Anna Bogutskaya considers the sports movies that are less about the sport in question, and more concerned with their competitors’ feelings and overcompensating masculinity: boy melodramas.
The Iron Claw opens on an empty ring. This is where hardened professional wrestler Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) intends to pass down his wrought legacy to his four sons: Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) and Mike (Stanley Simons).
Sports movies are a whole genre unto themselves, preoccupied with athletic pursuit as a metaphor for… something. Anything and everything, really. Masculinity. Democracy. Discipline. Loyalty. Independence. Peter Brooks wrote in his 1976 book, The Melodramatic Imagination, that ‘melodrama offers us heroic confrontation, purgation, purification, recognition’. The sports movie combines the melodramatic strive to win and conquer with athletic competition. The win means something more than just being victorious. In Chariots of Fire (1981), winning means that prejudice can be outrun if you are fast enough; in The Fighter (2010), that a fractured family can be reunited; in Field of Dreams (1989), that a game of catch can bring together father and son (and America!); and, in Bend it Like Beckham (2002), that girls can play football and be romantic interests.
If we’re being cheeky, the sports melodrama could easily be rechristened the boy melodrama, since it allows space for the most earnest exploration of masculinity and men’s feelings. Melodramas heighten big emotions. Love, sacrifice, loyalty. The weepie genre is most often associated with female protagonists, romance-coded stories and big feelings in domestic spaces. But if melodramas are for the girls and the gays, where does that leave films like Fat City (1972), Rocky (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Jerry Maguire (1996), The Wrestler (2008), Creed (2015) and, coming out this week, The Iron Claw?
When the sports drama stops being about the sport and centres on the entangled feelings of the sportsmen, it becomes a boy melodrama. Take the final scene of Rocky, with Sylvester Stallone’s would-be champ’s face bloodied and swollen; it gives over to feelings, rather than winning. While Rocky’s opponent is announced the winner, the movie decides that the big fight everything’s been leading towards doesn’t matter after all. Rocky loses the fight, but he wins the movie. I dare you not to sob.
The protagonists of the boy melodrama are often emotionally neutered, unable to process or communicate their feelings. Characters are desperately lonely or lashing out, using their physicality in lieu of asking for help, support, or just having a good old-fashioned cry. In this vein, Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is the poster boy of what we now call ‘toxic masculinity’. He is abusive, paranoid and violent, punching his way through any perceived slight or conflict. The film famously ends on an older LaMotta rehearsing his silly little stand-up routine, expected and loved by no one.
In another boxing melodrama, Fat City’s Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) is a boxer past his prime who develops a strained relationship with a younger athlete (Jeff Bridges). In the film’s last shot, they share a coffee on a bench, in silence. The boy melodrama stays on these moments of stillness, letting their taciturn protagonists sit with their feelings instead of trying to punch/run/bat/wrestle their way out of them. A lot could be solved by talking, but that would make for less compelling cinema. We want to see them accept what they’re feeling, what they really want and how much they’re standing in their own way. But it’s much easier to ignore all of that and punish themselves with their chosen sport: in a devastating Iron Claw scene, Kerry trains through a barely healed injury, furiously in pain, as if angry at his body for failing him in the first place.
Sean Durkin’s new film comfortably fits within the boy-melodrama tradition. The backdrop is wrestling, but the film’s chief concern is the inevitable sadness of the Von Erich boys. Like The Virgin Suicides (1999) – the sad, stifled girl’s cinematic anthem – The Iron Claw’s strongest moments are when the Von Erich brothers are wrestling (pun intended) against the conflicting feelings of what they want versus what their father wants of them. They want to make their dad happy, but they’re bristling at how much his happiness is making them suffer, physically and psychologically. Something has to give.
The Von Erichs consider themselves cursed – much easier to externalise generational unhappiness than to stand up to it. ‘Pop tried to protect us with wrestling. He said if we were the toughest, the strongest, the most successful, nothing could ever hurt us,’ Kevin tells us in voiceover, desperately serious. The Von Erich boys will do infinite amounts of bench presses and bicep curls instead of opening up. The brothers’ strong will and stoicism, which their father drills into them as vital ingredients for success, becomes their undoing. They’re determined not to let anyone know they’re unhappy. All this emotional blockage might make for good melodrama, but it sure makes for desperately unhappy men.
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