• U.S.

Cinema: All Appetite

3 minute read
Richard Schickel




THE BOTTOM LINE: An honestly unheroic view of a hero, with a grand-slam performance by John Goodman

ON HIS LAST DAY IN BASEBALL, after his glory had faded and the princely New York Yankees had fobbed him off on the lowly Boston Braves, Babe Ruth pulled himself together and hit three home runs against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Arthur Hiller and John Fusco must have been tempted to turn that into a wildly exultant moment, like the conclusion of The Natural — music soaring, fireworks exploding, the crowd in hysterics. But no, it’s just an away game on a flatly lighted September afternoon at the end of a nowhere season. The people who made The Babe seem to understand F. Scott Fitzgerald’s remark about there being no second acts in American life. They have the honesty to let their movie peter out just as Ruth’s career did — in anger, hurt and stupefaction.

Their conclusion is entirely in keeping with the remarkable — and in its way quite daring — temper of the rest of their movie, which is both antiheroic and antiepic, and thus a departure from the generally undistinguished tradition of the sports biopic. It may be a departure from the expectations of modern moviegoers too. For one thing, they prefer more . relevant subjects than old-time baseball heroes, however legendary. For another, they like their true stories to be slathered over with false sentiment — the human spirit triumphant in unlikely but inspirational ways.

It may just be, however, that they will turn out to see the always likable John Goodman and come away enthralled by a marvelous acting achievement. Goodman is every inch the arrested adolescent — all appetite and no regrets until they are too late — that the Babe was. To maintain sympathy for a figure who never “develops” in the customary dramatic sense (let alone morally or intellectually), he nicely balances force-of-nature rambunctiousness and a shadowed befuddlement about the mysterious requirements of civilized behavior. His Ruth is vigorous and vulgar but somehow not boorish, poignantly sweet-spirited at times but never self-sentimentalizing.

Ruth’s parents abandoned him to a Roman Catholic industrial school specializing in “incorrigible” boys when he was an oversize, undereducated kid, and he went right from it into baseball. In other words, he was adapted only to heavily masculine, institutional worlds, and then solely as show-off, big spender and clown. His first marriage, to a homebody (played here with spunky charm by Trini Alvarado), was a disaster; the only family that counted with him was the team and the raffish demimonde it inhabited off the field. Ruth fared better the second time around. Claire Ruth (Kelly McGillis, in a brave, hard-nosed performance), a sometime show girl, had nothing against partying, but she was tough, shrewd and — probably the only kind of woman Ruth could understand — roughly affectionate, a little bit like one of the guys. In any case, you can’t characterize their relationship as either tender or traditionally romantic.

But it does ring true. Just as, aside from some poorly faked newsreel sequences and some not completely persuasive baseball playing, The Babe rings true — that is, sad and a little tawdry.

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