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.
Posted: April 26, 2001 at 05:00 AM | 4 comment(s)
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