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December 30, 2003 [LINK]

Movie review: 61*

One of the first movies I've seen with our new DVD player (¡Gracias, Toño!) was 61*, about the home run race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961. (That was a year or two before my childhood memories of baseball begin.) Directed by lifelong Yankees fan Billy Crystal, it is a moving, historically accurate portrayal of that grueling contest between those two Bronx sluggers, and with the ghost of Babe Ruth. The two lead actors were both well cast in terms of personality and physical resemblance, and both learned the mannerisms and swinging styles of the real-life characters. Barry Pepper (whom you may recall as the psalm-reciting sniper in Saving Private Ryan) was a dead ringer for Maris. He grew up in Canada, which was fitting since Maris's home state was North Dakota. Thomas Jane played Mantle and, to the director's dismay, lied about his baseball experience (zero) during the audition. (He apparently learned real fast.) The part of Yankee Stadium was played by Tiger Stadium (indeed, that's exactly what the film credits say!), which had just been abandoned a year before the movie was filmed in 2000. To the producers' credit, they put a huge effort into recreating the "old" Yankee Stadium in Detroit, going to the trouble of painting all the seats dull green. (For some reason, they painted the upper deck bleachers, even though they weren't part of the movie. What a waste!) The black wall in center field, with its gradually increasing height and the 457, 461, and 407 distance markers, together with the flag pole and three monuments were quite effective as a background for scenes shot from ground level. Unfortunately, some of the elevated panorama shots incorporating those props were obviously phony, since the outfield walls in Tiger Stadium are staight and perpendicular to each other, in stark contrast to the broad sweep of "Death Valley" in the old Yankee Stadium. However, a few scenes showing the outfield were exquisitely done with fancy digital tricks, combining real infield action with a gorgeous rendition of the original bleachers, scoreboard, and neighborhood backdrop. Likewise, they somehow managed to combine real live fans chasing after balls in the right field upper deck with the original facade adorning the edge of the old roof during a couple home run scenes. I was simply spellbound by that.

Personally, I wish they had tried to retrofit Yankee Stadium to make the movie even more authentic, but the need to install fake structural columns, repaint seats, and recreate the original outfield fence (short in the corners, tall in center field) probably could not have been done without seriously disrupting the Yankees' schedule that season. It was a little awkward that most of the away games in the movie were in Detroit, exposing the pretense that Tiger Stadium was Yankee Stadium. I must say, however, I was amazed at the authenticity of what purported to be Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, where Maris hit his 60th homer in late September. It was not until I watched the "Making Of..." featurette on the DVD that I learned that those scenes were filmed in Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, and this was the first time a baseball diamond had been carved out there since -- 1961, in fact. They hung big black screens beyond center field and beyond the purported right field grandstand to create the illusion that the stadium ended there, and since it was a night game, the trick worked just fine. It's a shame, though, that they didn't use the real Memorial Stadium, which was demolished the very next year (2001). There was also a brief scene of what was supposed to be the "Green Monster" at Fenway Park (just a big screen with "315" painted on it), and what I later learned was supposed to be the left field fence at Griffith Stadium in Washington (the same screen with "350" painted on it).

At first I thought the movie should have dealt with the harsh aftermath of Maris's triumph: the public scorn, injuries, and career disappointments. Maris was one of those reserved small-town kids from the northern plains (!) who was always misunderstood by the masses. He was traded to the Cardinals and retired after 1968 mainly due to health problems, and his lifetime home run total was only 275. A nerve-wracked chain-smoker, he died of cancer in 1985, ten years before Mantle died. But the movie was not intended to be a biography per se, but rather a focus on that one shining moment of glory those two heroes shared. One of the nicest aspects of the movie was that Billy Crystal consulted with the families of Mantle and Maris, to enhance authenticity and to avoid offending anyone. Mantle, of course, was a tragically flawed hero, and his widow Merlyn appreciated the tactful way the sorrier aspects of his life were portrayed. She, her sons, as well as Maris's widow and family, were interviewed for the "Making Of..." featurette. Mantle's grandson, age four, had a bit part at the very end of the movie. Crystal had gotten Mantle's autograph during his first visit to Yankee Stadium in 1956, and got to meet his hero in person as a guest on The Dinah Shore Show in 1977. They later became friends. I learned a lot about the personal lives of the Yankees, such as Bob Cerv, a forgotten player who had a central role in the movie. As late as the 1960s teams still rode on buses between some of their road series. But the movie's central theme was one which is especially apt in this idolatrous, image-obsessed world of today: the human cost of stardom and the dehumanizing effects of media feeding frenzies. Just think of Michael Jackson. No, on second thought, let's not. Let's just think about Mickey and Roger and The Babe, contentedly swatting balls out of the park up there in that eternal Field of Dreams.

NOTE: This is a "post facto" blog post, taken from the pre-November 2004 archives.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 19 Oct 2011, 2: 43 PM

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