Phil Dellio and I got together for another Zoom discussion of movies, this time with a theme: baseball.
I've watched a lot of baseball movies recently, 7 to be exact (for reasons which will eventually be revealed). Most of them are pretty good ... I like baseball ... well, The Bad News Bears isn't all that great, and I really don't like Field of Dreams. But while I don't expect greatness from baseball movies, I usually enjoy them. Revisiting Bull Durham was a pleasure. I think it's the best of all the baseball movies I watched.
First, writer-director Ron Shelton gets the baseball right. He played minor-league ball, and he knows the milieu. You don't have stuff like Shoeless Joe Jackson batting right-handed, or a drunken Little League coach teaching a kid to throw curveballs. Shelton relies on the ability of Kevin Costner to look like he knows what he's doing with a bat (he even switch-hits). It's not that you decide to watch a baseball movie because Kevin Costner looks comfortable with a bat, and you don't watch A League of Their Own for evidence that Madonna can't play. But since part of the charm of Bull Durham is its feel of veracity, Costner's skills help.
But Bull Durham isn't merely a good baseball movie. The three leads (Costner as an aging ballplayer, Tim Robbins as a rookie pitcher, and Susan Sarandon as a baseball groupie) are not just well-cast ... their performances, and Shelton's writing, raise all three characters above a stereotype. None of the three are "just" their labels ... the aging ballplayer knows a bit about life outside the game, the groupie has a brain and a philosophy, and the rookie ... well, he's kind of a dunce, it's true. The casting matters ... Kevin Costner has always been a handsome guy who looks good on the screen, but his screen persona is kinda vague. It helps when a script gives him direction. (Think of his Untouchables co-star Sean Connery. You could put Connery in anything, and he'd be Sean Connery, and we would recognize that. I haven't the slightest idea who Kevin Costner is, based on his acting career. If he were to play "Kevin Costner", what would that mean? Very little, compared to the presence of someone like Connery.)
And Susan Sarandon triumphs as Annie Savoy. You roll your eyes when Annie appears ... oh god, here comes another groupie with a hot body. But Annie is a real character, Sarandon does wonders with the part, and Bull Durham would be a lesser movie without her. Oh, she has the burden of passing along the "Church of Baseball" malarkey ... that's my least-favorite part of the movie. But she even overcomes that. (Fields of Dreams is uninterested in the playing of baseball ... it's solely concerned with the metaphysics of it all. Despite the Church of Baseball stuff, Bull Durham is about actual people who come together around the game of baseball. It's an important difference.)
It had been a long time since I saw this one. I remember not liking it. It was right. Phil Alden Robinson gives us no feel for the actual game of baseball, only for the mystique, and I'm a fan of the game of baseball more than I am of the mystique. And, as Pauline Kael said, "That the film is sincere doesn't mean it's not manipulative".
The film posits that we need to return to the past. It's interesting that there is no irony in a black man giving the famous speech about the sport: "The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time." It should be ironic ... the players who emerge from the corn fields are all white, because black players weren't allowed in the majors for thirty more years. And the core narrative, that a young man, a child of the 60s, is not fulfilled until he reconnects with his father who is most certainly not of the 60s, is as reactionary as Forrest Gump.
It's not all bad. Three cheers for the young Gaby Hoffman. And it's nice as always to see Burt Lancaster, in what turned out to be his last appearance in a feature film. But I was disappointed overall. Not sure why, given my memories were that it wasn't a very good movie, but for some reasons, my hopes were up, and I wanted my past self to be proven wrong.
The IMDB calls A League of Their Own "The highest-grossing baseball movie." Not sure if this is true, but I can believe it. I imagine baseball movies is a niche genre, so if you can expand that niche, as A League of Their Own does with its feminist undercurrents, you might gross more at the box office than, say, Major League. I remember enjoying A League of Their Own when it came out, and revisiting it more than 30 years later, it retains its enjoyable nature.
Is it a classic? Maybe a classic baseball movie, but I don't know that I'd go further than that. There are some fun performances ... Madonna was never better in a movie, and I always like Lori Petty, while Geena Davis is iconic and Tom Hanks is ... well, he does get to say "There's no crying in baseball" and that's one of the most memorable quotes in movie history. The recreation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League is important, even necessary.
But there is nothing revolutionary about the approach of director Penny Marshall or writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. It's just Yet Another Sports Movie where our heroines rise above the barriers placed in front of them, leading to an inspiring and tear-jerking finish. It matters that the barriers in this case are historic and that the stars are women. But the revolution ends there, which limits the film to something more enjoyable than great. Of course, there's nothing wrong with enjoyable ... there's a reason for its continued popularity.
An entertaining film about a barnstorming team of African-American baseball players in the 1930s, when the Major Leagues still wouldn't allow black ballplayers. The cast is very engaging, with Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones in the leads. Richard Pryor has a big part, and the supporting cast includes people like Leon "Daddy Wags" Wagner, who played for the Giants in their first season in San Francisco, and DeWayne Jessie ("Otis Day" from Animal House).
