By Bill Simmons
When HBO announced that Billy Crystal was making a movie about the Mantle-Maris home run chase, everyone thought the same thing.
"Wow, that's gonna stink."
You can't blame us. Baseball movies rarely work. You need a sizable budget to deal with stadiums, extras and game scenes. Cable companies rarely have the resources for top-notch actors, which leads to casting decisions like "Let's hire Roy Scheider as the slugger; he's 58, but it's a young 58!" And with Crystal involved as a third-time director, it seemed inevitable that he would mangle the movie by making all of Those Mistakes, the ones actors usually make when they move behind the camera. You could call it DeVito-itis."
Look at me! I'm directing! Watch this unnecessary zoom! Watch me do a 360-degree camera angle with this table scene! Look at me! I'm directing! I'm in charge!
If that wasn't enough, Crystal showed signs of being one of those "It was so much better in the old days!" fans who keep Mantle's card in their wallet and practically have an orgasm at grainy video footage of a wheelchair-bound Ted Williams babbling about hitting. I couldn't imagine that someone like Crystal could pull off a good baseball movie for HBO. It seemed impossible.
I was wrong.
Have you ever attended a party that was so well-thought-out that you ended up saying to yourself, "Man, they really went overboard for this one," even if "overboard" means that they spent an extra few bucks for Sierra Nevada, Absolut Vodka, Cheese-Its and one of those ice sculpture slides for liquor shots? That's the feeling Crystal gave me during this movie. Man. They really went all out.
(In case you didn't know, "61*" was ...
- DIRECTED BY BILLY CRYSTAL
Just thought I'd remind you. Maybe you missed the steady stream of HBO ads back in 2001.)
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Crystal's attention to detail was unreal. He converted Tiger Stadium into a fascimile Yankee Stadium, painting the seats puke-green and using CGI for wide-angle shots of the field. For road games, the distance footage on the outfield fences corresponds with the actual opposing stadiums. Every actor throws and swings from the correct sides of their corresponding players, even poor Thomas Jane, who learned to switch-hit to play Mantle. I'm no expert on the '61 Yanks, but I bet the water fountain in the Yankees dugout was the same model and color as the one Mickey and Roger used.
Here's the point: If you're making a baseball movie, you have to go all out. The people most prone to watching it 20-to-25 times over the years (like me, for instance) flip out over preventable screw-ups, whether it's Shoeless Joe Jackson batting right-handed in "Field of Dreams," or all the Yankees players wearing numbers in the 70s and 80s in "For Love of the Game." If you're doing it, do it right. It's the only way.
That doesn't mean the movie was perfect. Let's cruise through everything that worked and didn't work, using the old "Thumbs up/down" gimmick:
THUMBS UP: For lead actors Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane. A dead ringer for Maris, Pepper nailed one of those "blah" parts that would have submarined the movie in the wrong hands. Everyone agrees that Maris made Larry Brown seem jovial by comparison, but Pepper's understated performance made it seem unconscionable that everyone was rooting against Maris in real life. No small feat. As it turned out, the part was right in Pepper's wheelhouse -- he can't play anything other than understated guys. This was probably the highlight of Pepper's career ...
(Hold on, some slight corporate interference coming up, grab your desk!)
... well, at least until his portrayal of Dale Earnhardt in the ESPN Original Entertainment movie, "3," coming in December, and only on the Worldwide Leader!!!
(Okay, it's over. You can relax.)
In retrospect, Mantle was a tougher part because of the switch-hitting, the Oklahoma accent and that hungover, boyish, Gump-esque swagger that made the Mick so endearing. Remember, this was a simpler time, an era when it was OK to cheat on your wife and show up blitzed for work. You can't do this stuff now. For example, if Mantle played today, he would be juggling rehab stints along with $4 million rings for his ticked-off wife. Then again, these days, women refuse to wear bras, dress like hookers and aren't afraid to go to eighth base. So maybe both eras had their benefits.
