'Cobb' is latest foray by Hollywood into soul of a bitter white male Major-League Anger


Can it be more than coincidence that in the aftermath of an election that has gone on to define the national mood as the Revenge of the Angry White Man, along comes a movie biography of the angriest, whitest man of them all?

That would be the tidal wave of testosterone and fury known as Tyrus Raymond Cobb, who burned the major leagues for 123 records over 24 fierce and bitter years, ending up as the all-time major-league batting champion, with a career mark of .367. Some have said we shall never see his likes again. And someone (me) has added: Who would want to?

Who indeed? Cobb, according to filmmaker Ron Shelton and sportswriter Al Stump, from whose work Shelton derived the just-opened "Cobb," was a spectacular misanthrope. He was racist, violent, shrewd, nasty, mean and extremely tough. He hit lefties, he hit righties, he hit women, he hit blacks, he hit cripples. And that was on a good day. You should have seen him when he was ticked off (as on May 5 and May 6, 1925, when he became the first man in modern history to hit five home runs in two games, a record since equaled but never surpassed, even by the mighty Ruth, whom it need not be added, Cobb despised).

Cobb's pathology was so intense, it is really the subject of "Cobb." In no true sense a full biography of the man's life, the movie is more exactly a map of that dark cloud of energy and loathing known as male anger.

The movie takes off from the fact that in 1960, the nationally known sportswriter Stump signed on to do an authorized biography of the dying ballplayer and discovered not an aging warrior going gracefully into the night, but a full-toot, three-sheets-to-the-wind bastard. Focusing on the old goat's last vicious rampage through snowstorms, Tahoe whorehouses, the Hall of Fame, and finally the Georgia hospital in which he died, the movie profits from its classical situation: That is, a normal man (Stump is played by Robert Wuhl), who acknowledges society's limits, encounters a rare one who doesn't and is horrified by what he sees. That's our point of view: We are the Wuhl.

The last free man

But at the same time -- and this is what makes the movie work -- Stump cannot quite bite down a little bile of admiration. For while it's evident that Tommy Lee Jones' Cobb has paid a terrible price -- he's beaten his body to painful shreds, his anger has unleashed all the demons of the night to devour his digestive and respiratory systems, he's got a crab eating at his lymph glands, he is despised and alone, his family hates and has abandoned him, no other ballplayers will have anything to do with him -- he's weirdly happy and, in some foul way, the last free man alive. He did it his way, and he's tasted something no normal man ever has or ever will. Like George Bailey, he's had a wonderful life.

Whence came all this black fury? What drove Cobb to slide hard into second base, spikes up, when his legs were so bloody and raw he could barely walk on them off the diamond? Whatever things Cobb feared in the dark of his mind, pain wasn't one of them, and as his many fights both on and off the diamond attest, fear itself wasn't, either.

As it turns out, Shelton buys into Stump's penny-ante shrink job on Cobb, as have most Cobb biographers. Cobb, the theory goes, was created out of a family tragedy, when, on Aug. 7, 1905, as the minor leaguer was about to go up to the majors, his father was accidentally shotgunned to death by his mother. It's a killing with dark currents to it. Possibly, as some rumors have maintained, the homicide wasn't an accident, and the much-younger Mother Cobb wasn't alone when the much-older Father Cobb came across her and parties unspecified.

Whatever, Cobb, the theory specifies, was one of those men who adored and admired his father and yearned to please the man. The death having completely sealed off that possibility, Cobb acquired a fund of flaming anger that drove him furiously; or, perhaps in some dank corner of guy-hell, he actually believed his father was looking down on him.

The theory has a nice ring to it, but it's not one I'd buy. It fails to conform to a social truth that haunts us to this day, which is that those who are abused become abusers in return. Cobb was evidently never abused by his father, but more usually was viewed from afar, through a screen of Victorian reserve. Cobb, however, was violently abused by his teammates when he joined his first professional baseball team in 1902 as a 17-year-old boy.

