At the Weinstein Company’s presentation in Cannes in May, Harvey Weinstein boldly predicted that Jake Gyllenhaal would get a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the company’s boxing picture Southpaw. And he backed it up when he unveiled the film for the first time in a private screening there a few days later. As he indicated then that it would be sweet revenge for the Academy’s inexplicable failure to nominate him for his superb work in last year’s Nightcrawler. He lost 30 pounds for that film; for this one, he gained the same number. He bulked up his muscles in the process to transform into Light Heavyweight Champion Billy Hope, whose wonderful life — a loving wife (played by Rachel McAdams), a big house, successful career and perfect daughter Leila (Oona Lawrence) — comes crashing down due to a family tragedy that sends him into a tailspin and, most important, tears him away from Leila, who is put into Child Protective Services. Billy even loses his hotshot manager (50 Cent) as his whole world is shaken to its core. Working as a janitor at a boxing ring, he strikes up a relationship with a different kind of boxing mentor (Forest Whitaker) and the road back begins.
But as I say in my video review (click the link above), essentially this is a father-daughter story, and a heart-tugging one at that, thanks to fine direction from Antoine Fuqua and a humanistic script by Sons Of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter. Although there are plenty of echoes of past boxing films, from the grit of Raging Bull to the heart of The Champ (both versions) as well as the Rocky pics, Champion, Somebody Up There Likes Me and others, this movie has a beating heart of its own. And that largely is thanks to the determination of Gyllenhaal to give his all to this enterprise. He reportedly worked out several hours a day for five months to learn how to play this fighter, having never boxed before. Fuqua reportedly insisted there be no doubles, and now, having seen this twice, I certainly could not tell that this wasn’t 100% Gyllenhaal. He’s something here, an actor who completely buries himself in this role the same way he did as the creepy news cameraman Lou in Nightcrawler.
Playing a boxer has often brought Oscar recognition of one sort or another to many actors from De Niro and Stallone to Kirk Douglas and Wallace Beery. I might have to agree with Weinstein that Gyllenhaal could join them. It is the most impressive lead performance from an actor so far this year, and it certainly seemed to impress Academy members who saw it a little over a week ago. The supporting cast also is very fine, particularly McAdams and young Lawrence, and Whitaker looks like he was born into his role.
Southpaw might not rewrite the rules of this genre, but it certainly is a sterling addition to a great legacy of movies set in the ring. Producers are Todd Black, David Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, Peter Riche, Alan Riche, Jerry Ye, Kat Samick and Fuqua. The fine music score will be one of the last from the late James Horner. The Weinstein Company has decided to open the film wide in the heart and heat of summer. Here’s hoping it can withstand the competition.
Do you plan to see Southpaw? Let us know what you think.