“Mental illness is an illness, like any other.”
Fear Strikes Out is the 1957 biopic of Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall, focusing on his battle with mental illness. Based on his memoir of the same name, the film features an impressive performance by Anthony Perkins (of Psycho fame), and a progressive attitude toward mental illness that surprised me from a film made in the mid-late 50s.
I could be mistaken, but I don’t really think of 1957 as a time when mainstream opinion included the belief that mental illness was an illness, like any other. And yet, the psychiatrist in Fear Strikes Out says exactly that. Fuck, I don’t even think the general population in 2020 sees mental illness that way, so it’s an impressive stance for a film made 63 years ago.
Piersall’s real life mental illness differed from that depicted in the film. In the movie version, his unrelentingly, overbearing, perfectionist father led to Piersall developing an extreme anxiety disorder, to the point of psychosis. Obviously, I have no training or authority to diagnose anyone, but from a narrative standpoint, that’s how the film painted his struggle.
This wasn’t entirely accurate for two reasons.
One, it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of Piersall’s relationship with his father. After the film was released, he even went on record refuting the idea that his father abusively tried to fulfill his own shattered dream vicariously through the life and talent of his son. If his parents did play a role in Piersall’s illness, it was due more to genetics than abuse. His mother struggled with profound mental illness, and was repeatedly institutionalized — a fact alluded to early in the film.
The second way the film’s portrayal departed from reality was that, in real life, Piersall was bipolar.
Just as in the movie, he was certainly known for violent outbursts with opponents, umpires, teammates, and in one instance, a scoreboard in Chicago. And, as in the film, these types of outbursts led to his institutionalization for a prolonged period during his rookie season.
The film omitted the fact that, more than just rage, he suffered from severe mania. He was disliked by teammates, as well as Red Sox management and ownership, because of his constant on-field antics. For instance, he apparently once stepped up to bat wearing a Beatles wig, using his bat to play air guitar. He’d lead cheers for himself in the outfield during breaks in play, taking bows after virtually every catch. He had a conversation with the Babe Ruth monument in center field at Yankee Stadium during a game. When he hit his 100th home run, he ran backwards — as in, he still ran first to home, but he did it ass first.
These could easily be silly, entertaining anecdotes, were it not for the misery and utter lack of self-control at the core of Piersall’s mania.
These changes were likely necessary. I understand why they put a finer point on the details so it would land with general audiences, or to add more narrative clarity. If the film were made today, we’d expect more nuance, but the language of film was different in the 50s. Nuanced and complicated films were made at the time, but they were certainly few and far between. Thus, I’m not saying the changes were a weakness. It’s just that, as a person who lives with mental illness, I felt the need to clarify his actual battle.
There were times it was hard to watch Perkins in the role of Piersall, and I mean that as a compliment. It certainly wasn’t a naturalistic performance — again, this was 1957, that’s not how acting in American cinema worked back then. But in the style of the time, Perkins was great. He brought a dark, brooding, at times even creepy, energy to the role, even in the more mundane scenes.
It worked to illustrate what was always present in Piersall’s mind. Even when he wasn’t in the middle of an outburst or meltdown, that weight was still always pressing down on him. When we see the character in other scenes, where he’s wrestling his way toward some sort of wellness, and finds moments of reprieve, there’s an ease, even a bouyancy to Perkins’s performance. Again, it wasn’t a naturalistic portrayal of a mentally ill person, but it was quite effective in communicating the inner life of the character.
There’s a lot to like in Fear Strikes Out, but I definitely could have done without the tidy Hollywood ending. After a single intense confrontation with his abusive father, dear old dad immediately takes a 180* and just wants his son to be well, baseball be damned! Piersall has a breakthrough, and suddenly he’s cured. Our tortured protagonist seems destined to go on to a happy life from that moment on, free of the illness that has hounded him all those years. Still, to belabor the point, it was the 1950’s. I guess they don’t call it a Hollywood ending for nothing.
Oh yeah, one interesting tidbit: The final shot in Fear Strikes Out is like a photonegative of the final shot in Pride of the Yankees. In Pride, Gehrig slowly walks off the field, down the dugout steps, and through a door into the darkness. In Fear Strikes Out, Piersall walks to the end of a shadowy clubhouse hallway, pauses to collect himself, then walks up the dugout steps and into the light. It’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t have noticed had I not made the insane decision to watch 30 baseball movies in 30 days.
Up Next: Brothers in Exile, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about Livan and Orlando ‘El Duque’ Hernandez, half brothers who each risked everything to escape Cuba and play baseball in the MLB.