Oscar Prizefighters Throw Hollywood a Hook

If Hilary Swank wins, she will be the first actress to punch her way to Oscar glory. But Hollywood heavyweights -- including some of the most acclaimed actors in history -- have had some of their finest moments in the ring.

If you count Morgan Freeman, Swank isn't even the only actor nominated this year for portraying a pugilist. Freeman is nominated for his supporting role in "Million Dollar Baby" as Swank's corner man. Like Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront," he's playing a retired fighter still lamenting over what might have been.

Interestingly, while professional boxing has largely faded from the headlines, the sport remains great movie fodder. And while there have been a few other good sports films, all of them combined probably don't equal what boxing has done for the box office.

In fact, boxing roles played a pivotal role in the careers of Robert De Niro, Kirk Douglas, James Earl Jones, Will Smith, and, of course, Sylvester Stallone, who has yet to prove he can do anything else.

Here's a look at 11 previous Oscar-nominated Hollywood pugilists, three of whom have won American cinema's version of a heavyweight championship belt.

1. Richard Barthelmess in "The Patent Leather Kid"
Barthelmess was not only a two-time Oscar nominee, he was one of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that hands out the Oscars. He also was one of the few silent film stars who made the transition to talkies.

In "The Patent Leather Kid," a silent film from 1927, Barthelmess fights to prevail in a sport rife with corruption.

2. Wallace Beery in "The Champ"
Beery was the first Hollywood boxer to win an Oscar, but like many prize fights, it was a controversial decision. The competition for best actor of 1931 ended in a split decision -- the first tie in Academy Award history. Beery ended up sharing his victory with Fredric March, who was honored for his work in "Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Beery actually got one less vote than March, but under Academy rules at the time, it was still considered a tie.

In the film, Beery played alcoholic ex-champ Andy Purcell, who has squandered whatever he earned in the ring and can barely eke out a living to support his son, Dink, played by Jackie Cooper. When Andy winds up in jail after a drunken tirade, he realizes Dink's place is with his mother. But in true Hollywood fashion, that only inspires Andy to get back in the ring.

3. Robert Montgomery in "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"
Many fighters die young, but due to some mix-up in Heaven, boxer Joe Pendleton's life ended 50 years too soon. The celestial Mr. Jordan explains that he has to go back down to Earth, but since Pendleton's body was cremated, he needs someone else's to occupy. He returns as millionaire Bruce Farnsworth, and now he must try to make good.

If the plot of this 1941 film sounds a little familiar, you've probably seen "Heaven Can Wait," one of the most successful remakes in Hollywood history. It earned nine Oscar nominations, including a win for best art direction. In Warren Beatty's version, however, the hero is a football player.

4. John Garfield in "Body and Soul"
Garfield earned the second of two Oscar nominations in 1948 as Charley Davis, an amateur fighter corrupted by his manager. When his father is killed, his mother wants him to stop fighting, but he needs the money. Inspirational line: "What are you gonna do? Kill me?" Davis says. "Everybody dies."

5. Kirk Douglas in "Champion"
In one of his first performances as a leading man, Douglas is hitchhiking out West with his brother when he's tempted into the ring and pummeled by a seasoned fighter. One boxing manager, however, says he's got talent. When he gets to California and finds nothing but menial jobs, he does the only thing anyone has ever said he was good at, throwing punches.

Douglas never won an Academy Award, but his performance in 1949's "Champion" earned him the first of three nominations.

6. Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront"
When people speak of Brando as the greatest actor of his generation, his performance in 1954's "On the Waterfront" is at the heart of that argument. It earned Brando the only Oscar he ever accepted. He won a second for "The Godfather," but famously sent an American Indian woman (later revealed to be an impostor) to the podium to refuse the award.

An instant classic, "On the Waterfront" went on to win eight Oscars, including best picture. Brando's role as Terry Malloy, a dock worker with thwarted dreams of prizefighting, yielded some of the recently deceased actor's finest moments on film, including this oft-quoted line:

"I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it."

Malloy's destiny, as he puts it, is a "one-way ticket to Palooka-ville."

7. James Earl Jones in "The Great White Hope"
James Earl Jones earned his only Oscar nomination as fighter Jack Jefferson -- a fictionalized depiction of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, who faced vile racism because he challenged the ethos of a white-dominated sport.

"He could beat any man alive," the movie posters boasted. "He just couldn't beat them all."

Jones had also played Jefferson in the Broadway play upon which the movie was based. He, of course, would eventually take on a deservedly hated character when he voiced the evil Darth Vader, a role he'll reprise this summer in "Revenge of the Sith," the final installment of the "Star Wars" saga.

8. Sylvester Stallone in "Rocky"
Stallone was a marginally employed bit player with no future in show business in 1975 when he watched a little-known club boxer from New Jersey named Chuck Wepner nearly take the heavyweight crown from Muhammad Ali.

Stallone wrote the script for "Rocky" in three days, and United Artists offered him $150,000 to let Ryan O'Neal play the title character. Stallone, however, insisted on being the star, and an action hero star was born.

"Rocky" earned 10 Academy Award nominations, and won for best picture. Stallone was following in the footsteps of America's finest filmmakers by earning acting and writing nominations. The only filmmakers who had done that before him were Charlie Chaplin for "The Great Dictator" and Orson Welles for "Citizen Kane."

Of course, since that point, Oscar night has been uneventful for Stallone. Nevertheless, he went on to become one of the highest-paid stars, and his work has earned him the dubious distinction of being the all-time Razzie Award champion, chalking up a record 30 nominations and 10 "wins."

Stallone attempted to relive his "Rocky" glory in four sequels, to increasingly lesser success each time. Later this month, he'll attempt to turn boxing into a reality TV show in NBC's "The Contender."

9. Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull"
De Niro earned his second Oscar, and his first as best actor, with his performance as real-life boxer Jake LaMotta, who was as destructive in the ring as he was self-destructive in his personal life.

De Niro's character actually quotes from "On the Waterfront" because LaMotta was a big Brando fan and was obsessed with the film.

10. Denzel Washington in "The Hurricane"
As a boxer, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter never won the middleweight boxing crown. As a man who was convicted of murder, faced capital punishment and was then exonerated, he became a poster boy for the movement to abolish the death penalty.

Washington was nominated for best actor, but didn't win that time. But two years later, he took home his second Oscar, for "Training Day."

11. Will Smith in "Ali"
Will Smith had so much to prove when he agreed to portray perhaps the most internationally famous sports figure of the 20th century. Cassius Clay, an Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champion, became a central figure in the civil rights movement when he converted to Islam, befriended Malcolm X and shed what he called his slave name, becoming Muhammad Ali.

Ali then rallied Vietnam War protesters by refusing to submit to the draft, even though it was widely believed that the U.S. military would have given him an easy assignment. Stripped of his championship belt, Ali fought the law and eventually staged his legendary comeback.

So much was expected from the 2001 film, and many were disappointed. But Smith's uncanny portrayal of the boxing legend did not disappoint and earned him his first Oscar nomination.