Thanks to Arthur Hiller's smoothly proficient direction, Haskell Wexler's evocative cinematography and an ingratiating performance by John Goodman, THE BABE goes down easy, like hot dogs and a beer at the ballpark on a summer afternoon. All these elements successfully obscure a
lackluster script that plays fast and loose with the facts of Babe Ruth's life, transforming Ruth from the brilliant but emotionally troubled ball player that he was to a bacchanalian, redneck god.
The episodic scenario follows the life of George Herman Ruth (Goodman) for a period of thirty-three years, beginning with young Ruth's abandonment by his parents. His father deposits him at a Catholic school in Baltimore, where Ruth first picks up a bat and begins banging long balls over the
school wall. He's eventually signed by the Boston Red Sox, where Ruth amazes teammates with his homerun abilities. He's then sold to the New York Yankees, where he becomes the heart of the Yankees team. Ruth brings his new wife Helen (Trini Alvarado) with him to the big city, but Helen prefers the
quiet life on a farm to the New York high life, walking out on Ruth after one one-night stand too many. Ruth then marries Claire Hodgeson (Kelly McGillis), a worldly Ziegfeld showgirl who proves an equal companion for the fun-loving homerun king. But by this point, Ruth's home-run prowess has
begun to fail him and he holds the hope that he will be hired as team manager by unsavory Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert (Bernard Kates). When this hope is dashed, Ruth quits and is hired by the Braves as a featured attraction, finding himself the laughingstock of fans and fellow players
alike. Ruth musters up the remains of his talent and dignity and knocks three balls out of the ballpark in one game. As the fans respond with a frenzied ovation, Ruth drops his baseball hat in the dirt and walks out of the ballpark forever.
Even those unfamiliar with baseball lore have read or heard about Babe Ruth's famous called shot in the 1932 World Series, when he cryptically pointed over the scoreboard, then blasted the ball out of the ballpark--to the exact spot he'd indicated beforehand. When this moment is dramatized in THE
BABE, one ballplayer turns to Lou Gehrig and exclaims, "He ain't human. He's an animal." "No. He's a God," Gehrig replies. In contrast, as Samuel Fuller recounts in Cult Baseball Players, "He was the King of Swat who could point to a spot in the bleachers and slam a homer to that exact spot. It
wasn't ego. It was the highest form of his art: professionalism.... You could tell how much he loved the game. But more important, how much the game loved him." Fuller expresses awe for Ruth's talent, but it is grounded in a knowledge of Ruth's technical brilliance and his love of the game.
Screenwriter John Fusco, however, portrays Ruth as a natural who can effortlessly pick up a bat for the first time and slam a ball over a fence. In THE BABE, Ruth is an alien being, a superman of baseball, a homerun powerhouse who is never shown to have any sense of the game but, who, through the
money showered upon him by baseball, becomes a cornpone Bacchus, leaving mere mortals to chuckle and smirk in his wake. Unfortunately, Fusco's vulgar yet endearing Ruth is so much larger than life, so mythologized out of time or place, that his Babe is divorced from empathy or identity.
The Babe of THE BABE is a walking legend whose flaws are made lovable and whose only mortal desire is that good old fashioned bromide "the need for love." But his legendary status is never explored. THE BABE never shows the importance of baseball in turn-of-the-century American society, nor does
the film explain Ruth's importance to the game. His celebrity, except for a few recreated newsreels, is never indicated. The Babe just is. Fans love him and cheer him. But why? How did he get that way? From "The House That Ruth Built" to Baby Ruth candy, Fusco never bothers to examine the meaning
of celebrity and Ruth's fame. With Fusco's comic-book script to overcome, John Goodman overrides it with a towering performance which doesn't stint on Ruth's churlishness, bitterness and rage, thereby giving his characterization a dimension the screenplay doesn't possess. Hiller and Wexler
compliment Goodman's performance by visually conveying the underside of the baseball milieu, depicting the behind-the-scenes machinations with the dark-toned glow of the Inferno. These three demonstrate that sometimes the sheer force of artistry and professionalism can overcome mediocrity and
indifference--a greater tribute to Babe Ruth than Fusco's formulaic, indifferent screenplay. (Adult situations.)
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