From “Raging Bull” to “Bull Durham,” Professor Emeritus of Media and Society Lester Friedman’s new book covers the full spectrum of athletic-based movies. Titled Sports Movies, the book is part of Rutgers University Press’ “Quick Takes: Movies & Popular Culture” series.
In the text, Friedman discusses the traditional formulas that have made this genre of movies one of the most beloved for American audiences. He looks at stock characters—such as the disgraced athlete on a quest for redemption—and explores how the genre’s attitudes have changed over time, especially on issues like class, race and gender in sports.
Friedman also reviews the history of sports films from the dawn of cinema’s silent era to the present day. By looking at classic films like Pride of the Yankees and Hoosiers, he shines a light on how movies influence our perceptions and attitudes toward the competitive ethos in American Life.
Friedman has always been a sports fan and sports participant, and says he is fascinated by the hold that sports has on American society. “Never in the history of humankind have so many people spent so much money and emotional energy on something that is so unimportant,” he says. “I set out to explore why that is in the opening section of the book.”
The answer, he believes, has to do with the connection to the archetypal American dream. The American dream and the American sports dream, he says, are basically the same thing. “What [that dream] envisions is America as a place where if you work hard and play fair you’ll succeed,” he says.
The irony, though, is that the dream is not always reflected in the reality, because of issues such as racism and sexism. “Think about the fact that black players weren’t allowed to play until the 1960s,” he says.
In the end, says Friedman, sports movies convey what the American dream and sports should be about, rather than what they are. “What film did was put it in a narrative context, and widely disseminates it into the American consciousness.”
Friedman, former chair of the Media and Society Department, joined HWS in 2005, having previously taught at Syracuse University, Upstate Medical Center and Northwestern University. He is the author of Citizen Spielberg, Fires Were Started, American Cinema of the 1970s, and, in 2016 with co-author Allison Kavey, Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives.