There’s one thing you won’t do after you see Ron Shelton’s latest movie.
You won’t not have an opinion. In that sense, the former professional ballplayer (AAA second baseman in the Orioles organization of the early 70s) and Bull Durham writer and director hit another home run. You’ll love it or you’ll hate it. But if you have a pulse, you will definitely be affected by Cobb.
I met with Ron Shelton in early January, when he was still guardedly optimistic about the film’s chances at the box office. He had reason to be. On the strength of the best performance of Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones’s career, Cobb got rave reviews
from newspapers like The New Yorker, the Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune. Unfortunately,
it also got ripped in Entertainment Weekly, The L.A. Times and The New York Times.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Shelton. It’s had an incredibly schizophrenic critical following. It seems it’s either the best American picture of the year or something Ty despicable. There is no gray area.”
Shelton was candid about his hope for an Oscar berth.
“We need a nomination somewhere to help us because it’s only in a hundred theatres. We need help from the Academy, no question.” Unfortunately for Cobb, a film has to be seen in order to be nominated, and not many saw this movie. Those who did probably saw it on home video, and Cobb is a movie that benefits from a big screen viewing.
Ty Cobb was a ballplayer with an uncommon sense of personal drive and ambition. He remained true to himself, throughout his life and his fascination in the subject of Ty Cobb never flagged. That is where the similarities between Ron Shelton and “The Georgia Peach” end. Shelton, who hails from West Texas dirt farmer stock, is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Cobb was, by all accounts, a completely insufferable human being. Shelton’s decision to make a commercial feature about Cobb begs the question ‘why make a movie about someone who was inherently unlikeable?’ Every first-year film school student knows the protagonist needs a few redeeming qualities in order to be palatable to an audience. Ty Cobb had none, so it would seem. And in this politically correct era, Shelton would have to understand that Cobb‘s unabashed racism and misogyny would be repugnant to more than a few audience members.
But Shelton didn’t flinch from telling his story of Al Stump’s odyssey the way he knew it should be told. Cobb, unrepentant and fiery as ever, knows he’s dying and hires Stump to write a sterilized autobiography of his life in baseball. Stump desperately wants to tell the truth about him, but Cobb will have none of it. Cobb never really changes during the course of the film, but because he is honest about who he is, he wins Stump’s grudging respect.
“Warner Bros. was very supportive,” says Shelton, who got his first choices to play the movie’s leads, although not without a fight. “To their credit, they never said, ‘now, we want you to make a kinder, gentler Cobb,’ even though they winced when they saw the dailies,” says Shelton. “I made it without apology, without condition. There are easier sells (than Cobb). But you don’t set out to make a movie thinking about the demographics. I just want to make stories that I’m interested in.”
Shelton was a late bloomer, by film world standards. After his baseball career reached an end when he couldn’t ride out the 1971 strike, he pursued a fine arts degree at the University of Arizona. Armed with an MFA, he made his way to L.A. because of the art scene. His real loves were sculpting and painting. Late in the decade he started writing scripts and in 1980 sold an option.
“From that point, I was hooked. After 10 years of odd jobs, someone was going to pay me to do this. I was in heaven.” His first produced script became Under Fire (starring Nick Nolte) in 1982. But it wasn’t until 1988, when Bull Durham became one o£ the top grossing films of the decade, that Shelton finally felt some sense of security. MM