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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Bang the Drum Slowly

Robert De Niro has been all over the place lately. Now 73 years old, he has been showing up for panel discussions on important anniversaries of his films (last year it was the 40th for Taxi Driver, this year it was the 45th for The Godfather, though he was the only cast member on the panel who was not in it, he was only in The Godfather, Part II). He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama last year (that would not be a likely award from President Trump, whom De Niro said he wanted to punch in the face) and was this year’s recipient of The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Award (and thus is on the cover of this month’s Film Comment). He has already won the AFI Life Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award. He has won two Academy Awards, with a total of seven nominations.

In the coming weeks I’ll be having my own retrospective of his career, as I haven’t had a chance to write about many of his films. The only major films I've covered are Taxi Driver and The Deerhunter, along with his recent David O. Russell renaissance of Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy. So there's a lot to look at, including some films that I haven't seen.

This is my second time seeing Bang the Drum Slowly, which was De Niro's first major film, an adaptation of a novel by Mark Harris (which I read when I was about 12, I think after I saw the movie) about a dying baseball player, a catcher, and his relationship with a star pitcher. It was a well-received film, and earned an Oscar nomination for Vincent Gardenia as the team's blustery manager. But I think it hasn't aged well, and seems to be missing pieces of the plot. It's only 97 minutes long, but it could have used some extra scenes to provide more context.

De Niro is Bruce Pearson, a second- or even third-string catcher. When the film begins Henry Wiggen (called "Arthur" because he wrote a book--instead of "author") is driving with De Niro from the Mayo Clinic to De Niro's home in Georgia. He has Hodgkin's disease, but the two play it very close to the vest, not even telling his parents.

Pearson is a rube; not very smart, and he knows it, while Moriarty is a city slicker that wears purple suits and likes to obfuscate. For a baseball movie, there is a lot of talking. There's a long scene in which Moriarty negotiates his contract (to show hold old this movie is--1973--Moriarty is asking for $120,000 a year. I think Alex Rodriguez probably made that in one game). He takes less money, but insists that he and Pearson have to be a package--whether traded or sent down, they have to be together.

Then much of the movie is Gardenia trying to figure out what they were doing in Minnesota. Moriarty comes up with several creative lies, thinking that Gardenia will get rid of Pearson once he finds out. But actually, once the team learns, they all come together as a team, stop ragging Pearson, and win the World Series.

The book, as they do, has much more information, but I don't remember it. Why, for example, is Moriarty drawn to Pearson? Were they friends before his illness? I suppose the spine of the film is friendship, and that does come across, as Moriarty is true blue, but I didn't feel the film offered any great truths. Compare it to Brian's Song, which came out a few years earlier, about Gale Sayers' friendship with his dying teammate, Brian Piccolo, and see the difference. The latter film had grown men crying. Bang the Drum Slowly seems purposely unsentimental.

It was directed by John Hancock, and has that grainy look that a lot of '70s movies have. The colors are subdued and muddy--even Moriarty's purple suits are toned down. The baseball scenes seem authentic, although De Niro was much too slight to be a catcher, but he seems to have learned how to swing a bat. Though called the New York Mammoths in the film, the team is wearing the uniform of the Yankees, and the film was shot in Yankee and Shea Stadiums.

As for De Niro, he wouldn't play a part like this again. Once he made Mean Streets, he for years played aggressive, even psychotic characters. Bruce Pearson is a happy-go-lucky guy, and though he knows he's dying, he has only really one bad moment, when he tells Moriarty he's scared. But his comic timing is evident, particularly in a scene in which he's part of a team singing group, and tries to keep up with the dance steps. De Niro has said he's always been more confident with comedy.

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