The hair is scraggly, the face a pucker of decayed flesh, the voice a mean-ass Dixie bellow that periodically rises to a howl. What is this, The Strom Thurmond Story? No, it’s Tommy Lee Jones as Ty Cobb, 72 years old and still ranting. In Cobb, Ron Shelton’s bizarre biographical drama, audiences are invited to gaze upon the spectacle of the aging Ty Cobb with fear, trepidation, and shock. Instead, they may end up running for cover. Not since Bette Davis moldered and shrieked through What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has an actor this talented been allowed to indulge in this much garish Southern gothic hysteria.
When it was announced last year that Jones would star in a feature-length biography of baseball’s first superstar, I felt a surge of excitement. Here was an American hero — to many, the greatest player who ever lived — who was also a cruel, racist, borderline-psychotic son of a bitch. A man worshiped and despised. If anyone could dig into the demons that drove Ty Cobb, could tap the ugly truth and, at the same time, locate the warped humanity behind it, Jones, with his feral intelligence, his malignance and strength, would seem to be the one. And writer-director Shelton, who made one of the best baseball movies ever, the lovely 1988 comedy Bull Durham, seemed the ideal filmmaker for the job. Cobb, however, is a jaw-dropping botch, a bilious and reductive attack on its own hero. It is also, believe it or not, a baseball movie that contains virtually no baseball.
In 1960, Al Stump (Robert Wuhl), a hot young sportswriter, is summoned to Cobb’s wintry Nevada retreat, where he is greeted by the sound of gunfire. Cobb, still fearless, has aged into a sickly, impotent, bourbon-swilling paranoid who spends his days charting the stock market and nattering on about his eternal greatness as a ballplayer. He’s the celebrity as debased pasha — a hillbilly Howard Hughes. Rich from his investments, Cobb can afford to do anything he wants, and in his case that means treating the world as his doormat. With curiosity, we wait for a glimpse of the man he once was, the legend in full flower.
Well, it never arrives. Except for some doctored documentary footage and one brief baseball sequence, the entire movie turns out to be about Cobb as an embittered septuagenarian crank. As it dawns on us that we’re never really going to see him as a young man — that Cobb will be two hours of Tommy Lee Jones in bad old-age makeup yelling at everyone within earshot — we begin to get the eerie, Twilight Zone sensation that we’ve been trapped inside the movie’s framing device. Jones, working himself up into fits of frothing sarcasm, plays Cobb as a human pit bull with no special qualities apart from his lunatic energy. In essence, this is the same blaring, look-how-fast-I-can-talk performance that Jones gave in Natural Born Killers. There, however, his hysteria was used satirically. In Cobb, Jones seems trapped inside his own febrile personality. He’s so utterly, hyperbolically Tommy Lee Jones that his performance doesn’t begin to register as an imaginative look at who Ty Cobb was.
After a while, Cobb and Stump drive to Reno, where Cobb makes a racist pig of himself and picks up a Harrah’s cigarette girl (Lolita Davidovich), whom he proceeds to treat like groupie trash. How illuminating! Then the two men head to Cooperstown, where Cobb is set to be honored along with other aging Hall of Famers. Preserving his legend is all he cares about. But what was the legend about? Over and over, the movie presents us with the inevitable litany of Cobb’s amazing batting records. But since Shelton makes only a perfunctory attempt to dramatize Cobb’s genius as an athlete — there’s one flashback in which we see him steal a few bases — we have almost no emotional stake in the wreck he’s become. (He’s hardly the first celebrity to spend his later years as a whacked-out misanthrope.) What we do get are clunky flashbacks to the incident in which Cobb’s mother allegedly shot his jealous father dead. The film disingenuously implies that Cobb was a boy when this occurred; in fact, he was 18 years old and played his first game for the Detroit Tigers three weeks later. So much for Freudian clichés.
Cobb turns into a noisy, cantankerous buddy picture. Stump, played by Wuhl as a generic nice guy, is secretly at work on two versions of the Cobb biography: Cobb’s own, glossed-over version, and ”the truth” — that the man, for all his talent, was irredeemable. The real Al Stump did, in fact, write Cobb’s biography, and later published his own, darker reflections on the man. But as presented by Shelton, this ersatz-Unforgiven, myth-versus-reality stuff makes very little sense when applied to a figure like Ty Cobb. What was singularly fascinating about him as an athlete is that his nasty, cleats-in-the-air aggression, his vision of baseball as warfare, his militant, almost Nietzschean will to triumph over everyone in his path were, in fact, the very forces that defined his greatness. That the man was a bastard isn’t really at odds with his legend; it’s at the very center of it. Cobb, which may go down as the first Hollywood ”pathography,” offers a truly perverse spectacle: By refusing to place before our eyes Ty Cobb’s haunted ferocity as a baseball player, it succeeds in making him look even worse than he was. BOLD “D”]