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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.


Fadeaway: The Baseball History Podcast Posted: April 26, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 4 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Doug Drinen Posted: April 26, 2001 at 12:04 AM (#603713)
Eric, how is the actual baseball in the film? I find
baseball movies (all sports movies actually) totally unwatchable because
the baseball is so bad in them.

I've heard that this is changing, though. I haven't seen it, but
I've heard people say good things about
the baseball scenes in Costner's "For the Love of the Game," for
example. Might there come a time when the on-field scenes don't
ruin the whole movie for me?
   2. Fadeaway: The Baseball History Podcast Posted: April 26, 2001 at 12:04 AM (#603715)
Doug, the baseball isn't bad, but it's not wonderful either. Thomas Jane has freely admitted that he lied about being a good ballplayer in order to get the part as Mickey Mantle. He throws like a girl, no offense to any female ballplayers out there. The baseball doesn't look ludicrous, though. Tom Candiotti plays Hoyt Wilhelm, and he's a pretty fair ballplayer for an actor. Jane and Pepper actually imitate the M&M swings pretty well, but they're helped by the fact that in the middle of just about every swing, the camera cuts to a close-up on the player -- so even if they were bad swings, it would be pretty hard to tell.
   3. Cris E Posted: April 27, 2001 at 12:05 AM (#603723)
The local guy here reviewed it and thought it was pretty well done,
though he caught one factual error in his screening. ( "Opening Day
1961. It's in Yankee Stadium and it's against the Twins, freshly
moved from Washington, D.C., in their very first game...
Crystal and Steinberg have Camilo Pascual on the mound." Should have been
Camillo Pascual. Not a big deal.)

He also says "Former Red Sox and Dodgers player Reggie Smith schooled both
actors, and even taught the right-handed Pepper how to swing

It's also worth noting that The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg will
be on Cinemax 6:30 Sunday (repeated 5/8 and 5/23) for anyone who missed
it during its limited theater run.

All this came from Brian Lambert's piece in the St Paul Pioneer Press
   4. Fadeaway: The Baseball History Podcast Posted: April 28, 2001 at 12:05 AM (#603725)
I find Donald's comment that I "damaged" my review by revealing my status as a Yankee-hater. We all have biases and points of view, and I decided to put that at the beginning so people would know where I was coming from, and take it with a grain of salt if they choose.

Anyway, even more amusing is the implication of Donald's comment -- that Yankee fans' attention spans are so short that they can't even make it past the first couple of sentences.

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