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

Podcast #162: Field of Dreams (1989) & Dad Movies

Welcome to Episode #162 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss their dads’ favorite movies, starting with the Kevin Costner baseball fantasy Field of Dreams (1989).

00:00 Welcome

01:40 Crimes of the Future (2022)
08:22 Flux Gourmet (2022)
14:42 Brahms: The Boy II (2020)
19:56 The Shout (1978)

26:26 Field of Dreams (1989)
56:56 Seven Samurai (1954)
1:15:40 Dumb & Dumber (1994)
1:35:25 Tommy Boy (1995)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Fences (2016)

EPSON MFP image

three star

I’m struggling to pinpoint exactly what people mean when they complain that the Denzel Washington-directed adaptation of August Wilson’s infamous work Fences never transcends its limitations as a filmed version of a stage play. I don’t necessarily disagree with the criticism, but it’s difficult to say exactly why not. Washington does an exceptional job of injecting motion in the film’s camera work when necessary, but bottling up the tension of most scenes in a cramped backyard for the majority of the runtime. I wouldn’t say that this aspect of the film is a “limitation;” it’s more of a necessity that heightens the claustrophobic nature of the material, a common aspect of the best filmed play adaptations I can conjure: The Bad Seed, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Birthday Party, etc. The massive volume of dialogue over the limited stage direction/action might also be a potential factor in that complaint as well, but it’d be foolish to ask for any less of the dramatic masterclass Denzel Washington & Viola Davis run in the their roles as a troubled married couple in 1950s Pittsburgh. The only thing I could point to in Fences, a movie produced from a screenplay Wilson himself penned before his death in 2005, that feels limited by its source material is the blatant way it approaches metaphor & symbolism. In any work written specifically for the screen, a line like “Some people build fences to keep people out, and some people build fences to keep people in,” would stick out like a sore thumb as being too obvious and unnatural. It’s a line that works within Fences‘s context as a stage play adaptation, though. It makes sense considering the project’s origins, but in a way that points to its limitations as an adaptation that other spacial or dialogue-based complaints don’t.

Within that spiritually uncinematic framework, Fences shines as an intense character study for an emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive father figure who stands as a tyrant in his own home. Troy Maxson, brought to life by a top-of-his-game Denzel, is a boisterous garbage man & former minor league baseball player who’s “got more stories than the Devil has sinners.” In the world at large, Troy is trivialized, diminished, and overtly oppressed. Even as a garbage man, he’s second class to white garbage men. At his home and on his block, though, he rules over his subjects like a tyrannical king. The entire mood of the home depends on whatever whim Troy is currently following. When he’s loudly bullshitting about physically conquering the personification of Death in a literal wrestling match (another moment of stage play artificiality), his proud command of everyone’s attention means lifted spirits and a moment of ease. When he’s frustratedly stomping around his modest domain looking for something to be angry about, his small world cowers under the threat of his potential abuses. The world has treated Troy like total shit, but Fences makes it clear that his perpetuation of that cycle of abuse within his own home is inexcusable. His wife Rose, played by an equally top shape Viola Davis, can barely hold the family together under the oppressive weight of Troy’s demanding, selfish persona. She constantly preparesq meals within the couple’s cramped kitchen throughout the film as an exercise of peacekeeping that can only last for so long before Troy topples it over in a fit of misdirected rage.

Well, I thought August Wilson’s construction of Troy as a villainous presence within his own home was a clear intent at the heart of Fences, anyway. Much to my horror, a significant portion of the audience surrounding me at our screening of Fences was mumbling in agreement with many of Troy’s tirades. I don’t know if he reminded them if their own father figures or of their own badly dealt hand in life, but Troy’s obvious (to me) caricature of Toxic Masculinity Personified was somehow lost on a large portion of that room. So maybe that points to my initial complaint that the blatant metaphor of stage play dramas being too obvious for naturalistic cinema being just as off-base as any other choices Denzel Washington made in his adaptation of a play he obviously reveres on a deeply personal level. Pushing aside any concerns with Fences‘s uncinematic tone, strange sense of pacing, and iffy final moments of redemption for a despicably cruel character (that seems to go even further than the source material in their cautious forgiveness), there’s a lot worth praising in what Washington & his small cast of supporting players accomplish here. Besides the obvious merit of bringing a play he greatly respects to a much wider audience who would not have had the opportunity to see he & Davis perform on stage, Washington does the quintessential thing actors-turned-directors are often accused of: crafting a work as an actor’s showcase above all other concerns. I may have some reservations about Fences being suitable for a big screen adaptation on a tonal, almost spiritual level (although I do very much appreciate the play as a text), but there’s no denying the power of the performances Washington brings to the screen with the project. The film is very much worth a look just for that virtue alone. I’m just afraid the massive audience he brought it to might have identified more with his monstrous performance as Troy more than he intended, thanks to Denzel’s inherent Movie Star charm. The people surrounding me responded that way, anyway, and it was just as terrifying to hear as anything Troy had to say onscreen.

-Brandon Ledet