There’s Plenty Crying in Baseball

In case you haven’t already heard this 1,000 times in the past few weeks, the new TV series A League of Their Own is very good and very, very gay.  It’s so good & gay, in fact, that it prompted 95-year-old retired baseball player Maybell Blair, the inspiration behind the show, to publicly come out of the closet for the first time.  Less significantly, it also prompted me to finally give the original 1992 Penny Marshall film it was adapted from a shot, after decades of avoidance.  That was also pretty good!  Both versions of A League of Their Own are winning, heartwarming portraits of complicated women who unite over a shared love of baseball; and in one of the versions, they sometimes make out.  In a recent podcast interview, Rosie O’Donnell vented frustrations that Marshall limited how much of the lesbian undercurrent could breach the surface of the original film, so in a way the new, queer-affirming TV show registers as a more comfortable, authentic version of the story they both telling.  Still, the 1992 original is just as much a rousing celebration of American women, one that just happens to be set on a baseball field.

The women in the original A League of Their Own are uniformly wonderful across the board, from the always-respected, regal screen presence of Geena Davis to the rarely-respected movie star machinations of Madonna.  They’re all great.  So, even though it’s miles beside the point in a movie that’s main objective is to celebrate women, I feel compelled to single out the only man in the main cast: the team’s disgraced alcoholic head coach, played by Tom Hanks.  It’s rare that I ever want to talk about Tom Hanks.  He seems like he’d be pleasant enough to be around in real life, but I don’t really care about his craft as a performer.  It’s been decades since Hanks would regularly make interesting choices in career outliers like Joe vs. The Volcano and The Burbs, and even then he was still playing an affable everyman in outlandish scenarios.  There was something thrilling about seeing professional nice guy Tom Hanks play a disgusting asshole for a change in A League of Their Own.  He’s a sloppy drunk misogynist drowning in his own liquor sweats, barely perking up enough from his mid-day blackouts to spit his chewing tobacco sludge onto the field instead of his shirt.  Hanks is vile in this film, which makes him a great foil (and reluctant collaborator) for the women on his team.  It also makes this one of his most interesting performances, by default.

I guess the question that’s nagging me is whether Tom Hanks is a good actor.  His performances as grotesque, sweaty mutants in A League of Their Own and the recent Elvis biopic are a fascinating contrast to his usual persona as America’s sweetheart uncle.  I can’t say either performance is particularly good, though.  His portrayal of Elvis’s overly controlling manager Col Tom Parker is more of an SNL accent & boardwalk caricature than a sincere performance . . . which is fine, except that it never feels purposeful or controlled.  Likewise, his tough-guy dipshit persona in A League of Their Own rings insincere & hollow in contrast to the rest of the cast.  It works in the context of the movie, where a powerful, defiant Geena Davis walks all over him as the self-appointed assistant coach who makes up for his shortcomings (backwards, in heels, etc.).  At the same time, though, it points to Hanks’s limitations as a performer.  Normally, I’d celebrate Hollywood celebrities getting cast against type, but the few times I’ve seen Hanks play villain it’s only helped illustrate how much better he is as a cookie-cutter Nice Guy™.  And even in that context, I only mean “better” in the sense that his performances are unnoticeable.  I’m most comfortable with not thinking about Tom Hanks at all, so when he colors outside the lines with fat-suit prosthetics, misogynist rants, and improv-night accents I really hate having to think about whether he’s a talented actor.  He seems like a nice guy and all, but seeming like a nice guy might be his only real talent.

I’m likely just looking for something to be a hater about here.  After recently enjoying this & the eerie ghost story Field of Dreams, I appear to be getting over my total disinterest in baseball as a subject. I need a new target to lash out at, and this widely beloved millionaire can surely take the hit.  A League of Their Own is great, and it uses Tom Hanks well, but his performance isn’t up to par with the rest of the cast.  Even Jon Lovitz is a more compelling misogynist asshole in his few minutes of screentime in the prologue, proving that going gross & going broad isn’t where Hanks goes wrong.  He’s just not that great of an actor, even if he is a great guy.

-Brandon Ledet

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