“Bull Durham” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” both box-office hits, established their writer-director Ron Shelton as Hollywood’s shrewdest sports-movie creator.
His latest picture, “Cobb,” is more serious than those sexy sports comedies, and it’s already clear that it won’t repeat their success. The story of the last days of baseball legend Ty Cobb, it’s been called everything from “brilliant” (by The New Yorker’s Terrence Rafferty) to “a jaw-dropping botch” (by Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman), and it’s something less than a smash with paying customers.
While it opening in many cities in early January, the New York Times’ Bernard Weinraub recently reported that it “has fared so poorly that it will probably not be released widely across the country.”
“Film audiences don’t seem to want to allow a film to be what it is,” said the disappointed Shelton during a recent Seattle visit.
“Audiences want a tone, and they don’t want their expectations confounded. But I get bored if a movie’s the same thing all the way through, if it’s pushing all the usual buttons.”
Shelton, 49, said he developed an interest in movies when he was a minor-league second baseman. Some ballplayers become soap-opera addicts in their spare time, but Shelton took a crash-course in cinema.
“I went to a movie every day at 1 p.m., G-rated, X-rated, everything,” he said.
“And I always wrote,” he said. “A handful of short stories were published in obscure journals, but I never thought I’d make a living at it.”
His first produced screenplay was the 1983 film, “Under Fire,” a political drama about journalists covering the Nicaraguan revolution. Like “Cobb,” it deals with reporters who develop a bias. Al Stump, who wrote the authorized, sanitized 1961 biography of Ty Cobb, has since written other accounts of Cobb’s life that were much less flattering.
“He was very selective in that first book,” said Shelton, who read it when he was a teenager. “Cobb was brilliant at playing ball, but practically dysfunctional outside of it. He was not regarded as appropriate subject matter for a movie.”
Stump later wrote a True magazine piece, about a wild ride in the snow that Cobb and Stump took from Lake Tahoe to Reno, that convinced Shelton the story could be filmed.
“That piece was just so bizarre,” he said. “It was both broad comic farce and terror. That interested me, and when I found out Stump was working on another manuscript about Cobb, I started buying up rights.”
Despite Cobb’s fame - he also had stage roles and a leading-man part in the 1916 movie, “Somewhere in Georgia” - very little was written about his background when he was establishing baseball records. Shelton claims that “90 percent of everything that’s been written about Cobb is by Al Stump, and his first book doesn’t even mention the killing of Cobb’s father.”
After visiting Georgia and researching Cobb’s early life on his own, Shelton is convinced that Cobb’s father was shot to death by his mother’s lover, a Georgia businessman who had enough influence with local banks and newspapers to keep his identity secret. Much of “Cobb” is devoted to this traumatic event, which happened when Cobb was 17.
Shelton feels that episodes like this uncover new ground and go beyond the treatment of Cobb in Ken Burns’ 18-hour PBS series “Baseball” last fall, which dealt mostly with Cobb’s early career.
“Ken Burns was fair,” said Shelton. “His show was kind of a teaser for what we did.”
Shelton spoke with special enthusiasm of another sports story he’d like to film, a true story about a couple of boxers, “best friends for life,” who ended up beating each other’s brains out in the ring in Las Vegas.
“Then they blew their meager earnings in the casinos,” he said, “and drove home together to L.A. It’s a very simple story, as clean and compact as ‘The Last Detail,’ and I can see Wesley Snipes and Larry Fishburne in it.”