Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

The Babe (1992)

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.

Movie Information

Genre: Biography | Baseball | Drama
Director: Arthur Hiller
Actors: John Goodman, Kelly McGillis, James Cromwell, Trini Alvarado, Bruce Boxleitner
Year: 1992
Original Review: October 1998


Fatal Women and the Fate of Women

An essay by Imogen Sara Smith on the Criterion website, exploring the femme fatale theme through several classic films.  Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City.  Some of the films touched on include The Killers, Out of the Past, Ace in the Hole, and The Breaking Point.


A specifically Canadian streaming service.  The short version of what VUCAVU is about: “With VUCAVU you and watch and research 45 years of Canadian film and video art.”  The long version, from the website:

VUCAVU is operated by the non-profit Coalition of Canadian Independent Media Art Distributors (CCIMAD).

“CCIMAD was established in 2013 by a group of independent Canadian film and video distributors to improve international accessibility to their catalogues through a shared digital distribution strategy. To this end, they established VUCAVU, which works with independent film and video distributors from across Canada to improve access to Canadian works and to provide greater national and international awareness of Canadian filmmakers and video artists. 

VUCAVU offers the following services through its digital distribution platform:

  • Free programming series for the public, such as our #EyesOnVu and #GEOGRAPHIES2018 series
  • Public access via our account system to preview and rent individual works for online viewing
  • Access for curators, programmers and other professionals in the field to research artists and view works
  • Online marketing support to promote Canadian filmmakers and video artists 
  • Online venue access for professional presenters”

The site occasionally offers films for free streaming; for other films it’s a pay-as-you-rent fee.  I wasn’t able to find the actual fees charged.

In a Heartbeat

A prize-winning four-minute animated short film by Beth David & Esteban Bravo, telling the story of a closeted middle-school-aged boy who has a crush on his classmate, Jonathan.  Sherwin panics when his heart literally pops out of his chest and flies off in pursuit of the object of its affections.  In a Heartbeat  was its creators’ final thesis project at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida.

Films Worth Talking About:

The Divine Comedy (A Divina Comedia), Bram Stoker’s Dracula, White Badge, Basic Instinct, Wayne’s World, The Player, Indochine, Dien Bien Phu, Batman Returns, Universal Soldier, Death Becomes Her, Husbands and Wives, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, The Last of the Mohicans, A River Runs Through It, Strictly Ballroom, Savage Nights (les Nuits fauves), Reservoir Dogs, la Crise, The Bodyguard, Malcolm X. Chaplin, City of Joy, Sister Act, Salaam Bombay, The Public Eye, Man Bites Dog, Patriot Games, Scent of a Woman, Bob Roberts, Un Coeur en hiver, A Few Good Men, The Story of Qiu Ju, A League of Their Own, Forever Young, Leaving Normal, Into the West, Zebrahead, Mr. Baseball

The Bigger Picture



Books:  Babe Ruth, Playing the Game: My Early Years in Baseball; Jane Leavy, The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created; Leigh Montville, The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth; Robert W. Creamer, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life

The Word on the Street

[NOTE:  Wow, I don’t have a lot of people in my corner on this one.  There is no shortage of vocal critics of The Babe.  I’m a movie fan rather than a baseball fan, so I can’t say that those who objected to the omissions and inaccuracies in the film are wrong.  I don’t think they are.  To acknowledge the many Babe Ruth fans who felt slighted by the film, I’ve included mainly-negative quotes below.  I suspect I may have thought as highly as I did of the film, and of Goodman’s performance, because I was as ignorant of Babe Ruth’s actual biography as most fans of Shakespeare’s Richard III are of the historical record of that much-maligned king.  But being unfaithful to history doesn’t mean you haven’t told a story worth the telling.  And unlike Shakespeare’s hatchet job on Richard, Hiller and Goodman’s Babe remains the heroic figure he’s always been.  But I may have to walk back the comment I made below about this being the definitive Babe Ruth in film—it’s possible that another actor will one day more accurately capture the full range of Ruth’s athleticism along with his personal dramas.]

