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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Thursday, April 26, 2001
Hangin? With Yogi and Tony Soprano
Even a Yankee hater can find something to like about Billy Crystal’s new film.
A look at the HBO film 61*
Let?s get one thing straight right away: I hate the Yankees and everything they stand for. The fact that Mickey Mantle is a hero to so many people is both a bad joke and a sad commentary on American society. So, although I have a soft spot in my heart for Roger Maris, ordinarily I couldn?t have cared less about 61*, Billy Crystal?s HBO movie about the 1961 home run chase. But because I did some very minor research work for the film, I found myself invited to the premiere in New York City. I think there must have been some sort of clerical error, and they put my name on the invitation instead of Bruce Springsteen?s or something. Anyway, I figured since I had the opportunity, I might as well take advantage of it. Generally speaking, any function with a dress code more formal than, say, a shirt with a collar makes me nervous. I felt completely out of place, an imposter among all the diamonds and silicone and cell phones. Mostly I kept to myself in the corner, for fear that somebody would figure out who I really was and throw me out on my ass.
Now, I?ve never been to a movie premiere before, so this was all a little new to me. They rolled out the old, dusty red carpet (this is only a TV movie, after all), and we walked in among the stars. Donald Trump, his hair completely gray, strolled in with a girl on his arm who looked like she was about 16. Yogi Berra stood alone at the side of the room, a foot shorter than everyone else, gnawing on a bag of popcorn while taller, prettier people shuffled past him obliviously. Bud Selig just stood around by himself, too. Nobody wanted to talk to him, probably because by looking at him, you?d swear he was actually deceased. Billy Crystal and Robin Williams were there mugging for the cameras. Bob Costas, Joe Torre, Mayor Giuliani. Half the cast of The Sopranos. In a corner, Robert Iler (Anthony Soprano, Jr.) and Chuck Knoblauch are hanging out. What could they possibly be talking about? Get the damn ball to first, pal, or you?ll find yourself floating in the Hudson River tomorrow. I briefly contemplate striking up a discussion with John Ventimiglia, who plays chef Artie Bucco on the show, but what exactly would I say to him? I like the way you cook manicotti on TV?
Finally the doors close, Crystal finishes up his welcome speech, the theater grows dark, and the film begins. The story is bookended by two scenes that take place in 1998 and make wonderful use of actual Mark McGwire press conference footage. 61* may be a TV movie, but HBO apparently spared no cost in making the film. Expensive digital effects render an awe-inspiring Yankee Stadium circa 1961, and Haskell Wexler and Marc Shaiman, both among the very best at their craft, were hired to do the cinematography and score, respectively. To Crystal?s credit, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris are presented complete with warts, and the unknown actors who play them turn in marvelous performances. Thomas Jane explores Mantle?s complex personality as well as can be expected, and gets off a few good one-liners in the process. But this is really Barry Pepper?s film. In addition to bearing a striking resemblance to the real Maris, Pepper turns in an extraordinary performance as the sensitive, brooding slugger. It is the best portrayal of a non-fictional baseball player ever put on film, and that includes Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, who were playing themselves.
From a historical standpoint, the film is admirable for its accuracy. Many of the conversations between the characters are fictionalized, which is necessary to make the story interesting, but almost all of the events depicted actually took place. The filmmakers appear to have gone out of their way to ensure that every niggling detail ? every stitch of every uniform, every date of every game ? is factually correct. Maris and Mantle are both given fair, well-rounded characterizations that are as close to their true personalities as we can hope for. Many of the supporting roles are well cast, especially Anthony Michael Hall, who is perfect as Whitey Ford.
That said, there are still a few things for purists to complain about. Some of the baseball details are annoying in a minor way. The baseballs are blindingly white, though anybody who?s ever been on a major league field knows they?re no longer that color after they?ve gone through the pre-game mud rubdown. The home plate at Baltimore?s Memorial Stadium is so new in the film that it looks like no one has ever stepped on it, and it?s missing the black edges, too. The vintage baseball uniforms, while painstakingly accurate, are so pristine that it?s inconceivable anyone has ever played a game of baseball in them before.
All the obligatory TV-movie cliches are present. The climactic 61st homer, for example, hangs in the air for about six days while the soundtrack plays loud, obnoxiously grandiose music and the camera pans over the face of everybody Roger Maris ever met. The cardboard cutout villains common to TV movies are plentiful here, too. Ford Frick is played by Donald Moffat as if he wants to be Kenesaw Mountain Landis when he grows up. In one scene Frick is shown watching a game on TV and vocally rooting against Maris, something that almost assuredly did not happen. Some of the film?s sportswriters are caricatures rather than characters, particularly ?Artie Green,? a rabidly anti-Maris scribe reportedly based on the New York Post?s Leonard Schecter.
Still, on balance, 61* has more advantages than flaws. It?s well written for the most part, and Wexler?s cinematography ensures that the film is visually entertaining even when the story overdoses on saccharine. It rivals Eight Men Out as the most historically accurate film ever made about baseball, and manages to intelligently examine the human sides of two superhuman figures. And besides, Yogi liked it.
Rating: 3 ? out of 5 stars. 61* premieres Saturday, April 29 on HBO.
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