Of course, in those far-off days, no concept of child abuse had yet been developed, but read any account of Cobb's early years and you'll discover that the ritual of hazing that the young man underwent went way beyond cruel and unusual. In the raw and violent rural Southern minor leagues of the early 20th century, new ballplayers were seen as either a threat or a menace. At 17, he was really still a child, dumped into a pure Hobbsian universe of misery and predation, undergoing the worst imaginable physical cruelty at the most vulnerable moments in his life.

He was taught that baseball life was war, pure and total, and that the only way to survive was to be meaner and tougher and more merciless than his teammates. This pattern intensified when he reached Detroit at the end of the 1905 season and for three years was subject to almost unbearable hostility. He actually suffered a nervous breakdown from the pressure in 1906 and spent a month and a half in a sanitarium. One thinks of Hemingway's line: "The world breaks many people, but then they mend, and are strongest in the mended places."

In fact, Cobb went from victim to predator so quickly and so irreversibly that there never was a moment of peace for him; he was never hugged or told it was all right. He was like a punk sent to prison to fester among older, more savage inmates -- our century's one sure prescription for manufacturing more violent crime. And a criminal he became. He never had a chance to get in touch with his softer, feminine side because the corn-pone cracker killers he lived and traveled with would have ripped him apart if he did. So he entered the world of manhood made so tough he was hardly human and made so paranoid he was hardly alive. He asked and gave no quarter, not merely for the 24 years he played ball but for all the years thereafter; he even publicly horsewhipped his son when the boy flunked out of Princeton.

Familiar theme

A phenomenon of such pure, unvarnished anger is rare to baseball movies, which have usually turned on homey pieties of teamwork and sacrifice, and have reduced the most horrific of ego monsters to Cub Scouts or Ronald Reagan. But such people are not rare to movies. That's why everything about "Cobb" feels familiar, however removed from tradition the materials themselves might seem to be.

As a staple of American movies (and of American literature), male anger is an old-fashioned kind of thing. If you look at American movies over the past 50 years, it's easy to see that they've pretty much been about angry white men. In fact, if there's any connection between "Cobb" and the election, it's that the election simply transformed into political reality a current that's familiar from the culture for years and years.

Not only is the fury familiar; so is the structure that dramatizes it. Underneath the "male anger movie" -- there are enough of them to almost qualify as a genre -- is always the same relationship that I have previously mentioned: The point-of-view character is always the sane "civilized" man who comes into the sphere of male demonism. He is shocked, scared, devastated, disapproving, morally superior. Yet a certain subversive part of him connects with and is expressed through the outrageous doings of the angry man; he comes away oddly improved, perhaps even made a man by his experience, whatever that may mean.

The root angry-man story isn't, as have been so many of them, a cop story or even a western. It's very eastern, so eastern it's set in the ocean, where angry Ahab tracks down the white whale that destroyed his ship and hideously maimed him. Alas, no decent film has been made of this great American story, though Gregory Peck had some fun baying at the moon in the mediocre 1956 John Huston version.

But Ahab's anger, even if no movie dramatized it sufficiently, also set the pattern for what came after: It was almost always the anger of vengeance, the dark and foreboding sense that something had been taken from the victim and the victim would get it back. Melville was smart enough to understand what no moviemaker has: That anger is fundamentally irrational and that vengeance against the irrational is meaningless. As Starbuck (the mate) says: "It's just a whale, boys. A huge one, but just a whale." Of course, he dies, too.

In the modern film era, the darkest of angry men was surely the Ethan Edwards that John Wayne played in John Ford's brilliant "The Searchers." This was quite a stretch for Wayne, who had generally become a more benign male authority figure whose humanity was always revealed (as, say, Sergeant Stryker in "Sands of Iwo Jima"). It connected with only one of his previous roles, the dark trail master in Howard Hawks' "Red River," and it reached depths at which he'd never arrive again.