Anyway, Jane nails Mantle's mannerisms AND his charisma -- no small feat -- and deftly handles the "Maybe the Mick couldn't handle the thought of becoming the greatest player ever" angle, which could have been a disaster in the wrong hands. You like Jane's version of Mantle; you can't help it. For a few years there, Jane was showing signs of becoming one of those Jeff Bridges-like leading men who gave you a different look every time -- like when he played Todd Parker in "Boogie Nights," then the hero in "Deep Blue Sea," and it took me nearly half of the latter movie to realize it was the same guy. Then Jane cashed in and went the "Dreamcatcher"/"The Punisher"/"The Sweetest Thing" route. You can't kill him on it. I'm just hoping he comes back to us.
(And if you think I have a soft spot for him because he did lines with Dirk Diggler and Reed Rothchild and carried the Night Ranger/coke heist scene ... well, you're right. In the master bedroom ... under the bed ... in a floor safe. Understand?)
THUMBS DOWN: Pepper was too short to play a home run hitter; he's probably 5-foot-7 without those four-inch Prince-like baseball cleats. Nitpicking? Absolutely. But you knew there would be a stretch here somewhere. This was it. Pepper couldn't post up Bob Costas.
THUMBS UP: For the baseball talk during the film, especially dugout conversations and throwaway exchanges like "Was that a slider?" followed by "Yeah ... didn't slide, though." Baseball directors have a habit of romanticizing dugout dialogue, but it never fails to win me over. I especially enjoyed the scene with Mantle's one-armed home run, when the boys were standing at the top of the dugout and Whitey Ford kept singing, "Forty-nine! Forty-nine!" (because it was Mantle's 49th homer). Isn't that why we watch baseball movies, for dumb little moments like that?
Speaking of Whitey ...
THUMBS DOWN: Anthony Michael Hall as Whitey Ford, the winningest lefty in Yankee history? Hall can't seem to shed that intense, bug-eyed persona that started with "Six Degrees of Separation" and culminated with that "Dead Zone" show on USA. Instead of pitching for the Yankees and hanging with Mick, I kept waiting for him to pull Walken's Trivial Psychic routine.
You're gonna be chasing a flyball ... you're going to slip ... you're gonna get a grass stain on your knee ... they're gonna have to dry-clean the uniform ...
THUMBS UP: On the flip side, having Hall involved in any movie always means two hours of "You're so conceited, Claire! You're so f---ing conceited!" and "Have you seen some of the morons that take shop?" jokes. "The Breakfast Club" jokes never get old. I mean, EVER. Couldn't they have had a scene where Whitey talks about his girlfriend who lives in the Niagara Falls area?
THUMBS DOWN: They could have banged this out in two hours or less; 2:15 seems a little extreme. I would have chopped some of the scenes with Maris and his wife -- we get it; she loved him -- as well as two of the 40 scenes with him battling reporters. Drags just a little.
THUMBS UP: Solid directing job by Crystal -- his best work since "Mr. Saturday Night." Also, his only work since "Mr. Saturday Night" and "Forget Paris." But he stayed out of the way, avoided DeVito-itis and let his characters carry the story.
(By the way, in case you forgot, this movie was ...
- DIRECTED BY BILLY CRYSTAL
You didn't forget that, did you?)
THUMBS DOWN: I'm sure the Knights of the Keyboard were unfair to Maris in '61, but they couldn't have been THIS bad. After watching an hour of "61*," I was half-expecting a press box scene where the writers passed around child porn or hurled racial insults at a batboy. Why are sportswriters portrayed as the Evil Incarnate in every baseball movie? Isn't this the cliche of cliches? Sportswriters aren't evil; they're just hungry. If you want a realistic movie scene with a bunch of sportswriters, have them wearing cheap Hawaiian shirts and fighting for thirds at a buffet table.
THUMBS UP: The beginning and ending sequences that featured Mark McGwire and the Maris family. When the movie started, I was cringing ... but everything made sense by the end. More on this at the end of the column.
(Note: If you're adding actual McGwire footage, why not throw in the high five/heart tap/hug disaster with Sosa that nearly shattered the Unintentional Comedy Scale? My buddy Gus and I were arguing about this last month: What was more awkward, that fumbling high-five/hug, or Rocky and Apollo's awkward beach hug in "Rocky 3?" Gus argued for Rocky and Apollo because of the tight shorts and the homo-erotic undertones. I argued for McGwire and Sosa simply because that moment actually becomes more contrived and uncomfortable by the month. By 2005, we might be losing control of our bowels every time it comes on ESPN Classic. And yet I digress.)
