The Basketball Diaries Film Guide > Problems with the Film
The Basketball Diaries: Problems with Scott Kalvert's Film
Disclaimer: I wrote this analysis for the Jim Carroll Website and not for the
Leonardo DiCaprio Fan Club or the Filmic Technique Appreciation Society. I don't like this
film, and I have no obligation to say anything nice about it, so please do not send me
e-mail protesting my critique based on your appreciation for DiCaprio's performance or the
stylistic merits of the film. Neither of these are my concern in the present context.
Maybe someday I will create a separate page dealing with such matters; for now, my concern
is that the film misrepresents Jim Carroll's book and his life. --Cassie Carter, Webmaster
Scott Kalvert's The Basketball Diaries, starring LeonardoDiCaprio, opened
Friday, April 21, 1995, in selected cities. The film is supposedly an adaptation of Jim
Carroll's autobiographical book The Basketball Diaries, which records his
experiences as a teenager in early1960s New York City.
I attended a free "sneak preview" of The Basketball Diaries atthe
University of Michigan on Tuesday, April 18. When I arrived an hour before the doors
opened, a long line had already formed, and by tenminutes before showtime, the line
stretched outside the building. Afterthe doors opened, the theater was completely filled,
and many people wereturned away at the door. Apparently the audience was expecting
somethinggreat from this film, but I went into it with a lot of fears which thefilm
confirmed as well-founded.
I am writing this review in order to point out some of the serious problems I see in
the film--a film which claims to be "based upon a true story." As a fan and
scholar of Jim Carroll, I feel the film takes liberties withCarroll's biography that it
simply cannot justify. Overall, the film bears little if any resemblance to the life
Carroll describes in his diary, but I'm just going to list some of the worst
If you want to read Carroll's opinion of the film, click here.
1. Jim Carroll was born in 1950 and wrote his Basketball Diaries between 1962
and 1966. The film seems to be set in the present, which would mean that Carroll was born
in 1980 or so. (Ironically, that's the year he released the songs "Catholic Boy"
and "People Who Died," both of which appear on the soundtrack for the film!)
2. The 1960s time frame is crucial in Carroll's real-life experience. Some events he
records in his diaries are the Cold War, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the
assassination of Malcolm X, the Harlem Riots, protest marches, etc. He is terrified by the
threat of the bomb, and his fearthat the bomb could get him at any time gives him a sense
of urgency:"will I have time to finish the poems breaking loose in my head? Time
tofind out if I'm the writer I know I can be? How about these diaries? Orwill Vietnam beat
me to the button? Because it's poetry now . . . and thebutton is still there, waiting . .
." But since the film is set in thepresent, ALL of this is erased. Instead, we get
Leonardo DiCaprio muttering something about being afraid of getting shot by a rooftop
terrorist. (I will have to devote a new page to that alone!)
3. Jim Carroll IS NOT the only child of a single mother, as the film indicates. He has
a brother and father. PAGE 114: "I remember my brother enticing me on to panic during
the Cuban crisis saying they were coming any minute." His father plays a significant
role in the diary:
"I went home and told my old man how the government suppresses the proletariat
from his due. 'I am the proletariat, you dumb bastard,' he said, 'and I think those
motherfuckers are off their rockers. Now get the hell inside and do your homework.'"
"Lately my scene at home has dissolved to total bullshit. What to say? My old man
gets home at six every day, eats, takes off his shoes and sits in his chair with his pants
rolled up and his varicose veins sticking outwith his feet up on the stool and he bitches.
He bitches about how myhair's too long, that the protesters suck, about nigger this and
spic that. . ."
4. Jim Carroll DID NOT drop out of high school. He graduated right onschedule, in 1968,
from Trinity High School, a posh private Catholic school, which he attended on a
combination academic/athletic scholarship. The film keeps him in the poorer grammar school
he attended, ignores the scholarship, and has him drop out after gettingcaught taking
downers during a basketball game. He did take the downers,but he didn't quit school.
5. Jim Carroll DID play in the National High School All-Star Basketballgame in 1966.
THIS IS A FACT. Since DiCaprio's Carroll dropped out of high school, though, he must
endure watching his friend Neutron play the game on TV.
6. Speaking of Neutron, the "secondary" characters in the film are, for the
most part, inventions of the screenwriter. The characters closest to their originals in
the book are Swifty (Lefty in the book)and Bobby (who died of leukemia), but
"Swifty" is more of a composite of several coaches and scouts in the diary, and
Bobby is not developed as a character in the diary (he just . . . dies). (I asked Carroll
how he felt about the "Swifty" character; I remarked that it must have been
difficult because of the composite nature of the character. Carroll said he thought Bruno
Kirby did a great job, but that it was very difficult for Kirby.)Other characters are
based even less on the real people in the diary. Diane the strung-out whore does not
"get even" with Jim at the end, nor does she play a particularly important role
in the book. In fact, she appears only once near theend of the diary. Neutron and Pedro
also appear in the diary, but both--especially Pedro--are relatively minor players in the
book, so it's strange that Bryan Goluboff (the screenwriter) selected them as Jim's
"best friends" for the film. These two are equally Goluboff's original creations
and composites of about ten real people in Carroll's diary. I have no idea where Mickey
("Marky Mark" Wahlberg) or Reggie (Ernie Hudson) came from. . . . However, it
would have been nice if Carroll had had a "Reggie" in his life, and both
Hudson's and Wahlberg's performances are surprisingly good (but then I have no
characters from Carroll's diaryagainst which to measure their performances).
