Bang the Drum Slowly (1973): John Hancock’s Oscar-Nominated Film Stars De Niro as Dying Athlete

In “Bang the Drum Slowly,” directed by John Hancock and scripted by Mark Harris (based on his novel), the very young Robert De Niro plays Bruce Bearson, a dying athlete, a journeyman big-league catcher who has contracted the Hodgins’ disease.

Vincent Gardenia received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination as Dutch Schnell.  But arguably, the best performance is given by Michael Moriarty as Henry Wiggen, the team’s star pitcher, who becomes close with Bruce when he learns of his fatal illness and fights so that Bruce will not be sent to the minors.

This overly sentimental movie celebrates male friendship, manifest here in the camaraderie among all of Bruce’s teammates, who continue to support him and make him feel good; for a while, Bruce’s playing even improves.

In the following year, De Niro would become a major star, after appearing in and winning the Supporting Actor Oscar for “The Godfather, Part II” (1974).

At the time, some critics compared “Bang the Drum Slowly with the TV movie “Brian’s Song,” which also deals with a dying athlete.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Supporting Actor: Vincent Gardenia

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the 1973 Supporting Oscar was John Houseman for “The paper Chase,” in a contest that included Jack Gilford in “Save the Tiger,” Jason Miller in “The Exorcist,” and Randy Quaid in “The Last Detail.”