The film shows the ways black players had to relate to white fans, basically by clowning. It doesn't press too hard on this, but we are made aware of how the players are aware that the clowning is beneath their abilities, and ultimately demeaning. In truth, it could have pressed harder on this point. Instead, the actors and their antics are so entertaining, the film inches towards the same minstrel show presentation it is supposedly condemning.
The performances are good enough to pull everything off, and if this isn't a classic, it's still enjoyable. The first feature from director John Badhan, after years of work in television ... his next film was Saturday Night Fever.
The Bad News Bears (Michael Ritchie, 1976). Mildly entertaining movie about youth baseball and a beer-swigging, cigar-smoking coach. I wonder if I would have liked it more if I'd seen it in 1976. I'm guessing that back then, there was something refreshing about a bunch of foul-mouthed youngsters and their alcoholic mentor. In 2023, I felt like I've seen plenty of movies about characters like this. And the general plot (sports movie about underdogs who rise against the odds) isn't exactly unique. It's nice that Michael Ritchie mostly ignores the potential to make everyone learn to be better people. Sure, many of the kids are a little more confident at the end of the movie, but it's not overdone, and Walter Matthau's coach is still drinking beer and smoking stogies at the end of the movie. All of this makes The Bad News Bears a little better than the norm, but I'm surprised this movie led to two sequels, a remake, and a television series. And I cringed that the coach taught the curve ball to Tatum O'Neal's young pitcher. At least by the end of the movie, her arm was too sore to pitch.
Geezer Cinema/Film Fatales #174: Joy Ride (Adele Lim, 2023). An unexpected, raunchy delight from first-time director Adele Lim. Perhaps in 50 years this will seem as passe as The Bad News Bears does now, but in the meantime, it's a joy ride indeed watching the four leads break stereotypes, have lots of sex and fun, and discover something about identity in the process. Kelly Pau wrote an excellent piece about the film's "full-frontal subversion of sexuality for Asian women", concluding, "In an age where representation can easily become a tokenized marketing buzzword, 'Joy Ride' offers a more nuanced portrayal that upends the hypersexualization of Asian women characters. It's testament to how representation is not just a matter of putting people of color onscreen but also behind the camera, in positions of power and in the writers' room." It's often hilarious, and a real crowd-pleaser, if the audience at our showing is any indicator.
Alex Stapleton pulls off an interesting trick with the documentary Reggie, about the baseball great. On the surface, it seems like a warts-and-all presentation. Reggie says on several occasions that his desire to tell the truth often gets him in trouble, and we are reminded of his conflicts with manager Billy Martin and owners Charlie Finley and George Steinbrenner. But the warts are understandable in the context of the film, which is largely told from Reggie's own point of view. Yes, he had problems with those people, but it was because he told the truth and demanded that he be treated with respect and dignity.
Reggie comes across well throughout the film. He has a lot of important things to say about racism and baseball, and the stories of the experiences he had in the south playing in the minor leagues reminded us of how bad it was back then. (His struggles to be part of ownership reminds us that we still have a long way to go.) It's fun to see him hanging out with his old Oakland teammates, including the late Vida Blue ... he and Dave Stewart exchange memories about when Stew was a youngster growing up in Oakland and Reggie took him under his wing. It's also illuminating to see him talking with fellow legends like Hank Aaron and basketball's Dr. J, sharing as only people who have reached the pinnacle of success can do.
I felt like Reggie would be happy with how the movie turned out. If someone without a lot of knowledge about Reggie watched this, they'd think he was an OK guy as well as a great baseball player. There's nothing wrong with that. But I felt, without really knowing what they might be, that I was missing other aspects of Reggie as a person and a ballplayer.
Got a message from a friend, Phil, who had inspired the original series of posts I have linked to here. Thought it would be nice to get it all in one, linkable, post.
I posted Music Friday a day early because today is the Giants' home opener, and that takes precedence over music.
Beginning in 1980, and going through 2019, I attended 40 consecutive Giants home openers. There were good ones and bad ones ... the Giants won 25 of the 40. There was a one-hitter by Matt Cain, there was the first game at the new park, there was the game where Barry hit #660. Barry had a feel for Opening Day drama ... in 1993, in his first Opening Day at-bat in a Giants jersey, he homered. And in 2002, he hit a walk-off homer to send the fans home happy. There was the ridiculous game against the Padres in 1983, where the Giants fell behind 4-0, and then 13-3, and then 16-6, only to bring the tying run to the plate in the 8th before losing at last. And, of course, there was 2011 and 2013 and 2015, when championship flags were raised in celebration of the previous year's World Series wins.
Then things changed for everyone in 2020. Opening Day didn't happen that year until July, and there were no people in the stands. Fans returned in 2021, but I was still way, plus my streak had already been broken. Then last year, I decided to return, and was greeted with a walk-off victory.
And so today, it'll be Opening Day #42 for me. Things change, even in baseball, and this will be the first time the Giants open against an American League team. I'll try to remember to post a picture or two later today.