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

Episode #109 of The Swampflix Podcast: Truth or Dare (1991) & Madonna’s Erotic Era

Welcome to Episode #109 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon meet over Skype to discuss Madonna’s erotica period in the early 90s, starting with a behind the scenes documentary on her iconic Blond Ambition Tour, Truth or Dare (1991). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, YouTube, TuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Desperately Seeking Wren

In her documentary Confessions of a Suburban Girl, director Susan Seidelman examines the Patriarchal social conditioning she and her peers were hindered with as teens in 1960s suburbia. Trained from birth to be dutiful housewives safely tucked away from the dangers of The Big City where their husbands would work, these girls were “protected” to the point of suffocation. It’s no surprise, then, that Seidelman and her frustrated buds idolized the “Bad Girls” of their community: the leather jacket-wearing, go-go dancing, sexually adventurous reprobates that were meant to be serve as cautionary tales but instead registered as heroes who bested the system. You can easily detect this fascination with the defiant Bad Girl archetype in both of Seidelman’s first two features as a director. In her debut (and our current Movie of the Month), the 1982 No Wave drama Smithereens, Seidelman takes us on a grimy, dispirited tour of post-punk NYC under the guidance of Wren (played by Susan Berman) – a selfish, cunning brat who will exploit anyone in her orbit if it means surviving another day. Smithereens is a fascinating character study of a desperate Bad Girl who’s running low on resources to keep her deviant, starving-artist lifestyle going, to the point where she threatens to abandon audience sympathies entirely with each new grift. Wren is more of an anti-hero (as well as her own antagonist) in that way. For a truly heroic portrait of a Bad Girl from the Big City, you’d have to look to Seidelman’s big studio follow-up to Smithereens: Desperately Seeking Susan.

None other than 80s (and 90s & 00s) pop icon Madonna stars as the titular Bad Girl in Siedelman’s second feature – a character who’s infinitely cooler & more lovable than the prickly, survival-minded Wren. Susan represents a fantasy of what a bohemian life in the Big City would look like to a sheltered woman from the suburbs in desperate need of adventure & romance. Roseanne Arquette costars as the audience surrogate: a terminally bored, milquetoast housewife who looks to Bad Girls like Susan as escapist wish-fulfillment fantasies. After stalking this strange woman through her personals ads in newspapers, our protagonist finds herself trailing Susan in real life as well. She leaves the sheltered safety of the suburbs to follow Susan around NYC like a cartoon character floating behind the steam trail of a cooling pie, totally mesmerized. This fascination is clearly more about envy than desire, and the movie-magic fantasy of the picture is a traditionally farcical mix-up of concussions, misunderstandings, and mistaken identities wherein the two women swap lives for a short, wacky time. In Smithereens, Seidelman fixates on the harsher realities of what Bad Girls from the Big City would have to do to scrape by since her freedoms require a life without safety nets. Desperately Seeking Susan is more about the romantic fantasy of that lifestyle as seen from an outsider’s perspective, something she and her peers shared as sheltered teens. In both instances, a life of suburban doldrums is effectively framed as a prison sentence in contrast to the daily struggles of a Big City free-spirit who answers to no one – except when she’s negotiating a place to sleep that night.

Desperately Seeking Susan is decidedly less punk & less challenging than Seidelman’s No Wave debut, but it’s still just as interested in the lives of frustrated, bored women in search of a life worth living. Both films work exceedingly well as a guided tour of 1980s NYC and as period-specific fashion lookbooks. That latter concern may be the only area where Susan truly outshines Wren. Every single outfit Madonna wears in Desperately Seeking Susan is impossibly perfect, and most of the excitement of the picture is in the suspense of what she (or the concussed woman who mistakenly believes she is her) is going to wear next. Wren’s tour of a post-punk NYC is a little more useful from a street-level documentarian standpoint, but Susan’s adventures in the city do happen to touch on some gorgeous dive bar & thrift store locales, as well as an insanely dense list of soon-to-be-somebody personalities of the era: Laurie Metcalf, John Turturro, Ann Magnuson, Steven Wright, The Honeymoon Killers’s Shirley Stoller, the triplets from Three Identical Strangers, etc. etc. etc. Seidelman invites this 1:1 comparison between Wren & Susan in the very first scene of the film, where Madonna is introduced taking selfies with a Polaroid camera in a direct echo of one of Smithereens’s most iconic scenes. Whereas Smithereens is a bummed-out reality check of what the Bad Girl lifestyle means for people who have no choice but to live it, though, Desperately Seeking Susan is a “The clothes make the woman” fantasy where being a Bad Girl only means liberation from a life of dutiful housework & childrearing. Both perspectives are valid, and both are made more valuable when considered in tandem.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the No Wave summer-bummer drama Smithereens (1982), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at the director’s suburban beginnings before moving to the big city.

-Brandon Ledet