As presented in the movie, Baer (played with winning flair by Craig Bierko) is part raconteur, part demon--a fizzy combination of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. With boxing far from the classiest sport in most Americans' minds, "Cinderella Man" clears the way for Braddock-Crowe's ascent to heroism via inoculation, taking all the boxing-related stereotypes and implanting them in Baer to save Braddock.
Thus, Baer is portrayed as a womanizer, never appearing anywhere without a showgirl on each arm; he is a brute, having (according to the film) killed two men in the ring; and, worst of all, he is unrepentant about the violence that is part and parcel of his profession. In one particularly ugly scene, Baer taunts Braddock's wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) in a pre-fight encounter, telling her, "You're far too pretty to be a widow" and offering to comfort her after her husband's impending death.
To secure Braddock's place as a man of the people, one of the movie's emotional high points is a scene in which Mae, panic-stricken at the thought of her husband entering the ring with the man-eating Baer, goes to church to pray for Jim's safety. Her priest, noting the surprise in her eyes, points to the crowd gathered, kneeling and praying, and says, "They all think Jim's fightin' for them." I couldn't help but wonder, watching yet another instance of well-scrubbed Catholic piety onscreen, were they the only ones praying for their fighter that night?
Howard perhaps had to give Braddock a foil, so that his essential good-heartedness could shine through all the better, but it is a shame that he chose to do so at the expense of the real Max Baer, a legend in his own right, and to twist the facts of Baer's career to suit his narrative needs.
Born in 1909 in Omaha, Nebraska, Baer went professional as a boxer in 1929. Just a year later, he left Frankie Campbell unconscious after a bout in San Francisco, and the fighter later died of his injuries. Charged with manslaughter, Baer was eventually cleared, but his California boxing license was suspended for one year, and the incident would haunt the rest of his career.
The movie's portrayal of Baer's attitude toward this incident and others is grossly distorted. "Cinderella Man" has Baer casually bragging about the two men he had killed in the ring, but this is untrue on a number of levels; the second man the movie's Baer killed in fact went on to fight four more bouts before dying. The real Max Baer was wracked with guilt for what had happened to Campbell and provided financial support to his children to ease his conscience.
Contrary to the film's avoidance of the topic, Baer, although only one-quarter Jewish, made no secret of his religious heritage (even if it was, as some claim, exaggerated for effect). His signature--always fighting with a very visible Star of David on his trunks-turned him into a Jewish sporting idol during a very dark era.
Baer may have won his heavyweight title by beating Primo Carnera in 1934, but the only fight fans of the sweet science still remember is his demolition of the German fighter Max Schmeling in front of 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium in 1933. Baer, the brash American Jew, took on Schmeling, the icon of Nazi athletic ambition, and much like African-American runner Jesse Owens would do three years later at the Berlin Olympics, hit the myth of Aryan racial superiority with his best shot.
Baer's real life is also a reminder that American Jews have not always been lucky enough to live the comfortable middle-class lives that so many of them live today. There was a time, not quite fully receded into the mists of history, when Jews were marginal to the mainstream of American life, and no profession, boxing included, was too degraded in their struggle for acceptance.
One can only imagine what a literary giant and chronicler of Jewish American history like Philip Roth could do with such material: the families huddled in front of their radios listening to the blow-by-blow description of the Baer-Schmeling bout, the Saturday-morning sermons praising Baer, the ways that Baer's pugilistic brilliance went a long way toward giving American Jews, many immigrants or the children of immigrants, a sense that they, too, could belong, could live the high life, and could succeed in the unlikeliest endeavors.
Knowing what Roth, or any first-rate writer, could have wrought with the stuff of Baer's biography, one wonders why is it that Hollywood seems to fail repeatedly at capturing any aspect of Jewish life that doesn't feature the Holocaust, or a particularly odious caricature of big-city, upper middle-class living? Why is it that Hollywood, always one of the most Jewish-dominated industries, has always been literally afraid of its own shadow?
That this is historically true should come as no surprise. After all, Hollywood was founded by a claque of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who wanted nothing more than to fit in. They were the men who managed to make films that resolutely avoided their own kinsmen's experiences--they even managed to make a film (1940's "The Mortal Storm") about the plight of German Jews that never used the word "Jew."
Like muscle memory, Hollywood remains incapable of what it once chose to avoid, finding the complexity and variety of Jewish experience in America too daunting to ever engage with in any meaningful way. Faced with a choice between the stolid Christian Braddock and the Jewish bad boy Baer, it is no surprise that Hollywood chose to lionize the former and demonize the latter.
"Cinderella Man"'s Baer takes shape in a two-step process: whitewashed of all personality, all background, his Star of David is then given back to him in the name of historical accuracy--but only briefly and blurrily. Hedging their bets, Howard and screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth give us a false Baer, choosing to celebrate the life and struggle of one boxer, and the fans that lived and died alongside him, at the expense of another.
On the night of the big fight, the congregants at Braddock's New Jersey church could not have been the only ones praying for their man. In that dark year, 1933, when the hulking menace of Nazism was just beginning to flex its muscles across the Atlantic, it must have given great comfort to many American Jews to know that their boy Max was a Jew and proud of it, and could whip any comer, Aryan or otherwise. They thought that Max was fighting for them, and it is that fact, and the countless quotidian hopes of American Jews in that long-ago time when they still had yet to make their way up from the working classes, that "Cinderella Man" willfully obfuscates.