James J. Braddock is an Irish-American boxer from New Jersey, formerly a light heavyweight contender, who is forced to give up boxing after breaking his hand in the ring. This is both a relief and a burden to his wife, Mae. She cannot bring herself to watch the violence of his chosen profession, yet she knows they will not have enough income without his boxing.
As the United States enters the Great Depression, Braddock does manual labor as a longshoreman to support his family, even with his injured hand. Unfortunately, he cannot get work every day. Thanks to a last-minute cancellation by another boxer, Braddock's longtime manager and friend, Joe Gould, offers him a chance to fill in for just one night and earn cash. The fight is against the number-two contender in the world, Corn Griffin.
Braddock stuns the boxing experts and fans with a third-round knockout of his formidable opponent. He believes that while his right hand was broken, he became more proficient with his left hand, improving his in-ring ability. Despite Mae's objections, Braddock takes up Gould's offer to return to the ring. Mae resents this attempt by Gould to profit from her husband's dangerous livelihood, until she discovers that Gould and his wife also have been devastated by hard times.
With a shot at the heavyweight championship held by Max Baer a possibility, Braddock continues to win. Out of a sense of pride, he uses a portion of his prize money to pay back money to the government given to him while unemployed. When his rags to riches story gets out, the sportswriter Damon Runyon dubs him "The Cinderella Man", and before long Braddock comes to represent the hopes and aspirations of the American public struggling with the Depression.
A title fight against Baer comes his way. Braddock is a 10-to-1 underdog. Mae is terrified because Baer, the champ, is a vicious man who reportedly has killed at least two men in the ring. He is so destructive that the fight's promoter, James Johnston, forces both Braddock and Gould to watch a film of Baer in action, just so he can maintain later that he warned them what Braddock was up against.
Braddock demonstrates no fear. The arrogant Baer attempts to intimidate him, even taunting Mae in public that her man might not survive. When he says this, she becomes so angry that she throws a drink at him. She is unable to attend the fight at the Madison Square Garden Bowl or even to listen to it on the radio.
On June 13, 1935, in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history, Braddock defeats the seemingly invincible Baer to become the heavyweight champion of the world.
An epilogue reveals that Braddock would later lose his title to Joe Louis and later worked on the building of the Verrazano Bridge, owning and operating heavy machinery on the docks where he worked during the Depression, and that he and Mae used his boxing income to buy a house, where they spent the rest of their lives.
During filming in Toronto, several areas were redressed to resemble 1930s New York. The Richmond Street side of The Bay's Queen Street store was redressed as Madison Square Garden, complete with fake store fronts and period stop lights. A stretch of Queen Street East between Broadview and Carlaw was also made up to appear to be from the 1930s and dozens of period cars were parked along the road. Maple Leaf Gardens was used for all the fight scenes, and many scenes were filmed in the Distillery District. Filming also took place in Hamilton, Ontario at the harbour for the dock workers' scene. The main apartment was shot north of St. Clair Avenue on Lauder Avenue on the east side. An awning was put up for a dress shop, later turned into a real coffee shop.
The Toronto Transit Commission's historic Peter Witt streetcar and two more cars from the nearby Halton County Radial Railway were used for the filming, travelling on Toronto's existing streetcar tracks.
In a campaign to boost ticket sales after the film's low opening, AMC Theatres advertised on June 24, 2005 that in 30 markets (about 150 theaters nationwide), it would offer a refund to any ticket-buyer dissatisfied with the film. The advertisement, published in The New York Times and other papers and on internet film sites, read, "AMC believes Cinderella Man is one of the finest motion pictures of the year! We believe so strongly that you'll enjoy Cinderella Man we're offering a Money Back Guarantee." The promotion moderately increased box office revenue for a short period, while at least 50 patrons demanded refunds. Following suit, Cinemark Theatres also offered a money-back guarantee in 25 markets that did not compete with AMC Theaters. AMC had last employed such a strategy (in limited markets) for the 1988 release of Mystic Pizza, while 20th Century Fox had unsuccessfully tried a similar ploy for its 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street.
Rotten Tomatoes gave it an approval rating of 80% based on reviews from 207 critics with an average score of 7.4/10. Its consensus states, "With grittiness and an evocative sense of time and place, Cinderella Man is a powerful underdog story. And Ron Howard and Russell Crowe prove to be a solid combination." Metacritic gives the film a score of 69% based on reviews from 40 critics. It received an A+ rating from CinemaScore.
During its North American theatrical run, the film (which cost $88 million) earned $61,649,911.Academy Award
Best Supporting Actor (Paul Giamatti) (Nominated)
Best Film Editing (Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill) (Nominated)
Best Makeup (David LeRoy Anderson, Lance Anderson) (Nominated)
Best Original Screenplay (Cliff Hollingsworth, Akiva Goldsman) (Nominated)
Critics' Choice Movie Award
Best Actor (Russell Crowe) (Nominated)
Best Supporting Actor (Paul Giamatti) (Won
Best Director (Ron Howard) (Nominated)
Best Film (Nominated)
Golden Globe Award
Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama (Russell Crowe) (Nominated)
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture (Paul Giamatti) (Nominated)
Screen Actors Guild Award
Outstanding Actor – Motion Picture (Russell Crowe) (Nominated)
Outstanding Supporting Actor – Motion Picture (Paul Giamatti) (Won