Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Base man

Tommy Lee Jones towers as the nasty, hateful, racist Ty Cobb.

By Charles Taylor
May 12, 1998 9:50PM (UTC)
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When Ron Shelton started writing "Cobb," his film about the last days of
the baseball legend, he hung three notes above his typewriter. The first
read, "Sam Peckinpah is Ty Cobb." The second read, "What if Samuel Johnson
had hired Boswell at gunpoint?" And the final one, "'Richard III' as a
comedy." It's easy to see the influence of each of those memos on the finished
film, but it may be the first note whose shadow stretches the farthest.

"Cobb" is one of the few American movies that deserves mention in the same
breath with "The Wild Bunch," although Shelton's movie isn't soaked in
Peckinpah's flamboyant, doomed romanticism. Raucous, savage and dry-eyed,
the movie turns on you like a beaten dog any time you start to feel
sentimental about Cobb. Its spirit is summed up by the skeletal grin on
Tommy Lee Jones' face and the blood-and-sputum cough he brings up from his
gut: the sound of someone trying to expel a death rattle from his innards.


Of all the good and great movies that have slipped through the cracks in
recent years, none has been treated as appallingly as "Cobb." It opened in
three theaters in 1994 to murderous reviews in the New York Times, the Los
Angeles Times and Entertainment Weekly, among others, and Warner Brothers
abandoned plans for a general release. The sense of affront in those
negative reviews confirmed Warner's suspicions about the film and, since
movie execs are always happy to be told they're right, they felt justified
in killing it.

The critics seemed to be asking how dare the filmmaker who had given them
the sports comedies "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can't Jump" confront them
with material this dark. Reading those aggressively stupid pans, I thought
of how Cobb explains why his biography should be a whitewashed,
mythologizing affair: "The children of America need heroes." The critics
who attacked "Cobb" seemed to resent being talked to as adults.

"Cobb," which is set in 1960, opens, like "Citizen Kane," with a newsreel
overview of its subject's life, all high points and huzzahs, before cutting
to the newsman dispatched to find the real story. He's sportswriter Al
Stump (Robert Wuhl), whose 1961 True magazine article formed the basis for
Shelton's screenplay. In the middle of a bull session at his neighborhood
bar, Stump gets a call from Cobb, who wants the reporter to write his
life story. Stump is stunned. So are his pals -- they all assumed Cobb was
dead. What Stump finds when he drives up to Cobb's Lake Tahoe hunting lodge
is an ornery son of a bitch daring death to come and get him.


Since Cobb is alive, Stump, unlike the newsman in "Kane," doesn't have to
rely on the testimony of ex-wives and business associates. In fact, he
can't: Cobb's relatives will have nothing to do with him, and Stump can
find no one who considers Cobb a friend. It's not hard to see why. Cobb
greets Stump with a blast of buckshot, and holds him at gunpoint whenever
Stump argues with him, threatening to kill the reporter in the blink of an
eye. Cobb can't manage to die that fast himself. He's being eaten away by a
variety of diseases that he tries to stave off by grabbing whatever pills
happen to be handy and washing them down with bourbon, or else by injecting
insulin right into his stomach. He appears to be keeping himself alive by
sheer spite. Cobb envisions the book he's hired Stump to write as his way
of controlling how history sees him. He wants a piece of self-serving,
glorifying hogwash. Stump wants the real story, the truth, which Cobb
(who's wrangled editorial approval) insists Stump cannot include.

"Cobb" proceeds as a series of duets -- by turns hilarious,
confrontational, compassionate and ruthless -- between these two men. In
form, it's a road movie, with Stump accompanying Cobb to Reno (where the
old man nearly rapes a cocktail waitress, played by Lolita Davidovich, then
pays her $1,000 to brag about how great he was -- he's
impotent), to a testimonial dinner at the Baseball Hall of Fame, to Cobb's
Georgia hometown. The whole way, each is arguing for his version of what
the book should be.

