Movie Review: Cobb (1994)
A common conversation among movie buffs is which actor you’d like to play you in the movies. A less common conversation is which actor you wouldn’t. I’ll start that one. I wouldn’t want Robert Wuhl to play me.
Case in point: “Cobb,” written and directed by Ron Shelton of “Bull Durham” fame. It’s 1960, and Al Stump (Wuhl), a sportswriter on the rise, is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of aged and dying baseball legend Ty Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones). Yes, he’s heard the rumors about what a bastard Cobb is. But it’s Ty Cobb. So he drives to Cobb’s home, near Lake Tahoe, buoyant and practically whistling a tune.
Turns out the rumors were off. Cobb isn’t a bastard. He’s a pistol-shooting, morphine-shooting-up, racist, sexist, reckless, abusive and criminally prosecutable bastard.
Pride of the Tigers
Stump keeps realizing this for the first hour of the movie. Let me repeat that: He keeps realizing this. Cobb does crazy shit (shoots his gun at Stump) and Stump looks dumbfounded and says “He’s crazy!” Then Cobb does more crazy shit (drives Stump off a mountain road) and Stump looks dumbfounded and says “He’s crazy!” Here’s where a better actor than Wuhl might have helped, might have given us something more than dumbfounded, but that’s all Wuhl’s got.
Why doesn’t Al Stump just walk away? Does he need the gig that much? Does he need to be near greatness? Could the movie have explored this need? Instead: in this corner, Crazy, in that corner, Dumbfounded. Ding ding.
It gets worse. In Reno, on stage with Louis Prima, Cobb insults blacks, Jews, women and Louis Prima. Meanwhile, Stump has hooked up briefly, and, under the circumstances, tenderly, with cigarette girl/hard-luck case Ramona (Lolita Davidovich, Shelton’s wife), and the two are slow dancing in his hotel room when Cobb, like a vengeful fury, bursts into the room, decks Stump, and literally drags Ramona to his own hotel room, where he forces her to strip at gunpoint and attempts to rape her. “Now you take off them goddamned clothes,” he says. “Get on the bed,” he says. “Lay down and turn around,” he says.
Not exactly “Pride of the Yankees.”
So what do you do if the hero of your story is really a villain? That’s the dilemma for both Al Stump, writing Cobb’s autobiography, and Ron Shelton, writing and directing “Cobb.”
Stump’s solution is to write two books: 1) the hagiography he shows to Cobb but plans to throw away once Cobb dies; and 2) the real book about their experiences together that exposes Cobb for what he is. Question: Could this second book have even been published in1961? “Ball Four,” which blew the lid off of the pretty lies of Major League baseball, is nine years and a cultural tsunami away.
(For the record, the real Al Stump ultimately published two books: the ghostwritten autobiography, “My Life in Baseball: The True Record,” shortly after Cobb’s death in July 1961, and “Cobb: A Biography,” more than 30 years later, in 1994, in which he revealed the less heroic elements of the Georgia Peach. No indication, in the movie, on the 30-year delay.)
Stump’s solution isn’t great but Shelton’s is worse. First, he makes Cobb almost cartoonish in his villainy. In a flashback scene to his playing days, we see Cobb get into a fistfight at every base (at every base), while in present-day 1960 Jones cackles and grins like Mephisto. It makes his performance as Two Face in “Batman Forever” seem subtle.
Against this, Shelton attempts to evoke our sympathy. Ah, Cobb’s got cancer. Ah, Cobb can’t get it up. Ah, Cobb helps out destitute ballplayers like Mickey Cochrane, who later turn their backs on him. Those guys are mean.
Plus Cobb is always right—and Stump is always wrong—about everything. Cobb shoots at a deer with a shaky hand and claims to have hit it in the neck, which Stump denies ... until Stump comes across the dead door in the woods. Cobb says he has final say on his autobiography, which Stump denies ... until he phones his agent and discovers Cobb does have final say. Etc.
Most important, Cobb is honest. “By writing two versions I was becoming what Cobb was not,” Stump says in melancholy voiceover halfway through the film. “I was becoming a liar.” Cobb goes for what he wants—whether it’s that deer in the woods or Ramona in his hotel room—while Stump, poor everyman, equivocates and assumes the best in others. He’s accommodating. And the world shits on an accommodating man. That’s the lesson here. Stump thinks he and his wife, separated for a few months, are working things out, which Cobb laughs at; and sure enough, late in the film, in a cabin in the middle of the night, Stump is served divorce papers. Cobb was right again! So what does Stump do? He pistol-whips the poor bastard serving him. He uses Cobb’s accent and waves Cobb’s gun in the injured man’s face. It’s a worm-turns moment that the movie views positively—or at least comically. See? Accommodating Stump crazy; crazy Cobb counseling caution. Funny.
Lies, damned lies, and “Cobb”
The true insult is the “Citizen Kane” analogy. The movie begins with a “New of the World” feature, like “Kane,” and it’s also, like “Kane,” a movie-length attempt at uncovering the childhood secret that explains the man. For Kane, it was “Rosebud,” the symbol of his innocent upbringing. For Cobb, it’s the death of his father, a great man, who is killed by this mother. The father apparently suspected the mother of infidelity and returned early from a business trip to spy on her. The mother apparently suspected the shadowy figure outside her bedroom to be a burglar, or worse, and shot him dead. That’s the story we get from Cobb halfway through “Cobb” but near the end he adds a wrinkle. The father was right. The mother was cheating. And it was her lover, her very naked lover, who shoots the father dead. “The last thing my father saw was the face of the man fucking his wife,” says Cobb in Tommy Lee Jones’ plaintive voice.
The scene takes place at the Cobb mausoleum in a Georgia cemetery. And why are they at this cemetery? It's the place they’re driving by when Stump, after months of abusive behavior from Cobb, finally gets fed up, demands the car stop, and walks out on him. And what sets off Stump after months of abusive behavior from Cobb? Well, Stump has just tried to broker a meeting between Cobb and his estranged daughter, who refuses to see him; then he lies to Cobb, telling him that the woman in the window wasn’t his daughter. Cobb gently calls him on this lie and this sets off Stump. This. Not being shot at. Not being run off the road. This.
A hagiography would’ve felt less like a lie than “Cobb.”