Thursday, September 19, 2019

Reserved Seating Swings for the Fences: FEAR STRIKES OUT

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo who had mental breakdowns because of Karl Malden.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week marks our final baseball movie review of the 2019 season with a look at director Robert Mulligan’s Fear Strikes Out, starring Anthony Perkins, Karl Malden and Norma Moore. The film tells the story of Boston Red Sox outfielder-infielder Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins) and his turbulent early career with the team that led to a nervous breakdown on the field and admittance into a mental health facility for treatment. The movie starts before Piersall’s major league debut to show his relationships with a domineering/perfectionist father (Malden) and his eventual wife (Moore). Fear Strikes Out was released in 1957 and is based on Piersall’s 1955 memoir, Fear Strikes Out: The Jim Piersall Story.

I had heard for a long time that Fear Strikes Out was a baseball movie worth seeking out. This was my first time watching it and I agree that it’s mostly good for reasons I’ll get into later in this review. The thing in the way of me giving it a complete recommendation, however, is more a matter of timing. I don’t think we’re getting a good picture into the heart of the Jimmy Piersall story in Fear Strikes Out. I haven’t read his memoir and this film is as good as it could get telling the man’s story in 1957, but (from further internet research on the remainder of Piersall’s life) this movie is just skimming the surface of Piersall’s career and illness (later said to be bipolar disorder). Piersall himself wasn’t entirely satisfied with how the movie portrays him, either. The film feels more like a long first act of a biography than a real picture of its subject. It could have benefitted from having more distance between the events and its depiction on film. As a result, it's more of a triumphant story of overcoming personal demons than a sober look at an illness and its setbacks. Being cognizant of when the movie was made, I appreciated it most as a showcase for Anthony Perkins and Karl Malden, who are both giving great performances. Perkins seems like he’s doing a warm-up for Norman Bates in Fear Strikes Out (paternal issues, antisocial behavior, outbursts of rage) and Malden is, for me at least, subtly playing against the type I knew him from in other movies such as On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. What did you think of the film and was this your first time seeing it?
Rob: This was indeed my first time seeing Fear Strikes Out, and I totally agree that it feels more like a long first act than a completed story. Was the abbreviated look at Piersall’s struggle with bipolar disorder (which apparently included several years of on-field antics and very public breakdowns) necessary to fit within the confines of the Production Code? Its power was dwindling by 1957, but it was still a thing. Or was it a reflection of society’s hesitance to validate mental illness at the time? Was it an attempt to reshape Piersall as a more conventional American hero? It’s a lot easier to depict a man overcoming his dependence on his dad’s approval than it is to depict a complex psychological condition, after all. I haven’t read Piersall’s memoir either, but man, this thing is whitewashed to death. And look, there’s nothing worse than a biopic that tries to cover its subject’s entire life at the expense of narrative cohesion, but there’s a way to make a single chunk of their life a bit more resonant (Rocketman, etc.).

Adam: I think it might be a combination of all those things. My initial thought was maybe Piersall thought he was better when in fact he was not, so the depiction was wishful thinking. I’m just speculating, of course.

Rob: To his credit, Anthony Perkins is wonderful in a role that was apparently difficult for him to perform (the crew teased him for his introversion and poor athleticism). Like you said, it feels like a test run for Norman Bates. He has a James Stewart earnestness to him that’s hard to imitate. It’s not naivety, necessarily; it’s more like dogged innocence. You can imagine Hitchcock seeing Fear Strikes Out and thinking he’d found his All-American boy.

Other than the performances, though, I’m pretty frustrated by the film’s inability to offer any insight into the causes and treatment of the disorders depicted. Everything is laid on Karl Malden’s shoulders, and even the therapist character is treated like something less than an authority. It’s such a great cast, and there’s so much great material to explore! If only they had the willingness to be a little controversial. What did you think of the film’s depiction of life in the Major Leagues? I was especially tickled by Malden’s insistence that Jimmy only stay in the Minors for a year.
Adam: I don’t think Fear Strikes Out has much interest in depicting life in the major leagues. It feels cursory in its details. I’m glad you brought up Malden’s bullishness about Jimmy only needing one season in the minors. Also, for a man hellbent on his boy only playing for one team, he didn’t seem to be aware that his son isn’t as good as the outfielders already on the Red Sox roster.

The sequence with Perkins breaking down on the field was the best scene in the movie and very strong. Right around that moment I started to think about how well the film is putting me in the mindset of Jimmy Piersall, where everything feels tense and threatening. In many ways the movie has a ‘50s movie squareness to it (which I don’t say as a criticism, I like that tone) but the sequence where Piersall loses it feels more akin to a noir thriller or early ‘60s Kubrick movie. It’s rawer and more immediate. I think the movie peaks around this point, with the rest of the film treating Piersall’s mental illness conventionally as an obstacle he beat (caused by his dad).

Rob: Agreed. Other than that sequence, there’s not much to really talk about or recommend with Fear Strikes Out.
Adam: Of the baseball films we’ve covered this season (Trouble with the Curve, Fever Pitch, Eight Men Out, The Fan, Mr. Baseball, The Bad News Bears and Fear Strikes Out) how would you rank them from favorite to least favorite?

Rob: From favorite to least favorite: The Bad News Bears, Mr. Baseball, The Fan, Fever Pitch, Eight Men Out, Fear Strikes Out, and Trouble with the Curve. You?

Adam: Maybe the same order. The same top two. Next week we’ll be back with a new Reserved Seating. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

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