Jimmy Piersall was an All-Star outfielder with the Boston Red Sox. Despite his on-field accomplishments, it was his battle with bipolar disease that garnered him enough notoriety to be the subject of a Hollywood film starring Anthony Perkins. However, when it comes to the movie, it largely dances around Piersall’s struggles, opting instead for a more awkward plot that mixes his rise to fame, largely overlooked battles with mood swings, and a proud but pushy father. Fear Strikes Out may have been an obvious human interest story when it was first released during the middle of Piersall’s career. But more than five decades later, the baseball player has disappeared into history and the vague story lines add up to a weak baseball drama.
Much of the film is dedicated to showing Piersall’s (Perkins) rise from a poor neighbourhood to Minor League star and, finally, patrolling the outfield in Boston’s Fenway Park. A lot of time is spent Piersall and his various relationships: his desire to please his father (Karl Malden) who expects nothing short of seeing his son make the Big Leagues, his love for his frail mother (Perry Wilson) and his falling for Mary (Norma Moore).
The film hints at issues Jimmy has, but much of it is a simple case of him rambling on. It’s not treated as a sickness but rather simply a character quirk. It isn’t until much later in the film that things boil over and it’s apparent that Piersall truly is sick. I still wouldn’t have known what the issue was if I didn’t know a bit about Piersall’s background and having read the film’s synopsis ahead of time. The story would have been much more interesting if it only touched on Piersall’s growing up and looked deeper into his emotional struggles. If the pressuring father didn’t have a role in Piersall’s sickness, then so much time shouldn’t have been spent on establishing his pressuring ways. And if it was the cause of the outfielder’s bipolar disease, then the connection should have been made a little clearer.
Perkins, whose Norman Bates in Psycho is one of cinema’s most memorable characters, comes across as creepy more than anything. I had little sympathy for his character as I never got a full sense of what was going on with him. But I couldn’t connect with his take on Piersall. Much of the time the portrayal was awkward and difficult to watch.
Despite obvious attempts at evoking sympathy for Piersall, Fear Strikes Out fails on most every front. Without an emotional core to connect to, the film is instead a cold biopic that doesn’t hold up now that its subject matter has left the spotlight.
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