In the middle of the Great Depression, when an America in the grips of a devastating economic downturn was nearly brought to its knees, there came along a most unlikely hero who had crowds cheering on their feet--as he proved just how hard a man would fight to win a second chance for his family and himself.
That common-man hero was James J. Braddock--a.k.a. the "Cinderella Man"--who was to become one of the most surprising and inspirational sports legends in history.
With Cinderella Man, an Academy Award®-winning team--comprised of producer BRIAN GRAZER, director RON HOWARD, screenwriter AKIVA GOLDSMAN and actors RUSSELL CROWE and RENÉE ZELLWEGER--comes together to tell the quintessentially American story of a man who was not so much a great boxer as a great man who boxed his way out of darkness and defeat and into the stuff of immortality.
Says director Ron Howard: "The story of Jim Braddock continues to be so incredibly stirring because it is a tale that reminds us of just how remarkable human endurance and the power of love can be. Cinderella Man is a true American story about what it's like to cope in the moment, facing life's daily hardships, and to continue to passionately strive toward a goal--even a simple one like putting food on the table--no matter what the outcome turns out to be. It's that kind of story, that kind of cinematic journey that has always intrigued me as a filmmaker."
Ron Howard's accomplished creative team who bring Depression Era America and the visceral thrills of the boxing ring to life include: cinematographer SALVATORE TOTINO (Any Given Sunday, The Missing), production designer WYNN THOMAS (A Beautiful Mind, Analyze That), Oscar®-winning editors and long-time Ron Howard associates MIKE HILL and DAN HANLEY (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) and costume designer DANIEL ORLANDI (Meet the Parents, The Alamo). Music is by THOMAS NEWMAN (Road to Perdition, Finding Nemo). Boxing choreographer Nick Powell and boxing/stunt coordinator Steve Lucescu, under the guidance of legendary boxing trainer/consultant Angelo Dundee (noted for his work with Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, among others), coordinated the film's boxing sequences.
REDISCOVERING AMERICA'S CINDERELLA MAN: How The Story Of Braddock Found Its Way Into The Hearts Of Filmmakers…and Two Actors
Jim Braddock rose from obscurity to become a household hero in the 1930s, but by the end of the century, his story of remarkable courage and devotion had nearly been lost. Yet for those working in the world of sports and sports journalism, particularly boxing, the legend he created continued to win fans and devotees among many who happened upon the archival press coverage of the fighter and his rise-to-fame matches.
Longtime sports and boxing fan Cliff Hollingsworth was one of those touched by Braddock's story and felt the man's driving battle to provide for his family (and unanticipated fame that resulted from his upset matches) was a great tale deserving of a big screen adaptation. Beyond the simple sports victory lay a larger tale of personal triumphs that become the stuff of dreams.
"The journey began in 1994 when I happened to think about Jim Braddock and his incredible rags-to-riches story and I thought what a great movie that would make," remembers Hollingsworth. "I was already familiar with the story. As a longtime boxing fan, I'd read about all of the former heavyweight champions and Jim Braddock has always been my favorite."
Through a fortuitous turn of events, Hollingsworth was able to contact one of Braddock's nephews, who put him in touch with Braddock's two sons, Jay and Howard; they then agreed to cooperate with the writer. In subsequent meetings, the Braddock sons shared stories of their famous father and later, an initial draft of the script met with the family's approval.
"The Jim Braddock story is unusual in more ways than one," observes Hollingsworth. "He inspired the nation in 1935 and was a national hero, yet he became a largely forgotten figure. Jay told me of how he would mention that his father was once the heavyweight champion of the world and usually the person would never have heard of Jim Braddock--that was very frustrating for him. It's my hope that this forgotten hero will be remembered once again."
Another longtime boxing fan who became committed to telling Braddock's story once he heard the gripping details of the boxer's transformation into the Cinderella Man was actor Russell Crowe. Crowe was so deeply moved by Braddock's journey--from a man on the street trying to keep his beloved family from the clutches of poverty to an invincible sports champion and hero of the common person--that he devoted himself to bringing it to the screen.
