Directed by Arthur Hiller
Written by John Fusco
There is likely no name bigger, or more synonymous with the game of baseball, than Babe Ruth. His legend is far beyond the hero worship of something like The Natural. Babe Ruth is more than a legend, he is the greatest hitter in the history of the game. With the 9th best batting average in history at .342, third most home runs with 714, and the second most Runs Batted In with 2,214 in his career. Sure, you can argue other guys were better hitters, and I don’t intend to start that argument. It’s meant for another day. But certainly it is easy to discern the fact that Ruth was, at the very least, one of the best to ever play the game of baseball, at any position (he was also a fantastic pitcher before switching to the outfield), in any era. Odd, then, that other than the 1948 film The Babe Ruth Story, starring William Bendix (which was not reviewed as part of this marathon), would be the only movie recounting his life before 1992.
For such a larger than life character as Babe Ruth, I suppose one could say that a film about his life could never live up to the legend, but it was a project baseball fans were likely waiting to give their money to at the box office. But this was not a hit, and why did it take until 1992 to make it? Questions at top of mind, but the answer may be in the details of Ruth’s troubled life. Played by John Goodman, Babe Ruth begins life in a school for incorrigible boys, abandoned by his parents in Baltimore. When he finds his talent in baseball, Ruth goes on to stardom first with the Red Sox, then with the Yankees. But the drama of his social life propels this version of his story, as his womanizing and drinking threatens his marriage to Helen (Trini Alvarado), and later even his marriage to Claire (Kelly McGillis).
Like the man himself, this movie is an enigma in so much as I don’t know what it is about, or what it’s going for. To it’s detriment, I’m not sure the film knows these answers either. The finished product comes across as a conglomerate of tall tales, legends, and facts about the slugger thrown together in a hurry, hoping some of it will stick. Goodman gives it his all, I truly believe that, but the muddled background and emotions of Babe Ruth’s life are much too melodramatic and not delivered with the acuity or subtleness they deserve here. The Babe finds itself an odd mixture of hero worship, reliving some of his greatest feats of strength, and a torn character study of an abandoned man hoping to be accepted.
For this I would blame the writing and direction for lacking the subtly to realize what kind of story this is, instead inserting too much “fan service” that the movie lacks in both realms. The Babe Ruth story could easily be a powerful drama in the right hands. It could also be a great celebration of his talent and career. But by attempting both, the ultimate spirit of Babe Ruth is lost somewhere in the middle, as Goodman, with all his might, must carry the charisma of the big man while handling the simple bumpkin lonely emotions bestowed upon Ruth by the screenwriter. Maybe this is accurate, maybe Ruth was emotionless, but I feel this aspect could have been explored to add more dramatic depth to the movie.
The movie is really a mess from start to finish, and yet, spending time with Babe Ruth is hard to deny a good time. Goodman gives him the larger than life persona necessary to display his true self on screen, for better or for worse. Ruth may not have been a pleasant teammate, or pleasant husband, but he was a heck of a ballplayer and reliving his greatest feats, as childish and poorly done as they are, still lights a small spark into the childlike wonder I have for the sport and its legends. For that reason I give the movie a pass, but cannot recommend the film to anyone who doesn’t have a passion or interest in the game of baseball or the legend of Babe Ruth in particular. Goodman truly surprised me with his portrayal, but overall, the film is nearer the bottom of the baseball heap than the top.