Written & Directed by Ron Shelton
I’m quite happy that I have finally moved out of a series of films I have seen before, and in fact make up a big part of nostalgia for my childhood relationship with the game of baseball. It was a joy to rediscover those films, but the true heart of the marathon is discovering movies which are new to me about the game I love so much. So with Cobb, I am finally making that return to the undiscovered for a stint, and Cobb has always been one which I have been very curious to check out. Directed by Ron Shelton, who helmed Bull Durham, one of the best thus far in the marathon, the film takes on one of the more controversial players in the history of the sport in the form of Ty Cobb, a tremendous talent on the field (the all time leader in batting average), but also a unequivocal asshole both on and off the field as well. Such a polarizing character, both hero and a jerk, should make for a great character study.
Played by Tommy Lee Jones, Ty Cobb is now in old age, residing in the Sierra Nevada mountains at his lush mountain cabin in the care of people who resent the man’s nasty ways. Nearing the end of his life, Cobb decides he wishes to publish his autobiography, enlisting the help of sports writer Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) to help in the process. Along the way, Stump too begins to resent Cobb’s ways, threatening to leave what would be a tremendous break for his career in order to rid himself of the old man. Instead, he decides he will write two books, the one Cobb wants, which focuses on baseball and ignores the truth of his life, and the one Stump wants, which reveals the troubled childhood, past and tumultuous life of a man devoid of morals and devoid of friends, even as he now considers Stump as a friend.
Because of the approach Shelton takes in making this film, focusing on the journey between Stump and Cobb as they make their way to the Hall of Fame, and then on to his hometown of Royston, Georgia, Cobb is less about baseball even then The Scout turned out to be, but does draw many other comparisons to that film given the psychological connections between Ty Cobb and Steve Nebraska. However, Tommy Lee Jones excels at chewing up scenery every time he is on screen, inhabiting the mean, larger than life, and extremely cocky Cobb in such an over the top way as to toe the line with taking the performances too far and making it seem just right. This high-wire act fuels the film next to Robert Wuhl, who feels seriously miscast in a film that seems to be more about Stump’s journey with Cobb than Cobb’s own story.
As such, Wuhl lacks any depth or subtlety required to explore the motivations of Stump to stay by Cobb’s side, while also betraying him by also writing a book about the truth. I think the choice by Shelton to tell this story instead of just Cobb’s biography is a great stroke, as Cobb’s story would have been too conventional, straight forward, and would have likely derailed Jones’ over the top performance. There is no mystery or great emotional suffering from Cobb. He is just a jerk, so Stump’s is the story that makes this film an interesting narrative, but the fact remains, Wuhl was incapable of carrying that weight. As the two form a relationship throughout the film, the main inquisition of the film is what is Stump’s obligation to Cobb or to his audience to tell the true story, or to reveal his secrets?
There is practically no baseball action in the film, so including it as part of this marathon only seems ceremonial, though any biographical film about a great of the game will belong in any true marathon of the films of the game. It has a separate place within the context of the baseball movie because it subverts some of the conventions. Even where The Babe was a biographical film about Babe Ruth, the filmmakers still made a point to highlight some of the great’s on field accomplishments. Here, Shelton merely mentions them in passing, telling a tragic story of a poor old man who never had any friends and was as nasty, racist and bigoted as they come. His only redeeming quality was his performance on the field. So by telling this side of the story, Shelton is asking this audience what is more important when manufacturing heroes, on field accomplishments, or role model morals off it? I think the question is relevant, when Cobb played, when Cobb was made, and even now in the culture of million dollar athletes.