THUMBS DOWN: For using Lyle Lovett's "Nobody Loves Me" during the "Maris is depressed and alone in his hotel room" scene. That's the song they played after Dylan's gorgeous wife was killed in "90210"!!! Come on, Billy, show some respect to Luke Perry! What an outrage. And if you're using the song, at least dedicate the movie to the memory of Toni Marchette McKay afterwards, like the way they dedicated "The Shawshank Redemption" to that Allen Greene guy.
THUMBS UP: For two legitimate Chill Scenes -- Mickey's one-armed home run for No. 49, and then Maris's 61st home run at the end. Just a solid burst of goosebumps both times. There's even an emotional scene at the end (when Maris visits Mantle after No. 61 and the Mick's hospital room gets a little dusty), as well as a semi-inspiring speech from Maris's manager (telling him to play in the Baltimore game).
THUMBS DOWN: For Kenny Mayne's flat performance as O's closer Hoyt Wilhelm. Maybe Kenny raised the bar too high in the ESPN commercials, I'm not sure.(Note: My editors claim that Tom Candiotti plays Wilhelm and Kenny wasn't involved at all. Well, I own the DVD, I've freeze-framed the scene ... that's Kenny Mayne. Nobody is talking me out of this.)
THUMBS UP: When the movie came out in 2001, I forced the Sports Gal to watch the first 30 minutes, just to see if she might enjoy it. (Note: The last time this happened, we were watching "There's Something Inside Mary," and that turned out miserably.) But she stuck around for "61*," even crying during the ending. And here's somebody who hates baseball unless she's double-fisting hot dogs at Fenway Park, so that's a good sign. Even when I was re-watching the DVD this week, she plopped down on the sofa for a few minutes and gave the old "Hey, I like this movie!" stamp of approval.
(And just for the record, I hope that's the last time I write the phrase "double-fisting hot dogs" about my wife.)
THUMBS DOWN: The inane chair-throwing scene (an enraged Yankees fan pulling a Frankie Francisco with Maris in right field). Didn't happen, wasn't needed, just plain stupid. Showing the crowd reactions to Maris, as well as the scenes of him opening his hate mail, would have been fine. We get it. People were against him. If you're going to start making up stuff, they should have a scene where the Mick messed around with Marilyn Monroe. Unless that actually happened. Actually, that probably happened. She was a tramp. Let's just move on.
THUMBS UP: All the scenes with Maris battling the reporters, especially the final press conference, when he says the line, "You don't earn respect on a ballfield." I liked that one. Those scenes could have been much more generic, but Pepper always managed to give them an extra kick. I can't wait to see what he does with "3," coming in December, right here on the Worldwide Leader!
(Now stop pointing that pistol at me ... I mean it.)
THUMBS DOWN: For making Mrs. Maris too likable. Come on, it's a sports movie. Couldn't they have thrown in one movie with Roger's wife standing at the top of a staircase screaming, "You can't hit 61!"
THUMBS UP: The scenes with Maris, Mantle and Bob Cerv hanging out at their apartment eating eggs or watching "The Andy Griffith Show." Those are the moments that make you feel like you're watching a movie with real people. I love that stuff.
THUMBS DOWN: For a historical fudge with Cerv, who didn't join the Yanks until midway through the season. Although I think they did this just to mess with Rob Neyer.
Speaking of Cerv, this movie shattered the record for "That Guys" in a single movie. I mean, it's not even close. Check out this all-star cast:
He didn't become "Barry Pepper" until they gave him the role of Maris and started promoting him. At the time, the majority of people knew him as "That Guy From 'Saving Private Ryan'" (and definitely not "That Guy With the Mullet From 'Battlefield Earth'").
Same thing. At the time, he was "That Guy From 'Boogie Nights'."
3. "That Guy Who Played the Warden in 'Shawshank'."
Plays the Yankees owner, which seems fitting. During the scene when he orders Ralph Houk to switch the lineup and bat Mantle third, when Houk resists, you almost expect the Warden to toss down a cigarette and walk away as Houk takes a bullet in the chest. And just for comedy's sake, couldn't they have included a scene where the Warden screams at Maris, "I will cast you down with the sodomites!!!"