Crowe saw Braddock as unique among movie heroes in that he wasn't fighting for a cause or for fame or even for personal victory so much as he was just doing everything in his power to take care of those he loved. It was this "ordinariness" that had made Braddock such a crowd-pleasing hero in the 1930s and Crowe felt today's audiences would be equally riveted by what the athlete had achieved in the name of simply being a husband and a father.
"For me, Cinderella Man is the story of how one family survived the Depression," says Crowe, whose earlier portrait of a Roman general turned arena fighter in Ridley Scott's Gladiator won the Academy Award® for Best Actor. "Braddock went on with his life after boxing, bringing up his family, working for a living, loving his wife and watching his children grow and his grandchildren born and in 1974, dying in the house he bought with the winnings from that fight way back in 1935. I took his legacy to heart. I wanted people to hear this true American story."
Crowe continued to be fascinated by Braddock over the next few years. Then came A Beautiful Mind, in which Crowe starred as the genius Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash, Jr., in a story about both the fragility and the triumphs of the human spirit. That film, which went on to win the Oscars® for Best Picture and Best Director, among others, was directed by Ron Howard and produced by Brian Grazer and Howard.
After Crowe and Howard got to know each other better while working on A Beautiful Mind, Crowe gave Ron a copy of the script…and the director, who had long been interested in a film set during the Great Depression, also felt that the Jim Braddock story addressed a lot of the themes that continue to resonate with him. Like Crowe, Howard was intrigued not only by Braddock's comeback-of-all-sports-comebacks, but even more so by his place in the pantheon of folk heroes who seem to reveal something vital about America's national character.
With films that include A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Backdraft, Parenthood, The Paper, Cocoon, Far and Away and the recent The Missing--films that traverse a broad array of subjects ranging from the mysteries of genius to the courage of space travel, from family chaos to the dark days of the Western frontier--Howard has come at the American experience from any number of different angles. He regularly and deftly jumps from genre to genre. But throughout his career he has always been an American classicist, drawn to exploring the core elements of the American temperament: individualism, heroism, family bonds, devotion to ideals, strength of spirit and the powerful allure (and sometimes heartbreaking realities) of the American Dream. All of these seemed to be at work in Jim Braddock's story.
"I am always most interested in taking audiences and placing them directly into fresh situations, whether it's going deep inside the mind of a mathematician or face-to-face with a raging fire or becoming completely weightless in a space capsule," explains Howard. "This film gave me a chance not only to get into the 1930s boxing ring, but also to take audiences on a ride with a man whose life quite suddenly changed from a nightmare of pure survival into a fairy tale of the most inspiring proportions. Jim Braddock went through an amazing transformation in front of the world. That was something really interesting to me. Because as moving and inspiring as Jim Braddock's story is on the outside, it's only when you get on the inside--inside his love for his wife and the simple desire to take care of his family that he shared with so many people--that you see the real basis for his courage which makes his story so powerful and enduringly relevant."
The filmmaker also saw a grander theme illuminated in the simple quest of Braddock--one that has figured heavily in his previous screen stories. He continues, "There is something inherently tough about Americans. They will not admit defeat. Failure is not an option. The astronauts [of Apollo 13] would not give up. John Nash [of A Beautiful Mind] would not give up. And Jim Braddock would not surrender to poverty."
Howard had also long been familiar with Braddock's legend, primarily because his father Rance (who takes a cameo role as announcer Al Fazin in Cinderella Man) had heard the electrifying fight between Braddock and Max Baer on the radio as a child--and often reflected upon its remarkable conclusion.
"The Braddock-Baer fight was the first fight my father ever remembers hearing," notes Howard. "He must have been seven or eight and his father drove him to the pool hall in town to listen to it on the radio. When I was growing up, my dad would always tell the story of Jim Braddock as an example of courage, personal integrity and the willing of oneself to do something not just for personal gain, but to do right by the people around you."
