you, which is a lot easier to do today with a digital camera that weighs five pounds instead of with things that were like small trucks.

How does Lloyd’s staging compare to your own?

The way I do sports is almost always this model: you choreograph everything and you teach it to the players, and they run it over and over, to the left side, and to the right side, and you flip the pattern of the play, so it looks like a different play (though it’s really the same play, just done on the left side or the right side), and you shoot that. Then I just let them rest and play a real game, and I shoot the real game. In a real game they’re really trying to beat each other, and you get the fumbles and the trips and the balls bouncing off knees—that stuff you can’t choreograph. I take the real game and intercut it with the staged game, so I have what I want, but it feels more natural.

That’s something you do that Lloyd doesn’t do with The Freshman. But he also does the kind of success story you couldn’t really do these days.

Lloyd wins the game and gets the girl. I’ve got one rule. You can win the game, you won’t get the girl; if you get the girl, you can’t win the game. And that’s just my way of saying, “Folks, Ingrid Bergman is going away with the wrong guy, and welcome to real life.”

It’s great when Lloyd enters the game in a white sweater because he’s had to give his black jersey to another player. It’s like Robin Williams in The Best of Times taking the field in a white uniform that stands out because everyone else is covered in mud.

You’re right. And of course, both are about the water boy getting in the game. I love the way Lloyd does that. He’s in the game and he’s not in the game, he’s in the game and—naaah, no, he’s not in the game. I love it when he gives you the big pileups; it’s done very quickly, no wasted motion in the staging. When they un-pile, you get the obvious gag—him on his back with the cleats in his face—but they do it again, and he’s standing on his head, and they do it again, and he’s on the wrong side of the line because he’s woozy. Lloyd milked that brilliantly. He could have had five more of those and I would have been fine.

When did you first see This Sporting Life?

When it came out, when I was a freshman in college. I was moved by it. I’ve said one reason I made Bull Durham was that I never liked any sports movies; I thought if I ever get one shot to direct I’d write and direct a movie that’s my kind of movie. But The Hustler was an exception and so was This Sporting Life. I was eighteen in Santa Barbara and what would I know about this part of the world? Except I knew sports was more serious and more complicated than fans knew.

My big baseball hero was from Santa Barbara, and he was an alcoholic, and that was Eddie Mathews. My father said, “You can learn a lot of things from Eddie Mathews—you can learn how to swing a bat—you can learn about his great stroke and mechanics. You can learn how to play third base, how to compete. But you can’t learn how to live your life from Eddie Mathews.” This distinction was very clear to me. So I knew that Richard Harris’s character, Frank Machin, was out there. You know, he’s painted as a brute, and then he behaves as a brute. But then at the end you still care about him. He’s got a self-destructive nature; he’s not prepared emotionally and in every other way to be not much more than he is. Except he’s good on the field—and that is such an archetype of an athlete. You see more movies about the dark side of the athlete now. But back then there was The Hustler in 1961, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in 1962, and this in 1963.

When I watched This Sporting Life again, the Brando influence on Harris was just overwhelming to me. He’s got the Brando hair from Julius Caesar. There are scenes in the back of a car with two or three people that are almost direct lifts from On the Waterfront. Yet, despite the Brando thing, Harris is great. The part that got me, as an athlete, was that what happened on the field—the game, the competition—really meant something to him and delivered something nothing else did. And it’s really hard to explain that to fans. I have a full, rich, complicated life. But there’s nothing like when you’re directing a movie or playing a game, for real, with your life depending on it. An inarticulate guy like Frank Machin does at least have that. That’s why it’s so moving at the end when he runs out there on the field. It’s all he’s got, and it’s something. Without saying it he’s saying, “I need that.”

The movie is very strong on the idea that you join a club and the club owners own you.

I think it was fairly much a revelation then. The big baseball strike that freed up baseball players forever came in 1972, and baseball was the first sport that really liberated its athletes. I thought the movie was very accurate, from my experience of ownership, because it showed the players as just basically pawns. All that stuff was cutting-edge, given that the Super Bowl didn’t exist, the NBA wasn’t televised, there was one game a week for baseball on TV. Sports had not yet taken over.

Kevin Brownlow had no problem following American football in The Freshman, and it doesn’t sound as if you had any trouble following rugby in This Sporting Life.

The game’s the stage—the background. Most movies are westerns to me. Westerns weren’t about Dodge City or Tombstone but they made a great background, because there’s a set of rules to living in those places. Onto this stage come certain archetypes, and we know the stage and we know the archetypes—so now we can take them any direction we want, including away from the archetypes. I think why sports work for me is it’s a common language that you don’t have to explain to the audience. It’s hard to explain the history of Nicaragua over three speeches in a bar in Under Fire. You don’t have to explain sports.

I just wrote a rugby script, ironically, with John Norville, who wrote Tin Cup with me. It’s about a famous rugby game in 1924—and John said we have to explain rugby to an audience, and I said, “No, we don’t. You pass the ball backwards, you run forwards. Nobody cares about anything else!” It’s why boxing is the best international sports subject in movies: it’s two guys in underwear trying to knock each other down. We get that! There’s not even that much sports in my movies. And there’s not much sports in The Freshman.

Back when I was making movies with Roger [Spottiswoode] and Karel Reisz was around—he and Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson, all of them, were tight. And I asked him about Sporting Life, because I had the dream of making a sports movie someday. And he said, “Everybody in the crowds is a cutout.” And when you look, they are cutouts. He said, “We just kept moving the camera past them.” And that’s why the angles are up, also, because it keeps your eyes off the crowd, which is also what The Freshman did. There are almost no shots in The Freshman that tie the crowd into the action on the field. And I respect both men for doing it. That often drives camera-angle decisions.

Now if you didn’t think someone could find something to compare these two movies—there it is!

Actually, Lindsay Anderson narrates Brownlow’s terrific Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, which is also up on the Channel. And let’s try to tie them together another way. Is it part of the charm of The Freshman that, via Lloyd’s character, we get to be the fan and the player?

Yeah, the fan becomes the hero. And I think in a comedy like this, broad and silent, there’s no problem with that, because there’s a suspension of disbelief. As fantasy it’s fabulous.

I don’t know how you’d do that today. TV has really raised the bar on how you depict sports in a movie, because we’ve seen everything covered with seventeen cameras and played fifty times a day on SportsCenter and all the other shows. I always say I take my one camera all the places television can’t go—that’s the only way I can compete.

That visual contrast may be another reason why The Freshman feels so fresh.

Also because he did it so well! When you get to the last minute and he makes the run, then drops the ball short of the goal line . . . How many multi-million-dollar NFL stars have dropped the ball short of the goal line? It happens five times a year. Lloyd did it in 1925.

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