Fear Strikes Out (1957)

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I can’t think of another actor more apt to play this version of Jimmy Piersall’s story than Anthony Perkins. History reflects a more multifaceted even complicated individual.  By other accounts Piersall could be a real cut-up; here the story is very singular-minded in how it portrays its protagonist. It’s played for the drama which it no doubt was but you get to wondering if Piersall had written the script it might have turned out to be more of a comedy.

Robert Mulligan’s film suggests there are arguably the two most important people in Piersall’s life. The first is his father (Karl Malden) who from an early age instills his boy with the onus of making it to the big leagues. That’s the goal and his father watches proudly as his boy becomes a high school star while never letting his son rest on his laurels or let down his guard. He must be constantly vigilant, continually thinking ahead, all in an effort to land a contract with the Red Sox.

He starts out in the minor leagues and there he meets a pretty nurse, the relatively unknown Norma Moore playing the ingenue and his first wife Mary. She makes him deliriously happy and vice versa as they begin to build a life together.

But the conflict at the core of the biopic is Piersall’s own bouts with undiagnosed nervous breakdowns which would be now categorized as bipolar disorder. Put in the context of the era where mental disorders were more often than not left stigmatized and misunderstood, this is actually a fairly fearless film for taking on such source material. But, of course, much of the credit must begin with Piersall himself for being willing to acknowledge it all, to begin with.

Particularly foundational to this film is Jimmy’s ongoing relationship with his father. The scenario happens so often it seems like a cinematic trope but sadly it’s also very close to the truth. It occurs between a parent and their child when they get so vicariously invested and demanding and controlling of their child’s life that they heap so much pressure on them that it becomes nearly an unbearable weight to succeed. Compounded by the fact that these parents are usually trying to realize their own failed talent and never seem to find it within themselves to give their children a pat on the back or a word of encouragement.

You get the sense it was a vicious cycle. Their father never did it for them and so they wind up having a hard time showing any amount of their affection to their kids. It’s something, in this case, that must be earned on the ballfield or in Brian Wilson’s case earned with how many hit records he churned out and composed. Maybe it’s why a parent a la LaVar Ball seems to cherish the spotlight, commanding the media’s attention even more than his boy. Whatever the outcome is, it never seems enough.

It’s purely a testament to Karl Malden’s quality as an actor that he makes Piersall’s father into a nuanced man who is not a holy terror. In fact, even when he doesn’t say it outright we know full well he is proud of his son and he even loves him. He’s not a bad man by any means. That doesn’t make measuring up to his standards any less daunting or his behavior any less damaging.

Though tender and tortured in the everyday moments, Perkins performance on the ballfield feels artificial but you can hardly blame him for lacking the posture or the swagger of a ballplayer where hitting and fielding come as second nature. He looks too much like he’s playing at it — he’s too wooden — not like he’s actually played it his entire life.

Almost uncannily it seems that I find myself at certain movies only after the subjects are gone. Piersall was still a young man in the midst of a baseball career when his story and the subsequent film was made. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 87.

Whether this story is completely true or sensationalized, there’s still an essence of something meaningful here. That we should not be ashamed of our fears and we cannot live life in pursuit of what will earn us the affection of others. It will only succeed in running us into the ground.

That’s why the moment at the end of the film is so fitting, showing Piersall playing a lazy game of catch with his dad. There’s no agenda. No pressure. You simply get the joy of throwing that ball rhythmically again and again perfectly in sync with the person across from you. I’ve done it many a time with my own father and I permanently retired from the game after being little league champions in middle school. Still, I love baseball for those very simple pleasures that it offers.

3.5/5 Stars

Love With The Proper Stranger (1963)

Love_With_The_Proper_Stranger.jpegAt first glance, this doesn’t seem like the type of picture suited for Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood. He was “The King of Cool.” She was a major player from childhood in numerous classics. Neither was what most people considered a serious actor. They were movie stars. They had charisma and general appeal to the viewing public.

What we have here is a stark slice-of-life scenario. Even put in the context of her Italian family unit Wood feels slightly out of place. It’s the kind of portrayal that worked for Ernest Borgnine in Marty (1955) and other such pictures. The same if not more can be said of Steve McQueen with his parents. He’s hardly an Italian. But the chemistry is there and that’s almost more important.

Any criticisms or preconceptions aside there must be credit paid to our stars. All power to them for wanting to be in this picture and casting aside what might have been more glamorous material for something that might stretch their acting chops. Because in the mid-50s and onward we were beginning to see a more honest strain of drama in Hollywood films. I would hesitate to call this film complete realism but there’s a candid quality that’s unquestionable.

Love With The Proper Stranger manages to put a narrative to the kind of hushed up realities that needed to be brought to the light. It’s part daring, part matter-of-fact in its actual execution. Because in merely acknowledging its subject matter, even in a minor fashion, it starts a conversation that can lead to some sort of human understanding.

