Hollywood hits the hardcourt in these March Madness movie classics



March Movie Madness -- Now that we are deep into the March Madness of the annual NCAA college basketball tournament, many people might find little time to watch anything but college hoops over these few weeks. However, there are also plenty of movies with basketball as their subject that are able to compliment, and even provide an alternate perspective on the classic American sport.

For example, the 1986 film "Hoosiers" is both a basketball movie and a classic underdog story on a number of levels. First, the film was based (very loosely) on a true life story of a high school basketball team from tiny Milan, Ind., that managed to beat the heavily favored, four-time winning Muncie Central Bearcats in the 1954 State finals, coming out on top in a field that included every high school team in the state.

Appropriately enough, the movie production itself was an underdog story as well. Provided with the small budget of only $6 million, the movie was given little promotional support by its studio, Orion, which was willing to let the film die a quiet death at the box office. The film's budget was so limited, in fact, that producers were forced to hire inexperienced, nonprofessional actors from the local Richmond, Ind., area to fill out the cast.

Which, ironically, only added to the film's degree of realism. As did Angelo Pizzo's screenplay, which revealed an intimate knowledge of how small town high school sports programs operated, from high school politics to parental interference, lending the film a degree of authenticity that rings true. Adding to that authenticity is Gene Hackman's nuanced and layered central performance, creating a satisfyingly complex character that anchors the whole movie.

As a result, audiences responded, and the movie went on to be a big box office success, grossing over four times its budget and earning two Academy Award nominations.

And therein, amazingly enough, lies yet another underdog story as well. Prior to the film's production, famed actor Dennis Hopper had become a pariah in Hollywood, deemed a copious drug and alcohol abuser whose mental stability was always in question, making him a liability on any film set. Cast in "Hoosiers" as alcoholic assistant coach Shooter Flatch, Hopper had plenty of real life experience to draw upon. The actor appeared to be battling his own personal demons onscreen, delivering a remarkably honest performance obviously dredged up from his own dark night of the soul. Shooter's rehabilitation in the movie seemed to mirror the revivial of Dennis Hopper's real-life movie career as well, as the actor received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. A movie couldn't have asked for a better comeback story than that.

Of a different stripe altogether is 1994's "Hoop Dreams." A documentary that follows two hopeful Chicago high school students chasing their dreams of becoming professional basketball athletes in the NBA, this outstanding movie manages to transcend the label of mere "sports documentary."

Filmmakers Steve James, Fred Marx and Paul Gilbert initially began the project with the intention of creating a half hour program to eventually air on PBS. However the filmmakers soon realized the material they were shooting had the potential of becoming a much bigger project. They eventually spent five years following William Gates and Arthur Agee, two teenage African-American students chasing their dreams of athletic stardom. The result was an epic three-hour documentary that never drags for a moment.

Tapped for future success by suburban Catholic St. Joseph's high school that boasts Isiah Thomas as one of its alumni, the documentary shows the disparate paths both William and Arthur take as the pressures of their situation come to bear down on them. Both come from economically depressed inner city areas in which an athletic career can seem like the only way out.

Meanwhile the odds against such a success actually happening are so astronomically low, that the movie slowly becomes a thoughtful critique of the American experience itself. Exploring myriad social issues including class distinctions, racial inequality and the limited opportunities available to inner city youths, the film provides an insightful and troubling glimpse into a more desperate side of the American Dream.

While the entertainment value behind watching a basketball game is undeniable, "Hoop Dreams" manages to illuminate that experience with some sobering, behind-the-scenes food for thought.

Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.


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