Possibly the worst baseball bio-pic ever made. No relation to Ruth’s actual career, you’d never guess he started out as a pitching star before graduating to the Sultan of Swat. Every home run Goodman hits goes out of the stadium. Not into the stands, but out of the stadium. When he’s not hitting gigantic home runs, he flails around at the plate like a drunken klutz. It’s complete nonsense. Ruth was a terrific athlete most of his career with a lifetime .342 batting average, only growing overweight toward the end. Goodman flaunts his bulk with no hint of athleticism and doesn’t seem to play any actual baseball, he only shows up to hit the homers. He must be really good, too, because he barely has any teammates worth mentioning. Ruth dominated the Roaring 20s as a larger than life figure. Goodman’s Ruth is merely large. If you wish to see Babe Ruth portrayed as a gross clownish moron, this is your chance.   [thirdsqurl]

The best part of “The Babe” with John Goodman is his excellent imitation of Babe Ruth’s mannerisms and speaking. Goodman particularly handled Ruth’s verbal style. This film suffered quite a bit from its emphasis and interpretation of Babe Ruth’s character and life. I know people that knew Babe Ruth, and while they said he went out and drank regularly, they said he was rarely out of control they way he was depicted by Goodman in the film. Nor was he sloppy and horribly overweight like John Goodman was in the film. The Babe didn’t get particularly heavy till his last 2-3 years in the major leagues, and even after retiring continued to play in exhibitions around North America. Some others asked if he really hit 3 homeruns in his last game with the Boston Braves. That is also not correct and was incorrectly depicted in the film (Ruth dropping his hat in front of the Braves owner). He did hit three homeruns in one game in his final season in old Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, but it was not his final game. This film focused almost solely on Ruth’s lack of personal discipline and immaturity, which was not a problem for him after 1925 when he was fined and admonished by his Manager Miller Huggins. From 1926 to 1932, Ruth had perhaps the finest run of offensive seasons of any Major League hitter – this was not even mentioned in the film, and his banner years of 1923 (when he hit .393) and 1927 (60 homeruns) were barely mentioned; I think the film spent less than one minute on his 60 homerun year. All in all, this film was very disappointing, particularly to Yankee fans and to those who were acquainted with Babe Ruth. The TV movie about Babe Ruth (which included Pete Rose as Ty Cobb) was a much better film.   [ahlstrom61]

An excess of sentiment also hurts the film. There are moments that look like cliched scenes from countless other sporting movies – especially the sick kiddie in hospital extracting a promise of 2 home runs from Ruth, who dutifully delivers, and the same kiddie, now fully recovered and grown up, showing up at Ruth’s swansong. It’s emotionally manipulative film-making and I regret to say it works, but it also pulls this film back from greatness.   [mar9]

Goodman is miscast as Ruth. For one thing, Ruth wasn’t really fat; more like broad and stocky. He was quite athletic and able to play the field – remember, there was no such thing as a designated hitter back then. In other words, offense isn’t the only part of baseball; Ruth played defense too. Does this film ever show Ruth in the outfield? Can’t say for sure because I didn’t really watch the entire thing, but it’s hard to imagine paunchy John Goodman fielding fly balls. The other thing is Goodman is simply unlikeable as Ruth. As we can see from film footage (including Pride of the Yankees), the real Ruth was energetic and charismatic. Goodman’s Ruth is simply loud, crass and grating.   [paolo20]

“The Babe” is the “Gone With the Wind” of Babe Ruth movies, which isn’t saying much. But is a good retelling of his life and Goodman enacts the part superbly. It ends at the right moment, with Ruth hitting his last three home runs in one game in Pittsburgh to stick it to those who were jeering him. But Goodman is twice the size Ruth ever was. The Babe, as old photos show, was about 200 pounds when his career started and worked his way up to perhaps 250 pounds when he quit. Goodman must have been a minimum of 350 pounds when he filmed this movie and sent the wrong message: that you can be a blimp and still be the greatest player in the sport, an image that baseball people really resent….Of course the best performance as Babe Ruth was by the guy who played him in “Pride of the Yankees”.   [schappe1]