7. I consider the "leap into the Harlem River" entry (pp. 47-50) to be one of
the "key" entries in Carroll's diary, but of course Kalvert screwed it up. The
film uses this scene to emblemize the inseparable friendship of Jim, Mickey, Neutron, and
Pedro. Well, for starters, Mickey is a made-up character, and Neutron and Pedro are
nowhere in sight in the diary--it is Jim, Johnny, and Danny who make the leap--and they
leap from "Hell's Angel," not "Devil's Toe." (The names of the cliffs
are "Suicide," "Hell's Gate," Angel's Toe," and "Hell's
Angel.") But these are minor points. What bothers me most about the film's
interpretation of this scene is that, after Pedro blows it on his jump, the three
"cool" boys jump together. In the diary, it is a contest, a test
"to prove if you're punk or not." Danny jumps first: he is a veteran of Hell's
Angel, and his jump epitomizes the goal of all aspiring punks. Johnny, like Jim, is
"a rookie at the top," and his performance is pitiful; he does not prove
himself punk. (In the film, by the way, Pedro stands in for all the failed punks
populating Carroll's diary.) So there is a lot of pressure on Jim to perform well and
prove himself punk . . . which he of course does. The film gets some of these subtleties,
but I personally hated the way it replaced the competition with inseparable friendship.
8. If Jim Carroll ever was Mister Sweet and Innocent as portrayed by DiCaprio, he never
let onto it in his diaries. The Winkie and Blinkie scene is ridiculous in this respect. In
the diary, Jim shows up whacked on cough syrup, which he throws up "in order to get
it up a lot." He writes: "I was pretty straight within an hour or so and hip on
getting to gether with a scene or two. The it was about an hour or more of smoking the
hash with my head on Blinkie's lap with an occasional grab for one of her titty treats. I
was feeling pretty bored by then and anxious to fuck her . . ." So, tell me if this
sounds anything like the scene depicted in the movie by the angelic DiCaprio, who
hesitates to snort a line and is attacked by the aggressive Blinkie. BLAH!
9. Likewise, the single hustling scene is homophobic beyond words. There is absolutely
NO indication in Carroll's diary that he found getting a blow job from a man to be a
traumatic experience. Yes, he is disgusted by all the homosexuals who constantly try to
rape him while they feign righteousness, and by perverts like the guy who wants him to
whip a cat to death and piss on him in the bathtub, but consider this passage:
"I'll admit it, I have to, that today I had an experience hustling fags that, for
once, turned me on. Quite a bit in fact. . . . some weird sensation did shoot a
blood rocket up my zone as an incredible rush of power shook me with all those faces
staring at my body fucking a mouth on its knees . . ."
10. Riker's Island DID NOT cure Jim Carroll of his heroin addiction. He got out of
Riker's, and, as he writes: "Mancole did me the honor of preparing me asyringe filled
with 'the finest junk in upper Manhattan.' I almost refused. . it was a moment I had both
dreamt of passionately and cursed even more. . . but with the dream in from of me again I
found that it was quiteeasy to curse . . . but so much harder to refuse." The film
has DiCaprioall spiffy and clean at the end, speaking what appears to be a
cautionarymessage (it would be hard to tell if he's at an "addicts anonymous"
meeting orgiving a poetry reading were it not for the door marked "STAGE DOOR" .
. .). This message is actually a doctored-upentry from the diary (pages 189-90 plus 199),
describing Carroll'sCONTINUING addiction. The fact is that Carroll was addicted for about
tenyears. He didn't conquer his addiction until well into his 20s--and to doit he had to
move to California and undergo endless and grueling methadone treatments. The point is, it
wasn't as quick and simple as the film tries to make itlook.
- LAST BUT NOT LEAST, I do have a few positive things to say about the film:
- (1) Carroll's cameo appearance is fabulous. I think the film is worth seeing just for
that. If you don't know who he is, look for the scene at Headquarters, where DiCaprio is
listening to an older junkie describe how the candles, incense, and rituals of a Catholic
mass are like cooking up junk . . . Carroll is playing the role of "Franky
Pinewater," whose story can be found on pages 202-204 in the book.
- (2) DiCaprio actually looks like a teenaged Carroll. Check out Carroll's senior photo from high school if you want some indication of the
- (3) On about my fourth viewing of the film, I noticed evidence DiCaprio had
"studied" Carroll enough to pick up some of his hand gestures. I thought that
- (4) A couple of scenes are pretty darned good, even by my picky standards, and it just
so happens that they both sort of revolve around Bobby, the kid who died of leukemia. I
like the rooftop masturbation scene (right after the scene in which Jim takes Bobby to see
the nude dancer), and I also like the scene after Bobby dies, where the boys talk about
death and play basketball in a rock video type scene featuring Carroll's song "People
Who Died." The latter scene is terrific, I think, because it argues against the
popular interpretation of that song as a celebration of death.