The average baseball movie is not actually about baseball. It’s usually about something else—reconciliation, triumph over adversity, love’s redemptive qualities, blah blah blah—with baseball serving as the metaphorical backdrop for, or parallel to, much grander stories.
The result is often sentimental to the point of cheesiness. Most sports movies share a certain embarrassing sincerity; American culture cherishes an almost compulsive desire to watch the little guy overcoming long odds (Hoosiers) or heart and guts trouncing skill and superior size (Rocky IV, Seabiscuit). But because each baseball game contains a narrative about coming home, baseball films tend to take these truisms to extremes. The camera gets that fond faraway look, warm brown filters wrap the audience in the protective embrace of a better time gone by, and as the protagonist digs into the batter’s box with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the Hero’s Journey is officially underway. In slo-mo.
This is, mind you, not a complaint. If one of the great pleasures of baseball fandom is telling the game’s stories to each other, and if, like Bull Durham’s Annie Savoy, you believe in the Church of Baseball, this is its call-and-response. Baseball fans enjoy it as a ritual—overly solemn, in the way of most rituals—and as a result, I can forgive baseball movies their self-seriousness, their sometimes sophomoric attempts at philosophy, because I recognize them as expressions of love.
Cheese is delicious. But now and then I find a hair in my food.
1. Robert Redford in the first half hour of The Natural. The Natural is not so much a movie as a two-hour-plus love letter, on celluloid, to baseball and Joseph Campbell—not necessarily in that order—and everything about its imagery is completely over the top. Roy Hobbs (Redford) is written as an amalgam of about half a dozen mythic real-life baseball figures (Eddie Waitkus, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, and Shoeless Joe Jackson, just for starters), and uses a baseball bat made from a tree hit by lightning. His father died under said tree. And when Hobbs, a former farm boy, finally reaches the majors, his manager is a man named Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) who spends a lot of time daydreaming out loud about owning a farm. The so-explicit-it’s-all-but-subtitled black-widow imagery, the cartoonish smarm of newspaperman Max Mercy (Robert Duvall, looking vaguely ashamed)...every image and line of dialogue is top-heavy with symbolism. Director Barry Levinson is hardly the lightest touch in the business, but we can’t blame him entirely, as he’s working off an equally overloaded text by Bernard Malamud; still, if you cut all the expository montages of twirling newspapers and returned all the slow-motion sequences to regular speed, the movie would clock in at about 58 minutes. But I overlook most of the film’s failures because its successes resonate so powerfully. Randy Newman’s score doesn’t trust us to draw a single conclusion on our own, but it has become iconic, and the film is a pleasure to look at. The costume design in particular is gorgeous; you can almost feel the weight of the flannels players used to wear in the thirties. Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) is noir-femme by numbers, but Basinger plays her perfectly. And the shower of sparks reflected in Pop’s glasses after Hobbs’s triumphal home run is one of the most beautiful images in any baseball film—the entire story is in that one shot.
So if the film isn’t very good but I adore it anyway, why pick on Redford? Well, he’s the one flaw I can never seem to overlook. Nearly fifty years old when Levinson shot The Natural, Redford is barely believable as the late-thirties “present-day” Hobbs, and in the initial scenes, when he’s asked to play 18 years old—with all the smooth skin and aw-shucks energy that implies—the age gap between actor and character is distracting. Redford’s physicality is also an issue. He’s too slight, and from a pitching-motion standpoint, he’s not believable as a guy who could strike out a character based on Babe Ruth (Joe Don Baker as The Whammer) on three pitches—and for a hitter the film repeatedly tells us has almost supernatural home-run power, he’s got the Judy-est stroke I’ve ever seen. (And I’ve seen Pat Kelly.) I don’t care if Hobbs is powered by electricity and deliverance; he’s supposed to have some native talent, too. The casting agent couldn’t find one blond guy who looked sort of like a younger Redford, and send him to the batting cage for a week?
2. Terrence Mann’s big speech in Field of Dreams. It’s a shame that a film whose cheese is so note-perfect elsewhere is marred by a monologue as tone-deaf as this one. “Want to have a catch…Dad?” is straight out of a Hallmark commercial, and you can see the moment coming from the previews, but damned if it doesn’t get me every time—that, and Moonlight Graham (Burt Lancaster) stepping over the foul line and out of his dream of playing in the big leagues in order to do his duty as a doctor. For all its two-dimensional villains and its fetishizing of the Black Sox, Field of Dreams works as a tone poem about baseball and family—with one exception.
In the source novel, W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, the Terrence Mann character, a reclusive literary icon based on J.D. Salinger, actually is J.D. Salinger. Phil Alden Robinson is within his rights to change certain details for the screen—and in this case, he had no choice, since Salinger threatened legal action if his name or likeness were used in the film—but the character’s transformation into a James Baldwin-esque social critic played by James Earl Jones makes the homily on baseball and the evolution of America seem bizarre. “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball,” Mann says. “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh…people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
Yes, baseball has marked the time. It marked much of that time not permitting blacks to play alongside whites. Jackie Robinson’s debut, 60 years ago this April 15th, only began to address that injustice; Mann is an African-American activist who’s old enough to remember the Negro Leagues. Baseball has many fine qualities, but not everything that’s “part of our past,” or baseball’s, was good. If you don’t believe me, ask Curt Flood.