Long influenced by populist American filmmakers who cut their teeth in the Depression Era, including Frank Capra and Howard Hawks, Howard also saw the film as a chance to explore the dramatic roller-coaster shifts in America's fortunes, as the country struggled to find its way through the worst period in history it had ever encountered. He was especially fascinated by the way Braddock's story seemed to illuminate how the nation coped--by hanging tight to the thinnest threads of strength, optimism and commitment.
"I always saw the boxing in the film as an extension of Jim Braddock's drive to survive one of the most difficult periods in our nation's history," says Howard. "I wanted to bring this period to life in a new and dramatic way, but I also wanted to emphasize that there's a timeless quality to Braddock's tale. It's very much about redemption and empowerment, which are still driving forces in American culture today, especially when times are tough. It's also about the sacrifices that everyday men continue to make in the service of their families."
Adds Renée Zellweger: "Ron really wanted to bring an authentic portrayal of the Depression to the screen through this story. But most of all it's the emotion that's so palpable. That's Ron's incredible strength, I think. No matter where his stories take you, they are always in large part about what it really means to be human."
It was this humanity that also appealed to Oscar®-winning producer Brian Grazer, who was riveted the first time he heard the story of Cinderella Man. "When Russell recounted the story of Jim Braddock to me, I found it so heartbreaking and emotional," he recalls. "I saw it as the story of a regular man who faced the hardest of times with remarkable courage. To me, it's a story about all of us and about the hardship America has experienced in its young history. Here you have this man who didn't have money to feed his kids, who had a broken hand, who was never supposed to box again, and he goes on to become the champion of the world, to achieve a greatness no one ever saw coming. That's an amazing fable, even though it's entirely true."
Having just completed a positive creative collaboration with the filmmakers of A Beautiful Mind, it seemed like a perfect fit for the team--that included Grazer, Howard, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and Crowe along with the newly added Zellweger--to tackle the story of Braddock. Hollingsworth, convinced that director Howard and the team would honor Braddock's saga and treat with care the faith entrusted by his children, turned his screenplay over to the filmmakers. Soon after, Goldsman, Howard and Crowe reunited and dove intensively into working on the script.
"To tell the story of Jim Braddock was an extraordinary opportunity for me," offers Goldsman. "Here was the amazing architecture of a man's life, existing against the backdrop of one of the darkest periods of our country's history. Stories like these, so difficult for those who live them, are gifts to writers. The universe offers them up and I think it is our luxury as well as our obligation to return them in some emotionally understandable form."
But while Goldsman acknowledges the extraordinary nature of the story behind the Cinderella Man, he is quick to point out the possible cinematic pitfall when adapting such a tale to the motion picture screen. He continues, "Braddock's story is famously uplifting. The title of the movie itself, arguably, makes the outcome clear. All fairy tales end happily ever after. But lives do not have titles. They are not seen through the lens of happy endings but are instead a roiling sea of unpredictability, profound sorrow, heartrending joy. If Jim's story was God-given, full of grace, the experience of his life needed to be rendered as the opposite. We set out to create a narrative that was blind to future outcomes, one that remembers just how unimaginable the prospect of triumph is before it arrives. We believed that happily-ever-afters do exist. But that getting to them can be pretty awful. We believed that fairy tales are probably no fun at all for those who live inside them. So we set out to tell our story just that way, all in hopes of making Jim's triumph at the end all the sweeter."
Grazer offers, "We felt it is such a human story. You can't really call Braddock a great boxer, but he had tremendous will--and this was during a time when nearly every American was undergoing some kind of hardship, particularly the working class. In some ways, Braddock was the embodiment of that class, just trying to keep food in their mouths and a roof over their heads. So when he went into the ring, there was a kind of collective force of all of those he came to represent in America.
"Braddock was a kind, generous man. In many ways, straightforward, simple," closes Grazer. "He had a lot of humility, and that was something that everybody could grab a hold of and see a little part of themselves in him. In that way, he was almost more of a champion outside of the ring than he was in. His is really a story of everyday heroism."
It was exactly this kind of heroism that made Crowe such a fan of Braddock's tale. From the get-go, Crowe related to the character's stalwart determination and commitment to do right by his family, no matter the personal costs.
