Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Ron Shelton's Cobb

Tommy Lee Jones in Cobb (1994)

After directing the street smart basketball comedy White Men Can't Jump (1992), Ron Shelton approached the same studio, Twentieth Century Fox, with the idea of doing a biography of baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb. Given the success of White Men Can't Jump, as well as Bull Durham (1988), his sublime romantic comedy about baseball, the studio figured they couldn't miss. After all, what could be better than a baseball movie about a legend who was one of the greatest players in the history of the game?

What they didn't know  until they read Shelton's script  was that Ty Cobb was also a hateful, ferocious and bigoted alcoholic who had alienated even his teammates. And when they saw that Shelton had Tommy Lee Jones in mind for the part (just before he'd become "bankable" again in 1993 with The Fugitive), the film was put on waivers. Fortunately, Warner Brothers picked up the ball  so to speak  and took a daring risk on a complex project. Then, shortly after releasing the picture during the Christmas season in 1994, they abruptly dropped the ball. To this day, Ron Shelton's best movie remains virtually unknown. Even though Cobb emerged in theatres parallel to the OJ Simpson murder case, which could have helped promote interest in the picture, the issues that both stories raised about celebrity and hero worship were obviously too uncomfortable to comprehend. The studio, some critics and many film goers didn't like the adulation of their heroes tainted by events that tarnished that adulation.

After all, most American films about baseball, arguably their national sport, have little to do with baseball. Pictures like Pride of the Yankees (1942), or The Natural (1984), use the game as a vehicle to tell inspirational stories left dripping in sentimentality. What many of these pictures have in common is the notion that within baseball lies the power of redemption. In Field of Dreams (1989), Kevin Costner gets to heal the emotional and generational rift between him and his dead father by having his dad's spirit come back to play catch with him. In The Natural, based on the 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud, Robert Redford hits a ninth-inning home run to save his troubled team and his own corrupted soul. (The original novel has quite the opposite conclusion.) Ron Shelton didn't believe that baseball movies should be a ninth-inning version of The Stations of the Cross. "[Cobb] is not Pride of the Yankees," he said in 1994. "Try something closer to Raging Bull."

But Cobb is infinitely better than Raging Bull (1980) because Shelton  and Tommy Lee Jones' performance  doesn't pare everything down to one man's brutal drives. Instead, the movie opens up for interpretation how Ty Cobb's brutality also masked areas of compassion, skill and fierce intelligence. Cobb is the story of the once-towering sports figure who dominated baseball as a member of the Detroit Tigers during the first quarter of the 20th Century. The film begins with a newsreel that glories in Ty Cobb's triumphs then the movie starts to take shape as a successful sports writer named Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) is hired by the former great to write his biography. During the time he spends with Cobb, Stump discovers the man behind the legend. But Cobb wants a book about the legend (which Stump, in fear for his life, provides) but he also prepares a book that attempts to get at the truth about his volatile subject.

Tommy Lee Jones as Ty Cobb.
What is the truth? The truth, as historian Harold Seymour discovered, was that "Ty Cobb was consumed by an unbridled urge to excel, an urge bordering on abnormal. He didn't so much play baseball as wage it, for it him it was a war." Much of that view is presented in Cobb, but Shelton goes one better. As film critic Steve Vineberg sharply observed, Cobb is structured somewhat like Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (it, too, begins with a newsreel summing up Kane's accomplishments). But where Kane tries to understand the complexities of a powerful icon by linking his weakness to a young boy's abandoned sled, Cobb illustrates that one simple item, or event, cannot sum up one man's life. Although Stump is determined to find the roots of Cobb's pathology in a tragic episode from his Southern family upbringing, the elements of the story keep changing. While the newsreel, as in Citizen Kane, ices over the more disturbing aspects of the subject's life, the reporter can't use the disturbing material he uncovers to fully comprehend the bitter and complex man he's writing about.

When the studio abandoned Cobb after a series of negative reviews (especially Owen Gleiberman's in Entertainment Weekly), it wasn't just the picture that suffered. Tommy Lee Jones' best film performance was also lost to viewers. If Ty Cobb treated baseball like war, Jones approached the role no differently. While shooting the baseball scenes, he broke his ankle sliding into base. But Jones, with a determination not unlike the character he was playing, continued the shoot despite the injury. That ability to fuse with dangerous and unstable characters had already made Tommy Lee Jones one of the most riveting actors in American movies. Before his Oscar-winning role in The Fugitive, Jones had already created a series of sharply defined portraits of simple men who are driven by forces beyond their control, or comprehension, as in The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), The Executioner's Song (1982) and JFK (1991).

In Cobb, the title character is presented as one of the greatest ball players  next to Babe Ruth  that ever lived. He was also a despicable man. No ninth-inning home run, or a game of catch in a cornfield, could ever change that.

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

1 comment:

  1. A great movie and a truly wretched man. I am a baseball movie fanatic and so am very appreciative of this review. Thanks.