The greatest sports movies owe a lot to the brilliant acting performances from their leads. Jonah Rice has been through the decades to countdown the best of those performances.

Written by , 14th November 2022

A few performances may have popped into your mind after seeing the title of this article. Whether it’s focused on football, basketball, or even a sport like golf, some of the greatest and most memorable performances in film history have been centered around athletic competitions.

Most of the featured portrayals were either nominated for or outright won the Oscar in their respective category. Not all of them, though. Some performances have aged far better than the decisions of the Academy. All that said, let’s get to it.

Today, we’re sliding into home with the top ten performances from sports movies.

10. Kevin Costner as Lawrence “Crash” Davis in Bull Durham (1988)

Known primarily for his contributions to sports movies, Costner was at his athletic best here in Bull Durham (1988). Regarded as the best baseball movie put to screen, Kevin Costner contributed greatly to achieve such status. His role as Lawrence “Crash” Davis is just as renowned as the film itself.

Other sports movies that Costner starred in include Field of Dreams (1989), also about baseball, and Tin Cup (1996), a story regarding golf. But Bull Durham was the clear-cut choice.

While Susan Sarandon offered more dynamic chops when acting in this film, it would have been a crime to exclude Costner from the list. His work in the genre is unmatched, and this is his best work.

Bull Durham Official Trailer

9. Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler (1961)

George C. Scott refused his nomination at the Academy Awards for his role as Bert Gordon herein. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor, the refusal became one of the biggest stories re: The Hustler (1961), period. However, Jackie Gleason did walk away with a nomination. And while he didn’t win, Minnesota Flats remains the best of Gleason’s film roles.

If you visit the ‘Cue Sports’ entry of Wikipedia, you’ll find Jackie Gleason among seventeen names listed as enthusiasts at the head of the article. Others include the likes of Napoleon and King Louis XIV, presidents such as George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, authors like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, and even the great Babe Ruth.

That’s some prestigious company in terms of sheer recognition. To be included in such a list is a big deal in itself, and his contributions to the sport hit home here in The Hustler. His performance undoubtedly holds up.

Throwback Trailer for The Hustler

8. Paul Newman as “Fast Eddie” Felson in The Color of Money (1986)

Reprising his role from the 1961 film The Hustler, Paul Newman stars in this billiards story as ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson. While this title features other big names like Tom Cruise and John Turturro, Newman is the main takeaway—and that’s not just because his performance was lauded by critics. I didn’t write about him for The Hustler, obviously, but now, it’s time to ship out his flowers.

He mastered the character pretty much, this being a reprisal of the role. Twenty-five years after the release of The Hustler, Newman’s character Fast Eddie was past his prime and in retirement. And he plays mentor just perfectly. Newman was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards—his seventh nod in the category. This time, though, he won.

Paul Newman in The Color Of Money

7. Hillary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Let’s get this out of the way: This list was almost comprised solely of performances from boxing movies. Broadening the topic opened room for other sports, as you’ve seen, such as baseball and billiards. However, much of the list is still of the pugilistic variety, starting here with Million Dollar Baby (2004).

Swank stars as Maggie Fitzgerald, earning her the Academy Award for Best Actress. You likely already knew that. But this was her second award in the category—the first coming by way of Boys Don’t Cry in 1999—and the role launched her into superstardom. Following the release of Million Dollar Baby, Swank was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2005.

Since starring as Fitzgerald, a broke woman getting into boxing, Swank has fallen off the public radar. She’s had other starring roles—like Freedom Writers (2007)—but this Eastwood-directed sports drama remains her finest outing. Her work herein is poignant to a tee, and she shares incredible chemistry with each of her coworkers. She was more than deserving of all the praise.

Hillary Swank’s Acceptance Speech at the 2005 Oscars

6. Denzel Washington as Rubin Carter in The Hurricane (1999)

In just three years—from 1998 to 2000—Denzel Washington starred in three sports films. Disparate in style and sports alike, the first was He Got Game (1998) by Spike Lee. The last one was Remember the Titans in 2000, which is perhaps the most well-known. But in between the two came Washington’s best performance of the bunch: The Hurricane (1999).

Directed by Norman Jewison in 1999, this film chronicles the life of Rubin ‘The Hurricane’ Carter. Sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t even commit, Rubin’s fight against incarceration laws mirrored his fights in the ring particularly by dint of an expertly woven character that fought his way to the big screen in more ways than one.

Based on a true story, Rubin befriends a kid named Ezra. The teenager read a biography about Rubin and set out to prove his innocence, thus igniting an everlasting friendship. And just as Ezra came to trust and care for Carter, the audience is equally as engaged in the character thanks to the acting chops of Washington.
This is the most underrated role of his career, bar none. And that’s in spite of winning the Golden Globe for Best Actor. He was also nominated at the Oscars for the same category, but lost to Kevin Spacey in American Beauty (1999).

