Jones still connects in portrayal of `Cobb'

Movie: Tommy Lee Jones pushes all the boundaries in this little-seen Ron Shelton film, screening today at the Maryland Film Festival.

May 04, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Anyone who's imagined painting a dirty grin on a public monument should relish the hilarious and monumental performance Tommy Lee Jones gives in writer-director Ron Shelton's bizarrely moving "Cobb" - a 1994 production that is still the funniest, raunchiest biopic yet made about an American idol.

I made "Cobb" my selection for the Maryland Film Festival's "Critical Advocacy" program because Shelton is one of my favorite moviemakers and "Cobb" is his most audacious and least-seen movie. At my 2 p.m. presentation today, with the film's editor, Paul Seydor (who will show deleted scenes and explain why he cut them), I'll talk briefly about how this atypical picture of an all-time champion fits in with Shelton's popular portraits of minor-league players and also-rans.

Shelton's "Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump," "Tin Cup" and "Play It to the Bone" all cut right through the winner-take-all ethos of American athletics, but "Cobb" does so far more trenchantly.

Watching the movie again, what's most striking is the inspired collaboration between Shelton and Tommy Lee Jones. Coming off his Oscar-winning turn as the relentless U.S. marshal in "The Fugitive," Jones dared to be great.

As Tyrus Raymond Cobb, the most aggressive and exciting player in baseball history, Jones pulls off a characterization that amounts to a delirious "up yours" to the forces of civilization, religion and, of course, hypocrisy.

The Cobb of this movie, unrepentant at age 72, harnesses a whirlpool of confused internal energy. In 1960, 32 years after his 1928 retirement from baseball, he's continued to use brains, willpower and ferocity to have his way, whether in business or in his manic shambles of a private life. No rules of conduct or pangs of conscience compel him to revise his code of ruthless self-aggrandizement.

"Cobb" centers on Ty's effort in the last year of his life to get his autobiography written with the help of a famous sportswriter, Al Stump (Robert Wuhl), who threatens to expose the ballplayer as a homicidal psychopath. The way Shelton writes him and Jones plays him, Cobb still has the spluttering vitality of his youth.

There's a straight line between the young man we see in flashback tearing up the base paths (and ripping up his opponents) and the adrenalized geezer who commandeers the stage at Harrah's in Reno and, after insulting blacks and Jews, instructs an aghast crowd in the proper way to hit a ball.

In a brilliant near-death scene, Cobb, coughing up blood, stares in the bathroom mirror and murmurs, "So, this is what it feels like, this is what it looks like, this is what it is." Jones' performance builds toward this moment of truth, which elicits both laughs and gasps from the audience. It's when Cobb's profanity reaches Ahab-like proportions - and when Jones' saturnine gusto, which he's exploited in action movies from "Under Siege" to "Double Jeopardy," gets grounded in mortality.

"Cobb" is Jones' movie of destiny. The actor doesn't put any distance between himself and Cobb's dark angels. He handles Shelton's dazzling double-edged dialogue with fearless glee, revealing a capacity for sadistic delight that lesser performers would be ashamed of.

Jones' Cobb is as grandly theatrical as Jones' dandified Clay Shaw was in Oliver Stone's "JFK" (1991) - and Shelton's demonic genius has a lot more range. As Cobb, Jones can rattle off lists of baseball stats or medications as if they were virtuoso cadenzas. It all works because it whirls out from a core of rage and anguish.

Cobb is vicious and tyrannical, but not cold - he's red-hot. There's always something going on in his eyes: searing despair and pain mixed with charismatic deviltry and lordliness. That's why, paradoxically, Cobb is the most affecting figure Jones has ever played: He keeps reminding you not of Jones' other heavies but of his anti-heroes and heroes.

In his size and strength, he's like W.F. Call in TV's "Lonesome Dove," though Call turned terseness into an art form, and Cobb is a V-8 motor-mouth.

In his long, tortured path to a kind of emotional bonding with Al Stump, he's like the frustrated ex-con in "The River Rat" (1983), who gradually connected with the daughter who was born during his 13 years in prison. (Of course, Cobb's daughter refused to see him.)

And in his animal energy, he's like the rambunctious Doolittle Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980), who had a restless stalk and a rangy look in his eye, and a growl like a caged bear's - although Cobb's wife-beating, unlike Doolittle's, is undilutedly malicious.

Cobb is the opposite of the idealistic military scientist whom Jones plays beautifully in Tony Richardson's 1991 "Blue Sky." Both as the husband of Jessica Lange's out-of-control Brigitte Bardot wannabe, and a critic of above-ground nuclear testing, Jones conveys an extraordinary equilibrium. He makes a terrific husband because he alchemizes appreciation into amour.

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