I’m the world’s biggest fan of the great boxer Barry “the Punahou Kid” Obama. I supported him throughout his grueling qualifying bouts with John “Pretty Boy” Edwards and Chris “Tammany” Dodd, and his classic 15-round heavyweight contest with Hillary “the Beast” Clinton. I stayed with him all the way to his easy fifth-round knockout of John “POW” McCain in the main event last November. Indeed, I wrote several articles comparing Barry to everybody’s favorite underdog, Rocky Balboa. But with the recent death at age 95 of Budd Schulberg, I’m beginning to think there’s a more apt comparison.
For those of you scoring at home on the ten-point must system, Hancock Park’s own Budd was one of the great Hollywood menschen. He gave the Industry a classic shiner in his 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run?, which charted the inexorable rise of one Shmelka Glickstein, who leaves the Lower East Side, changes his name to Sammy Glick, and demolishes anybody who gets in his way. (Oddly enough, it has never been made into a movie.) Schulberg struck again with his script for On the Waterfront — for which he won an Oscar along with Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, and Eva Marie Saint — and with the novel The Harder They Fall, which was turned into Bogart’s last picture. Along the way, he put up his dukes to John Wayne, nearly punched out Papa Hemingway, joined the Communist Party (cheers), quit the Communist Party (boos), served with John Ford’s film unit during World War II, shamefully named names before Sen. Joe McCarthy and his evil House Un-American Activities Committee or whatever it was, and, amazingly, defended himself for doing so. And all because a few of the Comrades were trying to control my own dear screenwriters’ union, the Writers Guild of America!
Anyway, nobody’s perfect. If your father had left your mother to run off with Sylvia Sidney, you wouldn’t be perfect, either. But Budd really got it right in The Harder They Fall, a roman-à-clef about the sordid world of the sweet science. Schulberg based the character of Toro Moreno — a big palooka from Argentina who wins fixed fights, until he doesn’t — on Primo Carnera, a big palooka from Italy who won fixed fights, until he didn’t. Toro’s got a pattycake punch and, worse, a glass jaw, so it’s no surprise at the end when he gets the tar whaled out of him by champ Buddy Brannen.
When the movie came out in 1956, a dying Bogey played the down-on-his-luck sportswriter-turned-shill, Rod Steiger played the malevolent fight manager, Mike Lane played Toro, and, in a nice bit of irony, Max Baer played Buddy Brannen; in real life, Baer had been the man who ended Carnera’s reign as heavyweight champ in 1934, knocking him down eleven times. Carnera later sued the filmmakers, claiming they were implying that his fixed fights had been fixed, but he was laughed out of court. To complete the circle, Carnera and Baer had appeared together as boxers in the 1933 film The Prizefighter and the Lady (Myrna Loy played the lady, Baer played the lead, and Carnera played himself). In Hollywood, we like to blur the line between fantasy and reality — we look so much better in close-ups that way.
Lately, Barry Obama has been taking quite a pounding over this health-care “reform” business — don’t he know Chicago ain’t ready for reform? — dropping his guard as he confused the blue pill with the red pill, accused surgeons of cutting off folks’ feet for fun and profit, and more or less suggested that Grandma do the right thing when it comes time to blow all her money on wasteful end-of-life care and instead leave that cash for the government to collect in death taxes — you know, spread the wealth around. So it’s time to re-visit our fight analogy.
I toyed with the idea of comparing the Punahou Kid with Ivan Drago, the Dolph Lundgren character in Rocky IV. Dolph’s few but great lines included “You will lose,” “I must break you,” and “To the end,” which may well turn out to be the arc of the Obama administration. And there’s a touching moment when the heroic Soviet giant gets bloodied for the first time by the little Italian from Philadelphia, and his eyes reveal an unexpected hurt and wonder. It’s more or less the same wounded-fawn look that Barry has been sporting ever since the serried ranks of old, fat, white men and women began showing up at town halls and yelling at his corner men, led by Snarlin’ Arlen Specter.
