So this morning I finished watching that critically praised early-’70s movie about the friendship between two professional athletic teammates, one of whom is dying and played by an actor well known for portraying a member of the Corleone family.
“I got it—Brian’s Song!”
No, the other one.
The above makes it clear why, without having seen either of them, I’d always confused that 1971 football TV-movie with the 1973 baseball feature film Bang the Drum Slowly. Partly to differentiate them, and partly because of their reps, I figured I should someday break down and watch at least one of them, despite the fact that I hate sports movies and don’t lean toward wrist-slitters.
Since Brian’s Song stars James Caan—who makes me want to slit my wrists just by appearing onscreen—as real-life Chicago Bear Brian Piccolo, and Bang the Drum Slowly stars Robert DeNiro as fictional, albeit pinstripe-clad, New York “Mammoth” Bruce Pearson, my choice was clear, even though I can take or leave Bobby’s co-star, Michael Moriarty. (Interestingly, his character, Henry Wiggen, is the hero of a tetralogy by Mark Harris, here adapting his own 1956 novel, also made into an episode of The United States Steel Hour that same year, with Paul Newman as Henry and Albert Salmi as Bruce.) Can’t say I liked it too much, not that I was really expecting to, and there ain’t much of a plot, not that I’d expend a lot of energy summarizing it if there were.
Star pitcher and sometime insurance salesman Wiggen is almost inexplicably devoted to so-so catcher Pearson, and after learning that Bruce is dying of Hodgkin’s disease, he goes through endless machinations to protect him. He insists on a clause in his contract that links their professional fates, and concocts harebrained stories to conceal Bruce’s visit to the Mayo Clinic, both to the chagrin of manager Dutch Schnell (Oscar-nominated Vincent Gardenia); he also deliberately drags his feet on changing the beneficiary of Bruce’s life insurance to opportunistic floozy Katie (Ann Wedgeworth). The plot links the club’s generally low opinion of Bruce and its inability to pull together as a team, but once the cat is out of the bag and they know he’s dying, they treat him better and—hey presto—improved teamwork enables them to win the World Series, although Bruce gets too sick to finish the season, dying offstage.
I guess it’s supposed to be a great performance, but I didn’t find DeNiro’s tobacco-chewing, slow-witted Southern country bumpkin at all endearing—and yes, I know that’s partly the point—nor was I enamored of the allegedly humorous scenes involving the fictional card game “tegwar” (The Exciting Game Without Any Rules), with which the players and Henry’s friend Joe (the great Phil Foster) fleece suckers. Obviously the extensive location shooting at various historic ballparks did nothing for me. I kept wondering what the significance of the title was until the locker-room scene where guitar-toting fellow pitcher Piney Woods (Tom Ligon) starts singing “The Streets of Laredo,” and suddenly my antennae went up. For you trivia fans, Danny Aiello has a small role as teammate Horse.
Largely obscure director John D. Hancock actually merited a mention in Richard Matheson on Screen, because he was fired as the original director of Jaws 2 (1978), and when his replacement, Jeannot Szwarc, called in a favor from Universal for salvaging that disaster, the result was Matheson’s Somewhere in Time (1980). He also directed the truly creepy Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), which is why I snapped to attention when I saw the name of that disconcerting little gem’s leading man, Barton Heyman, in the credits. He appears briefly as another teammate, Red…although in the unlikely event that he looked familiar to anyone else, it’s probably because he played Klein (“Chris—doctors!”) in The Exorcist (1973).