"I read about Braddock, how he did after boxing, how his kids all grew up and had kids and how he loved his wife until the day he died--such a simple story, such simple goodness and humor," relates Crowe. "I wanted a man like this to be honored. I wanted his legacy to be relevant to Americans today. I also felt it important that Americans be reminded that their abundance has been built on the shoulders of people like Jim and Mae, hardworking parents who put their children as first priority."
But what moved the actor even more was the fact that the story being told had been lived. "Every time I read the script I would get goose bumps--it was the idea that this life, this change of fortune, had actually happened. It was real."
For Renée Zellweger the integral role of Mae Braddock had long interested her. The actress had indeed been tracking the evolution of the project even before filmmaker participation had been cemented. the character of Mae had become especially meaningful to Zellweger because she was such a strong, opinionated yet truly devoted wife in a time when many women didn't have a voice at all. "What's beautiful about Mae is that through her strength, she becomes Jim's purpose. She and the kids are his motivation--they're what keep him hanging on no matter what," she comments. "Mae is Jim's support system, but she's also a woman who has an unconventional sense of herself--she's never afraid to tell Jim what's in her heart, even when it's not what he wants to hear. In many ways, she was at the helm of the Braddock household; very progressive for the times and an interesting dynamic to explore."
zellweger found herself drawn to Cinderella Man because she felt the story had a classic American quality that has become all too rare in today's movie world. "It felt almost like a Frank Capra kind of American movie tale," she says, "and I've never done anything like that before. It's a very simple human story that is also deeply moving and sometimes I think that we just don't make movies like that often enough any more."
Zellweger sought to bring to Mae the inner fire and spunk that was obviously so key in keeping the Braddock family together during the impossibly hard times of the '30s. She says, "She's a spitfire, she loves her husband and is proud of his achievements, she hates seeing him go off and fight, but she is unconditionally supportive."
Most of all, Zellweger sees Mae as central to one of the film's most poignant themes: the mixture of struggles and passion that bind husbands and wives so closely. "My favorite thing about Cinderella Man is that it always comes back to the connection between Jim and Mae," she says. "No matter what challenges they face, they always make it through because of the strength of their relationship. Their love is foundational in helping them through the harsh realities of the times."
To prepare for the role, Zellweger delved into as much research as she could find about the real Braddock family--especially reading through the more than 200 love letters that Jim Braddock wrote to Mae. "It was such a rare opportunity to have this kind of material," she notes. "I felt very blessed to have it because it gave such wonderful insight into the dynamic of their relationship. In reading their letters, it was clear how beautiful their love for one another was and how it carried them through the challenges they faced. A classically moving, inspiring love story."
She continues: "One thing I found especially moving is that the Braddock kids weren't ever fully aware of just how bad things were. Jim and Mae managed to provide this incredible front that everything was okay even though they were just barely surviving. It just reminds you of how lucky we have become. It's hard to imagine how difficult it must have been to sacrifice everything so that your children wouldn't have to go to sleep at night worrying about food and having a roof over their heads."
From watching footage of Mae at press conferences, Zellweger also discerned how painfully camera-shy Mae Braddock became after being thrust into the spotlight through her husband's sudden folk-hero status. "She didn't like the limelight at all," observes Zellweger. "She was so uncomfortable, and in part I think it was because she was so filled with fear that she might lose the man that she loved to fighting."
THE CINDERELLA STORY OF JAMES BRADDOCK: A Brief History of the Life and Times That Led to a Lasting Legend
CINDERELLA MAN SCORES A KNOCKOUT CAST: Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Bruce McGill and Paddy Considine Fill the Roster
TURNING INTO CINDERELLA MAN: How Russell Crowe Approached the Role of a Quiet Man Who Became an Unwitting Hero
A CINDERELLA DREAM UNFOLDS INSIDE AN AMERICAN NIGHTMARE: How Ron Howard and His Design Team Approached Transporting Modern Audiences Into the Boxing Ring and Back to the Reality of America's Great Depression
CINDERELLA MAN'S VISUAL DESIGN
THE WRITING TEAM
© 2005 Universal Studios. www.cinderellamanmovie.com