Watching Arthur Hiller’s The Babe (1992) for the second time, I had an epiphany. Now, epiphanies are never things to be taken lightly, but they are particularly welcome when Mainstreet deadlines loom. The first time I saw Hiller’s tribute to Babe Ruth, I was deeply moved by it. That was months ago, and off and on since then I’ve tried to understand why. One reason was obvious. I may know diddlysquat about baseball, but I can recognize a damn good story when I see one. Ruth’s was a genuinely heroic life. Heroic in the oldest of senses, where the hero’s far from perfect. Babe Ruth was a boozer and a womanizer. He squandered health and relationships trying to cram several lifetimes’ worth of appetite into a single short one. There was probably a lot not to like in such a man.
Then again, there was a whole lot to admire. He’s ranked as the greatest player in the history of baseball, and second only to Jim Thorpe on sportswriters’ lists of the greatest American athletes of all time. Along with his insatiable appetite to take everything life offered, was an outsized desire to give it back to others. His visits to sick children, his donations to charity, his largesse when it came to friends or the underprivileged, these were all genuine attempts to make up for a Dickensian childhood of hard knocks and abandonment. Late in the 1940’s, dying of throat cancer and with his dream of managing his own team destroyed by some of the same people whose fortunes he’d made, “the Bambino” continued to appear at benefits and charitable exhibitions. In the words of his second wife, Clare, Babe Ruth loved baseball more than it loved him. Once the highest paid player of his time, he took massive pay cuts just to stay in the game.
The Babe is not revisionist history. It’s hagiography. We’re meant to love this man, warts and all. He’s like the great Irish hero Oisin, come from the Land of Youth to stumble awkwardly through a world several sizes too small for him. Which takes me back to the subject of my epiphany. I realized that I was responding to The Babe for the same reasons I had the handkerchiefs out by the end of Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s glorious Cyrano de Bergerac: this is the way life should be. Cyrano should be able to fight a hundred men in the name of love. Babe Ruth should be able to promise two home runs to a dying boy and never doubt that he’ll deliver. Cyrano should be able to seduce Roxanne with poetry, and the Babe should win his lady love despite his utter lack of poetry (“You smell good, Helen. You smell like bacon and eggs.”) Cyrano should cross enemy lines every day to deliver love letters written in someone else’s name; Ruth should be able to rally one last time, point magisterially to the outfield wall, and slam three home runs out of a baseball park no one’s ever knocked a ball out of before.
Cyrano never existed. Babe Ruth might never have done half the things the legends say he did. So what. Their stories are there to remind us of what we can be; even better, of what, at blessed moments in our own lives, each of us actually is. As Farley Mowat said, never let the facts get in the way of the truth. I don’t know if there was a Brother Mathias at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, with an Irish accent and a big stick and a love for baseball. I don’t know if Babe Ruth stuffed dinner rolls from swank parties in his pockets because abandonment and poverty had taught him to grab stuff when you could. I don’t know if he answered someone who mentioned that he made more money than the President with “Why not? I had a better year than he did.” And I don’t know if the dying boy he gave that baseball to, miraculously recovered and now a healthy young man, met Ruth after his last great game at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh in 1935, gave that ball back to him and said, “You’re the best there’s ever been.” For any of these things in Ruth’s life that may never have happened, it would be hard to find something equally extraordinary that did. That’s the essence of a heroic life.
How do I like The Babe? Let me count the ways. There’s John Goodman’s splendid performance in the lead role. That was the same year as Schindler’s List, The Piano, and The Remains of the Day, and only a handful of critics gave Goodman the credit he deserved. Too much mythology and not enough tragedy, I guess. John Goodman is always superb in larger-than-life roles–from the neighbor from hell in the Coen brother’s Barton Fink, to Huey Long in Kingfish, to lead Neanderthal in The Flinstones. Keep up the great work, big guy.
The rest of the cast aren’t slouches either. There’s not a false note here. The quality of the overall casting reminded me a lot of John Sayle’s other fine baseball film, Eight Men Out. Goodman’s is the dominant role, but the film would not be half as good without the dozen or more smaller roles—Kelly McGillis as Ruth’s second wife, Claire; Trini Alvarado as Ruth’s first wife, Helen; Bruce Boxleitner as Jumpin’ Joe Dugan, Michael McGrady as Lou Gehrig, James Cromwell as Brother Mathias—that he plays against.
