A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Mike Tyson bites Evander Holyfield’s ear, 1997
On this day in 1997, during a boxing match for the WBA Heavyweight Championship title, one of the fighters, “Iron” Mike Tyson, bit off a chunk of the ear of his opponent, Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield. The fight was a rematch, after Holyfield had knocked out Tyson in the 11th round seven months earlier, to take the title. Billed as “The Sound and the Fury”, the fight took place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, and right from the start Tyson was complaining to referee Mills Lane about Holyfield headbutting him, which he’d also complained about at their original match. Holyfield took the first two rounds, though head-butted Tyson halfway through the second (unintentionally, he said; the referee agreed). Tyson came out of his corner for the third round without a mouthguard and was ordered by Lane to put it in. He did so, but when Holyfield got him in a clinch, Tyson responded by biting off a chunk of his right ear and spitting it onto the ground. In spite of Holyfield’s protestations, the fight was resumed, whereupon Tyson bit Holyfield’s left ear. At the end of the round, Mills Lane spotted the bite mark to Holyfield’s left ear and disqualified Tyson.
The Fighter (2010, dir: David O Russell)
Who is the fighter in The Fighter? The obvious answer is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) a dumb-as-toast boxer being coached towards a big fight by his brother Dicky (Christian Bale) who himself had a go in the ring before blowing out back in the 1980s. But watch “Irish” Micky – entirely passive, withdrawn, deferring to anybody who’s asking, in thrall to his mother and sisters, but especially to Dicky, a twitching ball of ADHD, rictus-mouthed, not a bad man but certainly someone you wouldn’t want to be around for too long. Bale won the Oscar for his performance, for supporting actor, which shows that the Academy fell for director David O Russell’s (and his screenwriters’) feint too. Because the fighter, obviously, is Dicky and the lead in this film is Bale, not Wahlberg. Everyone in the cast knows it. Including Wahlberg who not once makes a bid for glory or the spotlight in his beautifully controlled performance (in a fair world he would have won the supporting Oscar). In fact, in The Fighter, every single person is fighting, except for Micky, the actual pugilist, who is cossetted and primped, stroked like a Kobe bull, walked like the lump of meat he is up to the ring, where he finally does his bit of jabbing, is then led away, has his gloves delaced and returns to his life of dumb torpor.
Even Charlene (Amy Adams), the bright spark who wanders into Micky’s life and drives an emotional wedge into the family – she’s upset their careful schedules – has to fight for her man. And, in fighting for him, she wins the grudging respect of this dim-bulb family of hard knocks operating at the shitty end of the boxing game. This family is David O Russell’s great achievement – the Greek chorus of sisters who spend the early rounds of their bout with Charlene shouting “skank” at her. Melissa Leo as the mother, all leopard skin tops, bottle blonde hair, cigarettes and a mouth that could release seized wheelnuts. She’s quite brilliant (her Oscar entirely deserved).
How many boxing films have there been? People have been turning them out since the 1890s – two actors, lots of action, a winner and a loser, an easily controlled environment, you can see the attraction. And cheap. But David O Russell has come up with a new spin on the old formula, by pointing out that a man is only as good as his team. If the team fights for him, he stands a chance. If it doesn’t, he’s yesterday’s papers. Without that novel approach this would be just another boxing film – the Rocky training sequences, the “couldabeenacontenda” speeches, the dope on the rope finish. With it, it’s something entirely different. This is the film that atoned for I Heart Huckabees, Russell’s wacky flop of six years earlier. It marked his comeback – Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle followed – and proved he was something of a fighter himself.
- Full of great performances: Bale, Wahlberg, Leo, Adams
- A boxing movie with a difference
- The punchy, funny screenplay
- The distinctive cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Her, Interstellar)
© Steve Morrissey 2014