Cobb: Tommy Lee Jones as Baseball Player

Watching a whole slate of biopictures, released over the last month, made me think of the changes in the conventions and styles of this time-honored genre.

Biopictures, one of Hollywood’s most prestigious and popular genres, used to celebrate their heroes in a noble, uplifting manner. Though they were usually rise and fall (and often death) sagas, their goal was to inspire audiences, make them feel-good, even as they shed a tear or two at the end. Think of Pride of the Yankees (l942), in which Gary Cooper played the beloved baseball star Lou Gehrig, who fell victim to a rare neurological disease. Or The Glenn Miller Story (l954), in which Jimmy Stewart was most convincingly cast as the bandleader-and devoted family man–who died in an air crash.

But no more: The new bio-pictures focus on personalities that are not exactly sympathetic or inspirational. Each of the three new movies round, each representing an honorable attempt at capturing an intriguingly complex figure.

In Cobb, Tommy Lee Jones gives a volcanic, over the top performance as Tyrus Raymond Cobb, arguably the greatest baseball player who ever lived. But Cobb astonished–even horrified–everyone he met with his aggressive racism and sexism; harsh in his personal life, he was a psychotic bigot. Biographer Al Stump describes him as “the most feared, castigated and acclaimed figure” in baseball history.

To his credit, writer-director Ron Shelton doesn’t whitewash his (anti) hero. But the film lacks sharp focus–Stump’s love-hate relationship with Cobb serves as a frame for an ambitious, though not totally rewarding film. It’s also not an easy or pleasant experience; the material is more suitable for the printed page than the big screen.