Call it the Raging Bull of baseball movies. That’s one way to get a handle on the tangled tale of Tyrus Raymond Cobb, played with bruising intensity and raucous wit by Tommy Lee Jones. Sixty-six years after Cobb hung up his Philadelphia Athletics jersey and 33 years after his death, the Georgia Peach is still famous for achieving the highest lifetime batting average (367) and still infamous among those who knew him as a racist, sexist, gun-toting, tantrum-throwing, redneck tyrant. Jones gives a landmark performance that offers no apology for this ignorant savant. Writer and director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump) also refuses to indulge the fantasy that this hard case hides a heart of gold. Cobb’s heart is brass — like his balls.
Which raises a fair question: Why bother to make a movie about the bastard, especially this kind of movie? It’s not really about baseball. There are only a few flashbacks to show Cobb’s mastery and malevolence on the playing field. He would sharpen his spikes before a game — the better to steal a base or gouge any player who got in his way. Shelton’s Cobb is the story of a dying and diseased old man eager to write the story of his life in baseball and ready to lie his head off. He drags respected sports journalist Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) to his ranch in Nevada, scares him witless in a drive down the mountains in a blizzard and bullies him into playing biographer. Stump agrees to do it Cobb’s way, but he also keeps a secret journal – often quick notes written on cocktail napkins — for the no-bull book he plans to write later. Stump’s Cobb: A Biography — the inspiration for Shelton’s script — has only now been published.
The movie is fueled by the tension between what Stump hears Cobb say and what he sees Cobb do (their various meetings in 1960 and 1961 are condensed in the screenplay). Brought onstage for a bow at the Cal-Neva Lodge, Cobb wins cheers that turn to jeers when he takes the mike to make cracks about “niggers and kikes.” In a hotel room, Cobb brutalizes Ramona (Lolita Davidovich in a startling and affecting cameo), a cigarette girl he mistakes for a hooker. When slapping her around doesn’t bring the customary erection, he doesn’t notice the terror in her eyes — nor does he care. Later he starts a fight in a club and pulls a gun, hallucinates at a dinner honoring him at the Baseball Hall of Fame and returns to his home in Georgia to look up a family that doesn’t want to find him.
Except for flashbacks to a childhood incident in which Cobb’s father, a state senator, is shot and killed while sneaking home to catch his wife with another man, Cobb is free of facile Freudianism. Shelton’s strong, stinging film — one of the year’s best — wants to get at something ingrained in the American character: the irrational desire to make saints of sports heroes. That dog won’t hunt, yet the need is as old as Cobb and as timely as O.J. Simpson. The sight of Cobb in the baseball arena, flexing for combat, inspires awe. His behavior brings only revulsion. Can we separate the two? Should we? Get ready for a lively debate.