Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"Cobb" - It's Almost All a Lie, but Does That Matter?

*I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.

**Blogger sucks sometimes and makes things bold randomly. So some of this article is in bold, but that is not my choice. The only things I intended to be in bold are the section titles.

I guess I’m a sports kick now, moving from hockey (Sudden Death) to baseball. That was not intentional. It’s mainly because I listened to a podcast about Field of Dreams, and the line about none of the players liking Ty Cobb came up, and it reminded me of this movie. I always liked this movie for Jones’s batshit performance as the crazed, drunken, dying Cobb. I still like it for that, but I also used to like it because I felt like I was in the know about something. Ty Cobb, a baseball player I only knew of because of all his records, was actually a crazy, racist asshole! But a few years ago, the primary source for this movie, Al Stump, was exposed as a fraud. So it turns out Cobb may have been a dick, but probably wasn’t the psycho we see in this film. So what does that mean for this movie?

The rare underseen movie that should stay that way.

I used to consider Cobb a hidden gem among baseball movies. Hardly anyone saw it in the theaters (it made $1 million total at the box office), and it wasn’t a critical darling (65% on Rotten Tomatoes is okay, but certainly not great). I felt like I was one of the only people who knew about this movie. As it turns out, that may have been a good thing.

Here’s a little background to explain the factual issues with this movie. Al Stump was a popular sports writer in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s that was tasked with ghost-writing Ty Cobb’s autobiography. Cobb wanted a very dry book devoted to baseball. Stump produced this. Then a few weeks later, he had an article published about how crazy Cobb was while he worked with him. Then, in the early ‘90s, Stump wrote an entire book about how crazy Cobb was: Cobb is shown to be constantly drunk, disgustingly racist, quick to fire a gun in public and in his home, a wife beater, a terrible father, a murderer, etc. Then Ron Shelton makes the movie adaptation. Years later, Stump is exposed as a fraud when he tries to sell a shotgun he claims was used to kill Cobb’s father. The coroner’s report stated that a pistol had been used, not a shotgun. And then the rest of the dominoes fell. Stump had been selling Cobb memorabilia for years, most of it most likely fake. And then people started looking into the claims made in the book, and most of them could not be backed up. And now his entire book, and the movie, can be called into question. Here's an article that goes into more detail about it all.

Now there are entire books and a number of articles devoted to clearing Cobb’s name, but the damage is done. Most people think of Cobb as a racist maniac. Now, obviously Cobb wasn’t a saint. He was a product of the deep South from the late 1800s; the guy was probably a racist. But there are quotes from him supporting the inclusion of black players in baseball, and he made a comment about Willie Mays being the only player he’d pay money to watch. Also, Cobb was very competitive, so plenty of people probably disliked him. And he was divorced a couple times and apparently didn’t have the best relationship with his children. He was probably someone you wouldn’t want to hang out with, but does that make him a gun-toting racist real-life Yosemite Sam?  

That’s why I’m okay with people not watching this movie. Because Tommy Lee Jones goes all in with his performance. He’s a fucking maniac in this movie. His performance is by far the best part of the movie, but it’s now the most problematic as well. Perhaps future copies and streaming versions of the movie could include a disclaimer: “The work this film is based on has been discredited since the initial release, but please still enjoy Tommy Lee Jones going fucking nuts, even if it is not historically accurate.”

As a work of fiction, I think Cobb holds up. The overall points of the movie are still valid, even if the specifics are most likely exaggerated or made up. Do America’s children need heroes? If so, should we lie to keep them heroic? Or is it the adults that need these heroes?

With that written, the other main theme regarding a journalist’s responsibility to the truth goes right out the fucking window now, so I’ll ignore that one. Actually, now you can look at the movie as a cautionary tale of being too trusting of journalists. But in these dark days of “fake news” and people refusing to believe facts, that’s probably not a point that needs to be made anymore. Perhaps the film can serve as a historical object. Look at what used to happen before our skepticism became too strong: we used to take journalists at their word. We got burned so many times that now some dickheads out there don’t trust anything except their own opinions. Thanks, Al Stump! I’m glad Robert Wuhl portrayed you as an annoying fuckhead!

So I’ll ignore the journalistic theme and focus on that sports hero stuff...

Did we ever need sports heroes?

I love baseball and baseball movies, but one thing that always annoys me about the two is this reverence placed on the sport. It’s America’s pasttime and all that. Kids used to grow up idolizing their heroes at the ballpark. Now it’s all about the money! What happened to this perfect part of America?

I always chalk these feelings up to the idiotic idea that American life in the 1950s was perfect, and it’s all turned to shit since then. Maybe life was simpler and better for some people back then, but civil rights still had a long way to go, among other things. I think it’s a simple case of nostalgia for baby boomers. Things were better when they were kids. But that’s every generation! Shit gets worse as you get older because you know more about the world. It only seems especially bad now because as a species we’ve become more aware of how shitty we all are thanks to the internet. The ‘50s were only great for some people because it was easier to live in ignorance.

