According to Arthur Hiller, the director of this movie bio of the home-run king Babe Ruth, “Everything in this picture happened.” It’s hard to buy that claim, even if it’s true. Hiller and writer John Fusco pile on so many high-gloss TV-movie contrivances that you reject it all. What could have been the Raging Bull of baseball movies becomes the nibble of a mouse on the legend of a giant.
That’s too bad, because John Goodman (Barton Fink, TV’s Roseanne) is ideally cast as George Herman Ruth, the incorrigible fat kid who rose to glory as the Babe. Goodman learned to hit and pitch left-handed, imitate Ruth’s speech and duplicate his distinctive trot. Goodman even has a promising fix on the character, whom he sees as a denied child in the body of a man who is denied nothing – an interpretation that might have paid off in a more adventurous movie. There are still flashes of greatness in Goodman’s performance when he’s permitted to play the man instead of the myth. But those moments are rare. Hiller (Love Story), Fusco (Crossroads) and composer Elmer Bernstein (The Field) are determined, as ever, to hit every emotion out of the park.
One park, Yankee Stadium, provides the film with its striking opening image. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler (Bound for Glory) executes a doozy of a helicopter shot around the House That Ruth Built, eloquently evoking our feelings for baseball and the Babe. It’s the only shot that lets us think for ourselves.
The steadfastly chronological movie begins in 1902, when the seven-year-old Ruth is dumped by his father at Baltimore’s St. Mary’s Industrial School. Then Brother Mathias (James Cromwell) discovers his chubby charge can slam a ball. Hiller leaves no cliché untried, including a scene in which me deserted wild child bats one through a church window.
Cut to the grown Ruth, slugging for the Red Sox and the Yankees, boozing after hours, boffing showgirls, hobnobbing with Al Capone, doing fart jokes at fancy parties and proving that his appetites extend further than wolfing down steak-and-egg breakfasts with beer.
The movie shies away from debunking the Babe too badly. It falls somewhere between the whitewashed 1948 Babe Ruth Story, with William Bendix, and the abysmal recent TV trashing of Ruth, starring Stephen Lang. Hiller and Fusco play it safe by setting up a last-minute redemption to send the audience out on a high. The idea that one man throughout his life might be capable of virtue and vice, anger and kindness, good sportsmanship and bad – as in Raging Bull – seems foreign to this film’s resolutely hack sensibilities.
Fusco’s script has a knack for pulling punches. The Babe mistreats his young waitress bride, Helen Woodford (Trini Alvarado). But forgive him: He redeems his neglect by giving her a farm, a horse and even an adopted baby. The Babe cheats on Helen with former Ziegfeld girl Claire Hodgson (Kelly McGillis), who becomes his second wife and comforts him when he goes on a rampage. But forgive him: The Yankees never made him manager. Alvarado and McGillis look understandably abashed playing these no-win roles.
When it comes to the Babe on the diamond, the movie proudly pimps for the legend; we see the called shot of the 1932 World Series, the home runs the Babe hit for sick little Johnny Sylvester and the adult Johnny returning to cheer his idol at the bitter end. The Babe’s last walk to the showers is shot with enough cornball flourishes to make Field of Dreams look like a model of restraint. “You have two speeds – fast and stop,” Claire tells the Babe. So does the movie, which never bothers to show us what the Babe was like between triumph and defeat and so never makes us give a damn. Though Goodman easily earns his MVP, The Babe is strictly bush league.