Nor does The Babe suffer from having Haskell Wexler, multiple Academy Award-winning cinematographer, behind the camera. From the aerial ballet over Yankee Stadium, “the house that Ruth built,” that opens the film, through the early shots of St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, looking like a P.O.W. compound in the morning mists, we know the visuals will complement the mythology. Every time the ball sails over an outfield wall it’s like watching the sun rise over Mount Crawford. And because The Babe’s a period piece (1902-1935) a good deal of credit must go to James Dowell Vance, the production designer. The production designer is the glutton for punishment who has to do a university degree’s worth of research to get thousands of tiny details just right. One inauthentic lamppost and he or she will never hear the end of it. Thirty-eight years later, and they’re still talking about the guy wearing the wristwatch in Spartacus.
Last but not least, there’s Elmer Bernstein’s excellent musical score. Here’s another veteran who adds class to any production he’s involved in. The quality of the soundtrack sinks in even more on second viewing, when plot and foreground action cease to dominate the viewer’s attention.
Science fiction grandmaster Robert Silverberg knows a thing or two about mythic heroes. He once wrote a series of stories, set in an Afterlife of his own invention, in which the legendary Sumerian King Gilgamesh rubs shoulders with Helen of Troy, Robert Howard, Ernest Hemingway, H.P. Lovecraft, Herod, and Picasso. I know you’re not reading this, Mr. Silverberg, but how about adding one more tale: Gilgamesh and Cyrano and the Babe joining forces to rescue Pip and Joan of Arc from Torquemada’s dungeons. Big heroes. Big hearts. You gotta love’em.
[Also recommended this month: Keiko Matsui: Light Above the Trees (1998), performances by a very fine Japanese jazz keyboard player, and the thriller What Happened Was…. (1994). The VHS cover of this movie makes one think of a light-hearted sex comedy, but in reality it’s the ultimate first date from hell in which two people psychologically deconstruct one another during over supper. Although there are no physical wounds, all that’s left at the end are metaphorical smoking ruins. At the movie’s turning point, actor Karen Sillas reads her date a children’s story that would give Stephen King nightmares.]
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I’m going to say that this section is a work in progress. I don’t know any more about Babe Ruth than I did when I wrote my original review. I don’t know if The Babe is biography, mythology, or the happiest combination of both. I’ve just put Jane Leavy’s biography on my iPad, but I’m not going to be finishing it any time soon. I chose Leavy’s out of the three biographies listed above simply because it’s the most recent (2018). It would be fascinating to compare & contrast the picture of the man as drawn in three biographies, the autobiography, and in the movie. Unfortunately, I’m not near enough of a baseball fan to take that project on. I will update this section when I’ve finished The Big Fella and Ruth’s autobiography.
What I’m happy to reaffirm is that The Babe is a marvelous film, one of the best baseball movies I know. There’s a loving attention to period detail (photographed by one of the world’s finest cinematographers, Haskell Wexler), perfect casting, and a storyline that captures its Rabelasian protagonist in all his very very ragged glory. One can argue over details, but there’s no question that George Herman Ruth Jr. was larger-than-life and deserves a film that neither sugar-coats nor demeans him. John Goodman gives a definitive performance here, in the same way George C. Scott did in Patton and Ian McKellen did in Richard III. Goodman is utterly compelling as a baseball god, a fish out of water, a generous heart, an abandoned child, a maddening husband, and a lost soul. It’s fitting that at the end of the film he gets to walk off into the darkness in all his glory, rather than waste away to the cancer that claimed him at 53. With all of the bigger moments in The Babe, one of my favorites is still the one where Ruth and his future first wife Helen are courting and the worst insult she can think to call him when he gets fresh is “You big anchovy!”
John Goodman continues to be one of the hardest working actors in showbiz, with 160 acting credits on Imdb the last time I checked. I’ve lost touch with his more recent work, but he was unforgettable in Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Bruce Boxleitner is another hard-working leading man, with 129 acting credits and the lead in one of my favorite S-F television series, Babylon 5. James Cromwell—whose small but pungent role in The Babe as a standing-tall Irish priest made me wish they’d given his character a whole movie to himself—is trying to show up everyone else with 189 credits and five films in production in 2020. Kelly McGillis has worked on a more modest number of film projects over the years. Trini Alvarado’s last feature film was in 2010.
The Babe was one of director Arthur Hiller’s last films, in a career that lasted from 1954 to 2006. Hiller was given his first & only Oscar in 2002, when he was honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy. Another of my favorite Hiller films was The Hospital (1971), starring George C. Scott and Diana Rigg. For all you fellow Canadians reading this, Arthur Hiller was born in Edmonton, Alberta, and graduated from Edmonton’s Victoria School of Performing and Visual Arts—a public high school established in 1911. Hiller was married to his wife Gwen for 68 years. He died at age 92, two months after Gwen.