Can 'Moneyball' Overcome Baseball's Oscar Slump?

Brad Pitt-Moneyball-Still-2011
Columbia TriStar

This year's Oscar game has barely begun. You could say we're still in the top of the first. But now that Sony's Moneyball has arrived in theaters after its successful premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the play-by-play commentary has begun.

Is Moneyball, in which Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics, an awards player? Adapting Michael Lewis' best-selling nonfiction book, director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin steer a skillful course through a thicket of baseball lore to dramatize how Beane beat the odds and deep-pocketed teams like the New York Yankees by using statistical analysis to identify and bet on undervalued players. If that sounds dry, it isn't. Pitt lets go of his golden boy image -- Miller's camera zeroes in on every weary line on his face -- to become an underdog out to redefine the way the game is played. Attention will be paid.


But what of prospects for the film itself? After catching a pre-opening screening, Awards Daily blogger Sasha Stone tweeted up a storm: "Will be a major Oscar player I think. First film I've seen that can win," she predicted, though conceding, "Long way to go still." Critic Leonard Maltin wasn't quite so sure, cautioning, "Moneyball is easy to admire, a bit more difficult to love."

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Appearing so early in the season, the movie faces hurdles. It will be judged not only by its critical reception (it has registered a rousing 94 percent approval rating on to date) but also its commercial success. Its opening weekend of $19.5 million was solid but not as robust as that of last year's Sorkin talkfest, The Social Network, which bowed with $22.4 million. Plus, as a fact-based story, it could be picked apart by sports fans because Jonah Hill's statistician is a heavily fictionalized character and several key A's players are ignored.

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But the biggest obstacle Moneyball faces is the fact that Hollywood has just never shown much Oscar love for the game.

It didn't start out that way: The Pride of the Yankees, starring Gary Cooper as New York slugger Lou Gehrig battling the disease that would be named after him, was a formidable contender. It scored 11 noms but lost its 1942 best picture bid to the war-themed Mrs. Miniver. Other biopics came up to bat: Jimmy Stewart played White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton in The Stratton Story; William Bendix and, later, John Goodman starred as Yankees legend Babe Ruth. But in Academy terms, they barely made it to first base.

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Meanwhile, boxing movies were bringing home the gold. Wallace Beery (The Champ), Robert De Niro (Raging Bull) and Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) won acting trophies for fight movies. Rocky and Baby even got the best picture prize. If boxing movies enjoy an advantage, it's because they're often tales of sweaty personal redemption. They connect with audiences because all that action in the ring is immediate and visceral in a way most baseball movies are not.

Like the game itself, a lot of baseball movies are abstract and cerebral. The Natural played like a fable about the loss of American innocence. Field of Dreams was a fantasy about pursuing one's bliss. Onscreen, baseball becomes a metaphor -- something Moneyball explicitly acknowledges in its final reel. But if any movie can break the baseball slump, it is Moneyball because, as Lewis himself sees it, "It's not really a baseball picture."