Now I see there’s a better analogy. Sure, we cheered when Rocky put the uppity champ, Apollo Creed, on the seat of his pants, and we wept with joy as the Italian Stallion finally clubbed insensible Clubber Lang, “the South Side Slugger,” whom you desperately didn’t want your daughter bringing home to dinner. But movies about white guys whupping black guys just seem so appallingly . . . racist . . . these days, a Great White Hope, Gerry Cooney fairy tale that would make Jim Jeffries blush.
So instead of Baracky IV, I decided it was time for The Harder They Fall II. You can probably guess the outline of the story: The Punahou Kid (“I coulda been a contender”) arrives on the South Side, where his first few fights are fixed by his manager, Jake Lingle (David Axelrod), a former sportswriter turned fight manager. True, the kid’s got a pattycake punch and relies more on fancy footwork and the sympathy of the sportswriters than on any special talents, but that’s not his real problem: what worries Lingle (did I mention the role is written for David Axelrod?) is that his fighter might have a glass jaw.
The Kid’s first two opponents, Blair Hull (primary) and Jack Ryan (general election), both go down when their divorce records suddenly and mysteriously become public. In Ryan’s case, records that he and his ex-wife, Jeri, had asked to remain sealed were opened at the behest of the Chicago Tribune — by sheer coincidence, Lingle’s (and Axelrod’s!) former employer. As Slate explained at the time: “Why was the court permitted to overrule their wishes? Because the First Amendment rights of media organizations generally supersede the privacy rights of litigants, since the American legal system favors transparency in all court proceedings.”
Turns out that the records had been sealed in part to protect the ex-Mrs. Ryan, who was then portraying a va-va-voom semi-cyborg on Star Trek: Voyager and was being stalked by a threatening fan, but the Kid’s victory was obviously far more important than Jeri Ryan’s safety. Now, I’m all for the First Amendment trumping privacy concerns, but thank Gaia media organizations haven’t bothered to ask the state of Hawaii for, you know . . . I mean, it’s not like historian Michael Beschloss or Jon Meacham or some future hagiographer is ever going to need to know exactly which hospital in Honolulu the Kid was born in, or who wangled his scholarship to Punahou, who paid for Occidental College, Columbia, and Harvard, and what the heck ever happened to his Illinois state-senatorial papers and records. The Kid’ll just write another “autobiography” and that will be that.
In the Big Fight, the Kid dances around his superannuated challenger, “POW” McCain, leaving the sportswriters bedazzled by his dexterity until they realize that McCain was fighting with one broken arm and never threw a single punch. At the climax of our movie, when he’s declared president — I mean, champ — the Kid leaps into the air and shouts “Axelrod!!!”
It took my agent all of two days to sell this baby to Fox, and it’s already slotted into the production pipeline right behind Mission to Pyongyang: The Bill Clinton Story. Naturally, I’m already at work on the sequel:
Fooled by his easy success, Barry chows down on burgers, vacations in Paris, takes up bowling, and even learns to fly-fish in Big Sky country. When his former opponent Hillary — old, fat, and out of shape, but part of his “Team of Rivals” — warns him to watch it, he packs her off to the Congo to look for Marlon Brando, and she has never heard from again. Meanwhile, a fast-rising challenger, Sarah “The Barracuda” Palin (Clint Eastwood, in the most daring role of his career), is making mincemeat out of various pugs, mugs, and tomato cans. Barry tries to duck her, but the cry goes up: Come out and fight like a man!
I’m kicking around a couple of titles: Trillion-Dollar Baby is one. Or maybe just keep it simple: The Harder He Falls: This Time, It’s Personal.
– David Kahane loves a good fight, as long as he’s not in it. You can write to him at email@example.com or become his friend on Facebook. His gloves-off, no-holds-barred Rules for Radical Conservatives (Ballantine) will be out next summer.