You see, the film opens in a bustling union hall where a freelance musician named Rocky (Steve McQueen) gets paged by someone. He comes face-to-face with a girl. He can’t remember her name but the face is familiar. There’s a smile of recognition. The reason she came to see him catches him off guard though. She wants to ask him to find her a doctor. Because you see, they had a one night stand (the title proves a poetic euphemism) and she’s pregnant. The rest you can put together for yourself. His reaction is not what she wanted.

And so that’s how they reconnect. At first, strained and then looking to gather enough funds to pay the doctor to get it done. They’re genial enough and understanding after the initial encounter. That’s part of what’s striking. Love With The Proper Stranger chooses to traverse a generally understated road in lieu of melodramatics.

Sure, she’s a sales clerk at Macy’s and her family is devoutly Catholic with her older brothers often nagging her to get married. And he’s broke and shacked up with a nightclub dancer (Edie Adams) who runs a doggy kennel in her apartment. Still, that’s all just white noise or at least only shading to what’s really of interest.

One of the most indicative moments occurs when they’re staked out in some god-forsaken rundown warehouse and they open up about romance as they wait for their appointment. Their assertions are meant to make us understand them better but what we are provided is a level-headed dialogue that wears cynicism openly while honestly trying to figure out if love, kisses, and marriage, all those things that the movies and music seem to romanticize are even worth it after all.

During the very same conversation, Wood’s character confesses, “All I felt was scared and disgusted with myself.” Nothing more. Waiting for the bells and the banjos to sound doesn’t work. And when they go to the shady meetup and get funneled to a backroom it’s not any prettier. In fact, it’s probably worse. And it’s these moments that grieve me and pain my spirit. That anyone would have to deal with such an unfeeling environment. It’s not about condoning their behavior or not but being truthful to the way things actually are.

Meanwhile, the film’s latter half is decidedly lighter as if our main characters have settled into the new reality at hand. I suppose that’s the way real life is. It keeps on moving no matter the circumstances. Whatever decisions you have chosen and whomever you pick to live your life with.

Angie rebuffs his gallant proposal of marriage, finds her own apartment, and doesn’t complain about the road ahead. She didn’t need him to fall on his sword or take his medicine. Whatever apt metaphor you choose. That’s not her idea of a sound union. Instead, she tries to content herself with a well-meaning cook named Anthony (Tom Bosley) while Rocky piddles around discontentedly. The directness of the story allows us to dig in; it’s the comic tones of the unwinding romance that guide us to the end. Our leads see it through splendidly with a charming grace that’s collected and still sincere.

Although he will never earn much repute because his offerings are generally low-key, I will continue to do my best in cultivating an appreciation for Robert Mulligan as a director, as well as Alan Pakula. Not that they were quite as socially conscious as a Stanley Kramer or as intent on pushing boundaries like an Otto Preminger but To Kill Mockingbird (1962) and this picture are both statements of quality in themselves.

In fact, it’s rather bewildering that despite the names above the title, an immersive setting in New York’s Little Italy, and a genuine storyline, Love With The Proper Stranger is easily glossed over. Maybe it goes back to our stars. It’s not as monumental as The Great Escape (1963) or The Great Race (1965). And it’s not lauded to the degree of West Side Story (1961) or Bullitt (1966). That’s okay. It has no bearing on whether you enjoy it or not.

Not to undercut everything that I’ve already said but I’ve waited long enough. The final question I was left with is whether or not Natalie Wood was still friends with Santa Claus working at Macy’s. But then again, maybe in the world she finds herself in, Santa can’t fix all her problems. I suppose that’s okay too.

4/5 Stars

Man in the Moon (1991)

maninthe1Robert Mulligan is an unassuming film director. Man in the Moon would be his last film in a career that was not so much illustrious as it was respectable. In truth, I’ve only had the pleasure of seeing one of his other films — his crowning achievement To Kill a Mockingbird.

There are in fact some similar threads running through these two films, starting with the Deep South nostalgia and close analysis of adolescence. Both these films take the point of view of a young girl. Their narratives hope to shed at least a little bit of light on that intricate stage of life. This time a 14-year-old Reese Witherspoon is our lead, playing the Elvis-loving, gum-chewing, spunky dynamo named Dani. She and Scout share a lot in common because as young people there’s an inherent tendency to mope, question, and disregard. They have not quite grabbed a hold of the mature world of their parents. After all, they still have a great deal to experience. That’s what makes these film arcs necessary.

Man in the Moon starts with Dani, but there’s a whole family unit around her. A father (Sam Waterson) who is a decent, down-to-earth-man, and he would rather commune with nature in his fishing boat than go to typical church. A mother (Tess Harper) who loves her husband and daughters dearly, knowing when to trade tough love for hugs. Marie (Gail Strickland) is Dani’s oldest sister and her idol, along with the object of every local boy’s desire. She’s beautiful and yet what’s more extraordinary is her good-nature. She doesn’t deserve the creepy father and son duo eyeing her in the local town.

maninthe2Arguably, the next most important character in Dani’s story is Court (Jason London). They have your typical terse meet-cute that signifies only one thing. They must fall in love. It turns out he’s the eldest son of an old friend of Mrs. Trant. Soon things change for young Dani because she’s never known someone like Court, much less liked a boy.