Death of illusion

It was his greatest role: Ethan Edwards is a shrewd, vengeful man, obsessed with avenging what would appear to be the slaughter of his brother's family by renegade Comanches. But of course, that's not it at all. Look at it carefully and you see that Ethan's hatred is sexual. He was in love with his brother's wife (Wayne in early scenes with Dorothy Jordan is unbelievably tender). Thus the Comanche crime isn't murder, which after all is pretty much their business, as Wayne understands; rather, it's the death of his romantic illusions and the further tarnishing of them by the raising of Jordan's child as an Indian.

Like Ahab, Edwards is fundamentally a purist, a zealot and very complex. It's clear that he lived with the Comanche, knows their way and that somehow he even loves them as he hunts them. What liberates him is a terrifying act of violence -- scalping his enemy -- that somehow allows him to return to civilization, having lost himself to savagery and recovered. Yet, as a door closes him out of civilization in the last frame, it's cruelly clear that he can never come back.

After Wayne, the angriest of the angry white men was Clint Eastwood's Inspector Harry Callahan, a tough law-'n'-order cop who detested, in 1972's "Dirty Harry," what permissive '60s social experimentation had unleashed into society. The movie is a jeremiad against liberal values, a diverse society, "feelings" and "communication," and a complete endorsement of male authority. Harry's tragedy is that the world has lost confidence in, or seen through, the values he still believes in. The anger has the same effect as Ahab's and Cobb's: It isolates him totally.

And, like Cobb's and Ahab's, it also enables him. For that's the oddest thing about the movie's pernicious treatment of anger -- even as it seems to despise it, it secretly glorifies it. Ahab, Ethan Edwards, Ty Cobb, Dirty Harry: All were heroes. All were capable of almost unbelievable heroic action, Cobb in life (if baseball is life) and the others in the romantic projection of fiction. No true squalor attends them, no true fear haunts them. Their anger is alchemized into pure adrenalin: Harry can stand calmly in the street as an automobile careens at him, pumping bullets at the driver like a Great White Hunter facing a rogue buffalo. The movie pretends to lament his isolation, but it finds his heroism extremely cool.

That's true finally of the greatest of the Angry White Man movies, one of the greatest of all American movies: Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" (1980). Another sports bio, it focused on the toughest of the tough and the craziest of the crazy and the angriest of the angry: boxer Jake La Motta. This film, though it features a lot of dynamic fight action where "Cobb" features almost no game action, actually has a great deal in common with "Cobb." Again, it's not a "biography" so much as a pathology, like the cross-sectioning of a brain tumor in a morgue somewhere: It's never interested in sports culture (no working out, no sparring in rings) and feels entirely disconnected from conventional sports bio. Rather, it treats La Motta's fury in the ring as something beyond technique and stamina, beyond, really, even talent: It's simple psychosis.

Essays in machismo

In a fight, La Motta is beyond civilization, both horrifying and transfiguring the point-of-view character, his brother, played by Joe Pesci. It charts the same action that "Cobb" charts: The rise to greatness fueled by high-octane anger and the eventual collapse of the personality by the same burden. In the end, Jake betrays everybody, especially those who love him the most. He beats his wife, he beats his brother, he ends up alone. Ironically, Pesci would play the Mafia equivalent of Jake La Motta in "Goodfellas," another anger-crazed essay in machismo whose fury would be both the fuel of his rise and the flame of his fall. Anger is a key Scorsese theme, one reason why "The Age of Innocence," which lacked it, was ultimately so dispiriting.

Two years back, there was another Angry Man movie, Joel Schumacher's "Falling Down." Schumacher was no Scorsese, and he's no Shelton: He took a potentially interesting topic and made it cheap and PC. The true anger it stirred was in the audience, among the critics.

But that doesn't mean, "Cobb" notwithstanding, anger is passe. The fact is, the movies love Ahab's rage, for it propels men to their most extreme behavior, and for that reason, it can never be completely disowned. Someone once made a film called "The Last Angry Man," but as far as Hollywood is concerned, that day will never come.

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