4. "That Guy Who Interviewed Tom Cruise for Princeton in 'Risky Business'."
Plays the "Good Guy" reporter. One of my favorite That Guys, by the way, going way back to his love triangle with Schneider and Bonnie Franklin in "One Day at a Time."
5. "That Guy Who Played Machine in '8MM'."
Plays Cerv, much to my delight. As I've mentioned many times, Machine was one of my favorite movie characters of the past decade. During the summer of 2000, I was even calling for a Machine action figure or Machine's leather mask to turn up on E-Bay, to no avail.
(He's probably not still alive, but imagine the real Bob Cerv's reaction if they told him, "We finally found an actor to play you ... you might remember him from "8MM" as the guy who played the bi-sexual, criminally-insane, leather mask-wearing murderer in Dino Velvet's snuff films. You'll love him!")
6. "That Guy Who Played One Of Paul Newman's Clients in 'The Verdict,' as well as a cop in "NYPD Blue'."
Plays a reporter.
Production Value: B-plus
Sports Scenes: A-minus
Chill Scenes (2): A-minus
Climactic Game Scene: A-minus
Final Scene: B-plus
DVD Extras: F-minus
Intentional Comedy: B-plus
Unintentional Comedy: C-minus
Defining Unintentional Comedy Scene: Every scene with Anthony Michael Hall.
Overall Implausibility: F
Dated-ness: A-plus (actually better now than 3 years ago)
Gratuitous Sex/Nudity: F-minus
Lead Actor: A
Supporting cast: B-minus
Wet Blanket Girlfriend/Token Hot Chick: D-minus (she's way too redeemable)
Token Fat Guy: MIA
Token Angry Black Guy: D-minus
That Guy Factor: A-plus
Defining Quote: "You don't earn (respect) on a ballfield."
7. "That Guy Who Played D-Day in 'Animal House'."
Plays Ralph Houk. A "That Guy" Hall of Famer.
8. "That Guy From 'Flashdance'."
Plays Joe DiMaggio, although they didn't include the Dirk Diggler prosthetic.
9. Christopher McDonald
Plays Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen. How 'bout that? I think he officially became Christopher McDonald after playing Shooter McGavin in "Happy Gilmore." But since he WAS a "That Guy," that counts for the overall total.
10. "That Guy Who Played the President in 'Clear and Present Danger'."
Plays baseball commissioner Ford Frick. "You don't like my asterisk? How dare you!"
("How dare YOU, sir!!!!)
11. "That Guy with the Silver Hair and the Mustache."
Plays the feisty old reporter. Such a "That Guy" that I can't even remember where he's from.
Final total: 11 "That Guys" in one movie! Eleven! That has to be a record. Crystal should have filmed deleted scenes with each "That Guy" doing his signature scene, only in a "61*" setting. For instance, when Mantle, Maris and Cerv were watching "The Andy Griffith Show," they could have had Cerv wearing Machine's leather mask ... or Pepper wearing his helmet from "Saving Private Ryan" for a batting scene ... or Warden from "Shawshank" blowing his brains out after Maris's 61st ... or Whitey, Mantle and Elston Howard smoking pot as Whitey says, "The chicks, they can't hold the smoke!" ... or Mantle inexplicably growing a fu manchu, wearing '70s clothing and doing copious lines of coke. The possibilities would have been endless. Oh, well.
One final thought: This movie has already aged in a peculiar way. When they were making it in 2000, Crystal and HBO were capitalizing on the residual excitement from the Sosa-McGwire chase, which basically saved baseball after the strike. But between Bonds and the BALCO saga, Sosa's corked bat, McGwire's significant weight loss, Giambi's mysterious health problems, our continuing education about steroids and HGH, juiced-up baseballs, over-expansion and everything else ... I mean, I can't be the only person who feels differently about seeing that old footage now.
Maris broke the Babe's record fair and square. You probably can't say the same about the guys who came after him, at least not with certainty. And yet poor Maris was the one who carried an asterisk for the rest of his life. Go figure.
Does that help the movie after the fact? Absolutely. And since it was a quality sports flick in the first place, I'm sticking it at No. 39 on my list.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.