`61*' is Yankee doodle dandy

Review: Billy Crystal's loving look at the Maris-Mantle homer chase of '61 touches all the bases.

April 28, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If you are a baby boomer guy who grew up reading Sport magazine, who fell asleep listening to voices from the faraway kingdom of major-league baseball on your bedside radio, "61*" is going to be the died-and-gone-to-heaven viewing delight of the TV year for you tonight.

But even if you're not from that particular demographic, don't miss this HBO movie from Billy Crystal. It's one terrific film.

"61*" tells the story of New York Yankees teammates Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle as they chased Babe Ruth's home run record during the 1961 season. Maris was the one who did it by hitting 61 homers.

The asterisk in the title is loaded with politics, ideology and legend. It was attached to Maris' home run total in the record books to show that he broke the record in a season of 162 games, vs. the 154 that Babe Ruth played the year he hit 60.

The asterisk was placed there by baseball commissioner Ford Frick, who had a vested interest in trying to diminish Maris' accomplishment, as the film explains. Frick (Donald Moffat) is not a nice man in the history of 1961, as told by screenwriter Hank Stienberg and producer-director Crystal.

But what's a hero quest without some evil forces lurking in the shadows? And make no mistake about it, "61*" is a mythic telling of the season when Maris and Mantle took on the ghost of Babe Ruth; devotees of myth maven Joseph Campbell will have a field day analyzing the innards of this narrative, right down to the Greek chorus of cynical sportswriters commenting on and heckling the heroes.

But that's how I watched "61*" the first time through. I watched it the way I read Sport magazine when I was 11 years old, feeling like I was backstage with the boys of summer -- inside the locker room, standing around the batting cage with them, listening to their jokes and sexual boasts, privy to some of their fears and witness to the pain they overcame to perform so magnificently on the field.

On that level, Crystal made brilliant casting choices in Barry Pepper ("Saving Private Ryan") as Maris and Thomas Jane ("Deep Blue Sea") as Mantle. The visual resemblance between Pepper and Maris is stunning, while Jane radiates the golden-boy glow of the Mantle we saw whether in center field at Yankee Stadium or at a ringside table at Toots Shor's club.

Beyond the casting, Crystal also got splendidly intense performances from both of these relatively inexperienced actors. To make Mantle work as a character, Jane had to not only exude the electricity of superstar charisma circa 1960, he also had to make us believe in Mantle as a wounded hero - one with private pain, inner demons and at least one fatal flaw. It's a tall order, but Jane delivers.

Maris is an even tougher role to play, because we have to wind up liking him even more than Mantle for the film to work. One of the central story lines is how everyone was rooting for Mantle and against Maris, who was painted as moody, taciturn and generally unworthy of walking in the Babe's shoes. Crystal and Pepper have to rewrite history on Maris, and they do - convincing us of a heartland innocent savaged by the big media, big business, big city world of New York but winning the epic battle and returning with a sense of decency, if not innocence, intact.

The script cheats in Maris' favor, showing him taking time at the height of the homer chase to answer children's letters despite the fact that his hair is falling out, his body is one big rash and his family is receiving death threats.

While this might sound minor, perhaps, the smartest choice Crystal made was in hiring former star Reggie Smith to train Pepper and Jane to perform credibly on the field. I was astonished to find out that Pepper was a natural right-handed hitter who had to learn to bat left-handed for the film. His left-handed swing is not only a near-perfect model of Maris', it is almost Ted Williams-textbook perfect period.

I could write about this movie for a month, I love it that much. But one last important way to watch it: as a study of masculinity and male friendship. In Mantle and Maris, you have examples of two of the role models and narratives that shaped a generation of American men.

After watching "61*" the first time, I thought it was a great old-fashioned sports movie. Now, after my third time through, I'm thinking it is one of the smartest and most important made-for-TV movies of the year.

`61*'

When: 9 tonight

Where: HBO

In brief: Billy Crystal does Maris and Mantle as mythology, and it sings.

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