John Goodman is a fine actor but he was twice the weight of Ruth during his prime. The Babe during the first 10 years of his career was 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed ONLY 215 pounds. He was big but still lean compared to what Goodman portrayed. Ruth never hit and infield pop fly that went for a home run. Ruth was a very good pitcher for the Red Sox from 1915-1919 he won 89 games pitching and 3 world series games. Although he was controversial in his manner, he still loved kids. After all, he was one himself. Ruth was a great athlete but not manager / leader material. In the movie, they made Ruth look very awkward when swinging the bat. He was a natural athlete yet they made him look funny. Maybe Goodman never played baseball or he was right handed. He looked uncoordinated when swinging the bat. Ruth was very well coordinated and smooth when hitting. I will leave it here. Thank you.   [jimjames1]

Back in 1948 when Babe Ruth was dying of cancer a small independent film The Babe Ruth Story came out with William Bendix as the star. It was based on Babe’s own G rated memoirs with the same title ghost written by Bob Considine and ghost ghost written by Fred Lieb. It was how I’m sure Ruth wanted to be remembered. But even people knew then the facts said otherwise.

John Goodman in the title role of The Babe is a lot closer to the swaggering hedonist who was just a kid at heart who never out grew his childhood….Some good acting featured in The Babe. But it contains way too many inaccuracies for a higher rating.   [bkogangbing]

As a life long Yakees fan, I have read a lot about, and admired Babe Ruth, since I was very young, but I never saw the film based on his life. I heard nothing but bad things about it, and as it turns out, my fellow critics were correct. The Babe is supposed to be a bio-pic from the birth of Babe Ruth, until his untimely death, however the focus of the film is a problem. Film makers portrayed Ruth as an ignorant man-child, a drunk, and an emotionally abuse husband and father. At times, he may have been all of those things, but they were merely a small part of his overall story. Little, if anything is mentioned about Ruth’s infections personality, his generosity, or his activities off the field, besides his drinking. Ruth is portrayed as a man who gained fame, simply because of his ability to hit home runs, in a way that insinuates, he was lucky and didn’t deserve all the fame and attention he received. The portrayal of the Babe isn’t the only problem with this film, as the timeline and historic accuracy aren’t even close to the truth. They show Ruth more with the Red Sox than the Yankees, insist that the majority of his fame came in Boston, and finally, they show his big seasons much later than they actually occurred, and even go as far as to insulate, that they were in response to the media saying he was done. John Goodman stars as the Babe and he does a spot on portrayal, from the voice to the mannerisms, he was very very good, but it’s overlooked by a film that stretched the truth to the point of being insulting to Ruth fans. The only thing I really enjoyed about this film, besides Goodman’s performance, was a series of short films Ruth did with some orphans in the 1920’s, that were included on the DVD. These shorts were much better and painted a much more accurate picture of the man, than this film ever did. The Babe is worth seeing for the performance of John Goodman, but be warned, it’s a bio-pic that is more fiction than truth.   [tss5078]

“The Babe” was a wonderful film. If critics want to nitpick it by commenting on the “authenticity” of the film like saying that all the games were played on the same field just re-organized, and making negative comments about the film portraying the “dark side” of Babe Ruth, etc, I guess that’s fine, but give the film what it deserves. First of all, John Goodman did an amazing job.

The truth is that Babe was a very confused person. He is probably baseball’s greatest legend, but he did have some serious problems with women and alcohol. His childhood was a mess in many ways. He didn’t know how to be married or to be a Father to a child. Everyone has issues. Accept the documented facts that he was not an angel. He had a huge heart and loved to do things for people. He also had his own demons to overcome and most of us do. I know that the film added a few things that may or may not have happened and I know that many things were left out, but unfortunately this is the way it has to be in ALL films like this. There is NO way to capture every single thing that the Babe ever did in less than 2 hours. They just have to do the best job they can with the time they have to work with.

This film was genuinely uplifting and to all who only saw the negative side of this film, shame on you. John Goodman is a huge Babe fan and even he felt that this was an accurate portrayal of the Bambino. The film is inspiring, positive for the most part and it’s made me feel good every time I’ve seen it.   [chrislovessherry]