50 years, 50 films: Cobb (1994)
It was a strong year for films. But we, nonetheless, turn to an underrated, obscure gem.
From 1988 to 1999 writer-director Ron Shelton dedicated himself to a tricky genre: the sport’s movie. In that space he gave us one boxing film (the dodgy Play it to the Bone), one basketball film (the enjoyable White Men Can’t Jump), a rare golf film (the endurable Tin Cup) and two baseball films (the fine Bull Durham and the subject of this post).
You can be forgiven for having let Cobb pass you by. Focussing on the later life of notoriously gruff batter Ty Cobb, the film received an understandably meagre release in these territories. Field of Dreams is one thing — a delicious fantasy that is about baseball in the same way Seventh Seal is about chess — but a grim analysis of an obscure (to most of us here, anyway) misanthrope is quite another. Actually, the film didn’t do much in the US either. Shelton does not offer the sort of inspirational surge we expect from sports movies. Nobody leaves Cobb punching the air.
Yet a glance at the poor old thing confirms that we are looking at something of a neglected classic. Cobb is not just about sport. It’s about the American tendency to impose inspiring legend on stories that do not easily accommodate such deception. The great Jonathan Rosenbaum had it right when he said that “the story has more in common with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance than with any other sports biopic.”
Robert Wuhl plays Al Stump, a distinguished sports writer who was hired in 1959 to ghostwrite the autobiography of Cobb, a star during the first three decades of the 20th century. The man he discovers is not an obvious candidate for hagiography: drunk, racist, angry, violent. Firearms are always to hand. He lives without heat after endless arguments with the utility companies. Wuhl comes up with a plan: he will publish the whitewashed version as planned and then, when Cobb dies, deliver his deserved hatchet job.
Such a character needs a heck of an actor to make him compelling. This version of Cobb got the performance he deserved from the reliably furrowed Tommy Lee Jones. It is saying something significant to suggest that this might be the greatest performance in that actor’s career. There is nobody better at full-on grumpiness and Shelton invites Tommy to exercise those glands to the fullest imaginable extent. Cobb was, it seems, as big a jerk on the field as he was off it. And Jones does not hold back in revealing those truths.
You might argue that –returning to Rosenbaum’s comparison — the film proves the point made so eloquently in Who Shot Liberty Valence? That John Ford western famously ends with a journalist arguing that, when in doubt, it’s best to “print the legend“. Ron Shelton’s film told the grubby truth instead and, well, nobody went to see the thing. It dearly deserves rediscovery. One of the greatest of all sports films.
For 1994, we also considered Through the Olive Trees, Satantango, Pulp Fiction, The Last Seduction, Chungking Express and Heavenly Creatures. A good year, actually. But we enjoyed making the case for Cobb.