There's no doubt in Stump's mind that this man is the greatest baseball
player who ever lived. But to Stump, that means he should be a hero, not,
in the words of Cobb's servant, Willie (the riotous Lou Myers), the
"disgusting, wretched, sorry son of a motherfucker" he sees in front of
him. Stump can't reconcile those views, so he tries to separate them,
writing the book Cobb wants, while secretly making notes for his own
unvarnished biography. He figures he can outlast Cobb easy; he even tells
Cobb that when the player dies, he'll write whatever he damn well pleases.
"I'll write slow," Stump says. "I'll die slow," Cobb counters.


Cobb's belief in his own greatness is a belief in his superiority to almost
everyone else, but he also knows he's a nasty prick. He plows right past
the contradiction that bedevils Stump. And however much Stump tries to
taunt Cobb into revealing the key to that paradox, Cobb knows that any
"Rosebud" he hands Stump would be bullshit. At one point, Cobb tells Stump
that his father died trying to catch his (innocent) wife cheating by
sneaking into his own house; she mistook him for a prowler and shot him.
Then Cobb discounts the revelation: "I was a prick before it happened and a
much bigger prick after," he tells Stump, "and you can stick that up your
Sigmund Freud ass." Later, when Stump accuses him of hating women, he tells
another version in which his mother was unfaithful and her lover
pulls the trigger.

Stump struggles to hold these two contradictory views of Cobb in his head
at the same time. (It's a bitch of a lesson, one Stump is still trying to
learn as the film ends. In real life, Stump ghosted the book Cobb wanted
and wrote a True article telling of his travels with the dying ballplayer.
But it took him 33 years to finish the biography he really wanted to write.
It was published a few months before "Cobb" was released.) Wuhl,
whose great rubbery face has made him a wonderful second banana in pictures
like "Bull Durham" and "Batman," uses the comedy of a regular guy caught in
a crazy situation to draw us into something much deeper. Stump is our
stand-in, awed and disgusted by Cobb.


In the wrong hands, "Cobb" could easily have been one of those endurance
tests devised by bad actors to see how much an audience will stand for.
That's showiness, a different thing from honesty, which is what Jones gives
us. This towering performance isn't just his best, it's one of the greatest
and most daring in any American movie. Even when Cobb lays on the charm, or
makes a play for Stump's sympathy by letting his voice subside to a quaver
as he tells the reporter he's the best friend he ever had, Jones never goes
soft. With a shock of white hair, his voice whittled down to a commanding
husk and a body that seems both a mass of weathered sinew and a shell on
the verge of collapse, Jones gives a performance that is a masterful
marriage of technique and instinct. Jones has an unholy majesty here, a
combination of body, presence and poison -- like the darkest burgundy laced
with strychnine. He employs a death's-head smile like a taunt. His Cobb is
the traditionalist as hipster, grooving on making people hate him, the
put-on artist who's as serious as a heart attack. Jones and Shelton arrange
the movie so that we feel sympathy for the man while keeping a full tally
of every sin on his cussed, gnarled soul.

Does Shelton admire Cobb? On some level, I think the answer has to be yes.
But the movie isn't making a claim for Cobb as a man's man, the lone proud
survivor of a vanished breed. This Cobb is a racist, a wife-beater,
probably a killer (there is evidence that Cobb's boast of killing a man was
true). He also has a crazed integrity and the fearlessness of the damned.
Cobb's desire to invest himself with enough stature to stand up to death is
both weirdly heroic and the thing that cuts him off from the living. And the closer he gets to death, the more horribly -- and magnificently
-- alive he seems. Shelton dares to voice a truth most people regard as
unwelcome: Sometimes greatness has nothing to do with goodness.

It's a toss-up whether a critic's hardest job is convincing people that a
very popular movie isn't much good or that a picture that got the bum's
rush is a great one. An awful lot of people -- too many of them movie
critics -- believe that movie studios know what they're doing. How, they
probably wonder, could a mainstream movie with a big star that didn't even
open in most towns be any good? Maybe by the same combined process of
commerce and nincompoopery that caused some of the greatest American novels
of the 19th century to be out of print and forgotten at the beginning of
this one. Can there be greatness in something condemned, discarded and now
(thanks to video) readily available? The answer, in the form of "Cobb," is
now at your video store.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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