So what the fuck does that have to do with baseball? Well, baseball is just part of it. But some people, like director Ron Shelton, for instance, like to think that baseball was integral to American life back then. And I just don’t buy it. When I was a kid in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s I had favorite baseball players, but my life didn’t hinge upon their heroic image. They were just the players I rooted for and wanted to be like. When I found out Jose Canseco did steroids it didn’t cause some existential crisis within me, and it damn sure didn’t cause one for the country as a whole. Cobb would have you believe that Stump seriously worried about destroying Cobb’s image among the children of America. Thankfully, he realizes at the end that the children of America don’t need Cobb. But he claims he does. And that’s what it’s all about. Some people just want their own personal heroes to stay heroic. I think, as a culture, we’ve moved beyond that a bit, but there are still people out there that simply won’t believe bad things about people they idolize. I’m not one of those people. For instance, Louis C.K. used to be my favorite comedian, but after his fucked up behavior was exposed, I changed my opinion of him. Now I can’t watch his old stand-up material without thinking about what he was doing at the time. That’s a good thing, in my opinion. You should be able to change your mind about your heroes because heroes are people, and people fucking suck.

I guess that’s why the treatment of baseball annoys me. It’s just a game. And this is coming from someone who tries to go to an MLB game every year. I love going to baseball games. I still watch baseball on TV when I get chance. I even listen to it on the radio at times. But I don’t think of it as some sacred activity. It’s entertainment, plain and simple, and most people would disagree with even that.

Perhaps that’s why baseball movies tend to treat the sport with such reverence. It used to be more than just entertainment to them. It used to be pure, blah blah blah. The problem with that is that baseball, like every other sport, has always had scandals and awful policies. Let’s start with the big one: it was a whites only game until the 1950s. Is that what people are nostalgic about? Remember the good old days when baseball was a white sport? I hope that’s not the case. So maybe they long for the days before steroid use and other forms of cheating. Then explain the World Series being fixed in 1919. Was that back when the game was pure?

I’ve rambled all over this subject, so I’ll end with this: we’ve never needed sports heroes; we just need to take off the rose-colored glasses and realize that while the game looks different, it’s actually always been the flawed institution it is today. I just wish baseball movies would stop comparing going to a baseball stadium with going to church or something. Baseball is a great game, but it’s still just a game.

Why Do I Own This?

I own this because of Tommy Lee Jones’s performance. I’ve rewatched it plenty of times, and I’ll watch it again in the future. He’s just going for it in this movie. I sincerely believe this performance helped prepare him to play Two Face a year later in Batman Forever. In fact, Cobb and Batman Forever would be an odd, yet fitting double feature.

Random Thoughts

The opening credits music makes it seem like this is a movie about an evil dictator.

Stump and his writer buddies are annoying as fuck.

Cobb comes across as pretty damn cartoonish. I never thought that when I used to watch it, but now that I know it's mostly bullshit, it's hard to take him seriously. But now I wonder how I ever thought this was what this man was like.

I like when Cobb hurries to take a pill in the kitchen he pours some whiskey in a cup to wash it down instead of drinking straight from the bottle. Not to mention the insanity of taking the pills with whiskey in general.

So how much time has passed when they take off for Reno? It seems like it's simply the second day, but Stump's narration makes it seem like he's been there for days. But then they see Willie, who took off right when Stump showed up, and Willie says, "I told you you wouldn't last a day!" So Willie walked all a blizzard? How is he not dead?

"She married my father when she was 12, which is the way they used to do it."

With the historical aspect of the film along with the super serious score, this feels like Ron Shelton's attempt at an Oscar. Which is funny, because this film is tonally all over the place, but you could tell that Shelton thought he was making something very profound about sports heroism and truth in journalism.

"You're gonna get hurt today, you pecker-neck sumbitch!”

Tommy Lee Jones is great as usual, but he does not look like a baseball player, even an old-timey one. Perhaps it’s because Jones has always looked like a seventy-year-old man.

"It's kind of tough hitting from your back, ain't it, Cobb?"
"That's the way your mother always liked it."

I can't get over the music during the slow motion baseball scenes. It's the kind of music that would play during a death scene in a comic book movie or something. It doesn't help that when the scene goes back to normal speed, ragtime music is playing. It's just strange.

"Look! What is that? That's a man!"
"Fuck him."

This movie has my favorite quote about baseball: "Cool Papa Bell was so fast that one time he hit a line drive up the middle that hit himself in the head sliding in  to second base."

The whole ordeal with Ramona made me cringe when I first saw it, and it makes me cringe even more now, which is the point of the scene, by the way. But Stump comes off badly here too. He wants Ramona drunk, but not “too drunk to screw." What a great guy… And sure, he's drunk too, but it seems like he was orchestrating things.

I like Robert Wuhl, but I also find him very annoying in most films. I fucking hate him in this movie, especially now that I know his character is full of shit. Wait. Do I like Robert Wuhl?

Cobb's order for Mickey Cochrane still makes me laugh: "...and a bottle of cologne 'cause the sumbitch stinks!"

"I'd run you down if I was ten, fifteen, twenty years younger."

Bradley Whitford showing up as the unluckiest process server.

"Truth is a whore, just like you are, and just like my mother was."

"A Mr. Barton is here to see you. He says he's chairman of the board of Coca-Cola."
"Tell him to go downstairs and have a Pepsi."

"And we all know writers never lie."

The movie ends with the same musical issue earlier: intensely dramatic followed by old timey fun.

The credits end with two lines from Cobb. One is inexplicable: "I regret that I didn't go to college. I feel I should have been a doctor." The other is a little more fitting: "Baseball was 100% my life."

Man, that "The Real Al Stump" featurette on the DVD is crazy now that he's been exposed. He talks about how truthful the story is, and he even gives Ron Shelton a pipe he claims Cobb owned.

Shelton says early in his commentary, "Hopefully by the end of this introduction, you won't know what's real and what isn’t." He is talking about mixing images of the real Cobb and Jones, but in hindsight, it applies to the entire story.