B is for Bang the Drum Slowly
That was quick. Two movies into this thing and I've already found one I regret not having seen much, much sooner.
The truth is that I've sort of avoided this one over the years even though I've got tremendous affection for much of the cast, worried it would be too much of a Brian's Song-esque manipulative downer. Despite the fact that it's a movie centered on the friendship between male athletes wherein one of them is dying, it's not a downer at all. If anything it's a celebration of friendship, camaraderie, and baseball. Even as a baseball movie it's fairly atypical because it never comes down to one big game, one big play, one big moment. It's an intimate story in a setting that is anything but intimate, and it made me want to give everyone I care about a hug, preferably at a ballgame.
The lead performances of Michael Moriarty as star pitcher Henry Wiggen and impossibly young Robert De Niro as doomed catcher Bruce Pearson are absolutely stellar, finding pathos and humor while never getting overpowered by either one. The real standout, however, is Vincent Gardenia as coach Dutch Schnell. As evidenced by the address of this blog I'm already a fan of Gardenia's, but this is the best I've ever seen him. He received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his role here, and his world-weary performance is something truly special. Also of note is Phil Foster in a small role as a con-man former ballplayer, he's a treat whenever he's on screen, and dig young, barely-recognizable Danny Aiello as one of the teammates.
You'll note that there's not a whole lot of gender equality in the above paragraph, but there's also not a whole lot of gender equality in baseball so I can't really fault the movie for that. Regardless, it's refreshing to see a sports movie that's not chock full of sports movie clichés as well as one that centers on believably human characters. It makes one long for a time when ballplayers seemed like regular, talented joes rather than the steroidal million-dollar-monsters on the field today.
Moriarty in particular has a talent for underplaying, making his character believable not only as a ballplayer but as the supportive companion helping his dying friend get the most out of what is certain to be his final year with the New York Mammoths. Again, this is not a movie of big "movie moments" and that doesn't only apply to the baseball, it applies to the character beats as well. There's no tearful deathbed scenes or emotional breakdowns, there's nothing that rings false. These characters are real people, for better or worse, and that's a refreshing and welcome change. This is a special movie, and I'm already looking forward to revisiting it just to spend more time with these people. I don't know that I can offer higher praise than that.