The Hurricane’s Solitary Confinement Scene

5. Jonah Hill as Peter Brand in Moneyball (2011)

In Moneyball (2011), Jonah Hill stepped up to the plate as Peter Brand, assistant general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. And as screenwriter Aaron Sorkin pitched him one right down the middle, Hill swung with a frenzied attention to thespianism and knocked it out of the park.

Hill received widespread acclaim for the role, with nominations from all of the major associations. You know: the Oscars, the Golden Globes. The whole nine. He didn’t walk away with any awards, but I feel that’s not totally indicative of the talent he showcased.

Of course, Hill is generally cast in comedic roles. And don’t get it twisted: Peter Brand undoubtedly provides some laughs in the film. But it’s almost uncanny to go from Accepted (2006) and Superbad (2007) to a critically-adored sports drama within just a few short years. Ever since, Jonah has been deemed a preeminent example of a comedic actor capable of conveying a true sense of emotion.

Moneyball – Carry the One Scene

4. Dennis Hopper as Shooter Flatch in Hoosiers (1986)

With regard to Hoosiers (1986), critics adored the work of two actors in particular. Obviously, Hopper was one, with the other being Gene Hackman. More on him in a second.

Here, Hopper plays a local drunk named Shooter Flatch. And while he may love a good drink, his adoration for booze is rivaled by his obsession with basketball. And because of that passion, Flatch is hired as assistant coach of a small-town Indiana basketball team. However, the head coach (Hackman) offers the work with a tandem ultimatum: that Flatch has to sober up.

Which makes sense, right? It’s a high school team, after all. But Flatch is less-than responsive to this news. His struggles with addiction create a wonderful dynamic between Hopper and Hackman, giving the actors a real-world issue to confront inside a plot centered around competition. Fun and games, if you will.
Hopper was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. He didn’t win, but he’s nonetheless received reverence for decades. It’s time to give Hackman his.

Dennis Hopper Shoots his Shot in Hoosiers

3. Gene Hackman as Norman Dale in Hoosiers (1986)

He leads the cast as Norman Dale, the new head basketball coach of a small-town Indiana high school team. And despite his shortcomings when coaching basketball in the past, he leads the Cinderella-storied team all the way to state.

While anyone would be justified in arguing that Hopper provided the more poignant moments, Hackman acted as the glue that held everyone together. Much like his character.

Hackman’s staunch on-screen presence conveyed a tangible sense of ascendency. Whether yelling at a ref or encouraging his players, he handled every situation like a former David who has evolved into a Goliath. This is a theme of particular resonance within the underdog story at hand—a Cinderella story, as it’s also referred to in the film.

Though Hackman didn’t receive nominations from any major association for his performance, critics definitely sang his praises. And nearly four decades later, audience members like myself are still singing to the Indiana mountaintops.

The Official Trailer for Hoosiers

2. Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter (2010)

Known for his method acting, Christian Bale shows up at his emaciated best here in The Fighter (2010). In a real-life chronicle of boxing and substance abuse, he appears as Dicky Eklund alongside leading man Mark Wahlberg.

While Micky (Wahlberg’s character) is the boxer, Dicky is the substance abuser. He’s addicted to crack cocaine, but his characterization runs deep with intriguing quirks and an engaging backstory. Dicky was a boxer once, too, and acted as a mentor to his brother Micky. And while Dicky’s career never took off like he had planned, he did have a notable bout against Sugar Ray Robinson.

The fight rendered Dicky a hometown hero in Lowell, Massachusetts. He knocked Ray down, and many pundits thought he won. But what truly stands out about Bale was his method acting—particularly the weight loss. He lost thirty pounds for the role, and that commitment alone justifies his placement on the list.
But it’s also worth noting that the revered British actor actually studied the real-life Eklund through interviews. He mastered Eklund’s mannerisms, replicated his accent. He even incorporated an impressive amount of humor into the role to balance the dreadful state thereof.

Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter

1. Robert de Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980)

What more can be detailed about this performance that hasn’t already been said? This is just one of those cases. It’s one of the most legendary performances in not just sports related films, but cinema as a whole. Winning the Academy Award, the Golden Globe, and just about every other Best Actor honor under the sun, this is the role that launched De Niro into superstardom.

He had already teamed up twice before with Raging Bull (1980) director Martin Scorsese. And while Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976) is equally as iconic as LaMotta—if not more so—De Niro shined brightest with gloves around his fists. His back up against the ropes. He shone under the lights of the arena, with thunderous audiences and hyperactive commentators.

Then again, many great actors do. Daniel Day-Lewis, Jake Gyllenhaal, and of course Sylvester Stallone all donned a pair of 10-ounce Everlasts throughout their careers. For Robert De Niro to stand as the champion above such legends is a testament to the longevity of his efforts.

“Hit Me in the Face” Scene from Raging Bull

Agree With the List?

Who provided your favorite performance in a sports film? Let me know in the comments, and please, share the list on your social media platforms if you can!