And speaking of ham-handed treatments of racism in movies about baseball…
3. Joe Louis Brown in Long Gone. Made for cable in 1987, Long Gone is an imperfect effort; it’s directed by Martin Davidson, who also helmed The Lords of Flatbush, and while neither is very good, they’re weirdly energetic. Long Gone, about the lives and loves of a minor-league team in ’50s Florida, is peppy, but its plots don’t gel, its tone zigzags from scene to scene, and its handling of the racism endemic to that time and place is almost schizophrenic. Manager Cecil “Stud” Cantrell (William Petersen) is forced by circumstance to pretend that his new hitter, Joe Louis Brown (Larry Riley), is not black but Venezuelan; teams really did this, for decades, in order to circumvent the color barrier, so it’s a nice touch of realism, but then the movie sort of forgets about Brown for a while—until it can gin up the suspense with an attempted lynching, complete with hooded Klansmen and a burning cross, that seems designed primarily to remind us that Cantrell is a brave, color-blind soul in spite of his drinking and womanizing. Then it changes tone again in the same scene, with one character crabbing that “we finally got a good player and those jerks wanna hang ’im,” and another observing in response, “We should let them hang Whizzer, he’s only batting .179.” Ha…ha? In a vacuum, that’s a good punchline, but are we to mourn the wrongheaded attitudes of the ’50s—or mock them?
The movie itself doesn’t seem to know. Cantrell and Brown are both bribed to sit out a key game; Cantrell is offered a managerial position with a wealthier ball club, while Brown is given…a Cadillac. Which he then smashes with a baseball bat. It’s as though writer Michael Norell had a bunch of ideas for baseball-movie scenes, strung them together, and didn’t go back to make sure they all belonged in the same story together, or that he hadn’t reinforced the very stereotypes he’s quite evidently opposed to elsewhere. The film is distinguished by an improvisational kooky sloppiness throughout, and its attitude towards women’s sexuality is anachronistic but winning (Cantrell happily informs a young teammate at one point, “Let me tell you one of the great truths you’re gonna learn in your lifetime: all girls fuck”), so the…well, for lack of a better word, weird approach towards its black character is probably mere carelessness, but it bogs down a movie distinguished by its light touch.
4. The sibling-rivalry subplot in A League of Their Own. Penny Marshall’s 1992 sports tearjerker should get far more tangled up in the customary clichés than it does. The movie follows the Rockford Peaches of the All American Pro Girls’ League, which was formed in response to the potential shutdown of men’s baseball during World War II, and you’ve got all the usual baseball-story ingredients—team bonding through wacky hijinks, the discovery of the true self, deliverance via love for the game, and long-simmering sibling rivalry that is first inflamed and then salved…by baseball. Aww. League handles the first three with bubbly, quick charm: Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell provide the comic relief; the ugly-duckling transformation of Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh) from mute tomboy to torch-singing cleanup hitter is saved from cutesiness by Cavanagh’s hammy performance; and the redemption-arc duties are handled by one Tom Hanks, turning in an underrated performance as irascible drunk manager (and former big-leaguer) Jimmy Dugan. “There’s no CRYING! There’s no CRYING in BASEBALL!” is his best remembered bit in the film, and I often direct it at inanimate objects that aren’t working, but Hanks really shines in his scenes with Geena Davis, who plays catcher (and biggest league star) Dottie Hinson, especially when he’s trying to get her to admit that she loves to play. An exchange that should prompt eye-rolls—Jimmy bitching Dottie out for quitting because it got “too hard” to stay—is handled with just the right mix of asperity and disappointment by Hanks. “It’s supposed to be hard,” he snaps. “If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great.”
The sister story is another matter. Without it, you wouldn’t have much of a movie, so I guess it’s not the subplot I dislike; it’s one of the siblings. I’ve hated Lori Petty in every role I’ve ever seen her in, and her turn as Kit Keller, Dottie’s younger sister, is typically irritating. (The unsightly orange wig Petty is lumped with doesn’t help.) We’re meant to sympathize with Kit, who’s constantly overshadowed and condescended to by her older sister, and Davis plays Dottie with credible older-sister smugness. But Petty’s performance is the usual bundle of squawking, whining, and bad blocking, and when Dottie drops the ball in the final game to let Kit’s team win—turning the spotlight over to Kit at last—the moment isn’t satisfying, because Dottie doesn’t exactly “just” drop the ball. It’s knocked out of her hand by Kit, who runs through a coaching sign at third and more or less mugs Dottie, Ty Cobb-style, on the play at the plate. Kit is realistic, in her way, but she’s not likable.
5. Crash’s big speech to Annie in Bull Durham. It’s a movie about love, not baseball, and I can hang with that, but Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is often obnoxious, and never more so than when he baits the hook for Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy with a speech about his beliefs: “I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”
Crash is supposed to come off romantic and intelligent here, but he’s really embodying a man’s misbegotten notion of a woman’s masculine ideal: he’s man enough to curse, but really feels things, too. Give me a bucket. Disliking artificial grass and the DH is not exactly a courageous minority position, and with the scotch and the body parts—what is he, 15 years old? Who doesn’t believe in this stuff?
J.J. Faulkner was raised in a Mets household, which should shed some light on her moody nature. This is her first piece for The House Next Door.