Their relationship is one of those complicated entanglements. He’s a few years older and is the man of the house. He has to grow up quickly and views Dani as a child. But their friendship blossoms with frolicking afternoon swims. Dani is ready for something more. She thinks she’s in love. Now if Court was one of the other boys, he could easily take advantage of the situation — this fawning girl who is madly in love with him. But he’s not like that. Dani can’t quite get that through her head. It just doesn’t make sense. They enter friend territory and Dani’s heart is still aflutter, but she’s happy again.

maninthe3The second half of the film enters melodramatic territory that first hits the Trant’s with familial turmoil, and then Court. Dani for the first time in her life is faced with the full brunt of tribulation. What makes matter worse is her feelings are all mixed up. She loves her sister. She hates her sister. She cannot bear to see Court. She cannot bear the suffering. It’s in these moments that uncomfortable feeling well up in the pit of your stomach.

Man in the Moon like many of the great coming-of-age movies is really about adolescents coming out of their innocence and being inundated with the often frightening realities of life. It reminds even the youngest of us that more often than not life is unmerciful. It’s how we pick ourselves up out of that fatality that matters. It’s hard but that pain is often how we grow and mature — learning how to cope with the way things are. That’s what makes the people around us so integral to existence. They can be our lifeline that keeps us afloat. Thus, Dani’s friendship with Court matters so much. That’s why Dani’s relationship with Marie matters too.

Perhaps the drama is laid on rather thick, but nevertheless, it’s difficult not to get behind this film. Reese Witherspoon’s perkiness is wonderfully disarming, and Jason London plays a decent young man. These are characters I want to watch and emulate. Not quite Scout and Atticus, but they are still definitely worth the time.

4/5 Stars

You’ve got a right to grieve, Dani. You got a right to be hurt. But if you get so wrapped up in your own pain that you can’t see anyone else’s, then you might just as well dig yourself a hole and pull the dirt in on top of you, because you’re never going to be much use to yourself or anyone else. ~ Mr. Trant 

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Atticus_and_Tom_Robinson_in_courtHere is one of the rare occasions when novel and film are so closely connected in my mind that I cannot help love Harper Lee’s initial work and its adaptation to the screen. They’re both so timeless in their own ways. Don’t get me wrong. They are very firmly entrenched in a bygone era, but this story exudes certain themes that are universal.

It’s rather like visiting an old friend. It seemed like so long. I can hardly remember the last time I sat down with To Kill a Mockingbird the book, or the movie for that matter. And yet it rushes back so easily. The characters, the settings, the story. I can almost visualize the words on the page as the scenes take place on screen. It’s a wonderful experience and I wish I could connect with something like this more often. But To Kill a Mockingbird is special to me because I read it at a young age and really ate it up. Thanks to Peck’s performance the story was just moving the second time around. It never ceases to be.

It struck me that I thoroughly enjoy Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as Atticus Finch, because of Mary Badham. Finch is a stalwart father figure and that comes out in the ways he guides and leads his young daughter Scout through life. She has a very cut and dry view of the world, not getting down the nuances or complexities around her. What Atticus does is model what it is to live life with other people, pure and simple. He takes the complexities of life and simplifies them in terms his daughter can try to make sense of.

To a lesser extent, that means telling his kids to leave the Radleys be and complementing the always ornery Mrs. Dubose. He is not prone to bravado by acting his age instead of playing football and not gloating about his skill with a gun. He’s too humble a man for that. He also does not fight back. He has more self-respect for himself and other people.

He attempts to instill this and other skills like tact in his kids, especially naive Scout. He gives her the eponymous metaphor that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because they are a bird (supposedly) that brings only beauty and goodness into the world. And as he says, and I’m paraphrasing, you never understand someone else until you climb into their skin and walk around a bit. He delves into what empathy is and it’s what allows him to feel sorry for the Ewells, instead of desiring vengeance.

Atticus Finch is one of the special characters that I would actually use as a model. He makes me question my own actions as I take on a role much like Scout. He’s constantly reminding, constantly being patient, and modeling what it means to do what is right. All this is done without condescension, without lecturing. It’s done out of love.

His greatest act is, of course, defending accused African-American man Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), because after all, without this central point there is no film or book before it. But rather than focus on the depiction of these African-American characters and whether they are objectionable or not, I would rather acknowledge that this was a simpler time with a lot of evil still left in the world (as there is now), so this film speaks to me, because on a basic level, it is a story of good in the midst of all this blind discrimination and hatred.

That simple truth still speaks to me even with a story that is over 50 years old. The only adult cast member who is still with us now is Robert Duvall, and he is well into his 80s. Gregory Peck with his bespectacled visage and his soothing yet commanding voice is gone. Brock Peters is no longer with us, nor are the many other lesser known figures. But their story and these characters they embodied remain as a testament to Harper Lee’s original work.

It seems important to ask ourselves why would a man like Atticus do what he did? Why would he take that risk when no one else would? He answers Scout in this straightforward manner, “If I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.” He’s a man who holds himself to a different set of standards.

5/5 Stars