Small-screen Lives

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When Sunrise at Campobello , Dore Schary’s play about the crippling of Franklin D. Roosevelt, opened on Broadway, Eleanor Roosevelt and two close friends were in the audience as his guests. It is a heroic double portrait in which Mrs. Roosevelt is unfailingly patient and FDR is barely permitted an unhappy thought, let alone a discouraging word. After the curtain fell, the President’s widow went backstage, where, gracious as always, she thanked the playwright and praised the whole cast, especially Ralph Bellamy, whose bravura impersonation of her husband had genuinely impressed her. But as she and her friends rode home afterward in their taxi, she admitted the play itself had had about as much to do with her and her family “as the man in the moon.”

Until very recently most portrayals of historic personages on stage and screen have been more or less like those Mrs. Roosevelt found so disconcertingly unfamiliar: uniformly virtuous icons who, like Raymond Massey’s sepulchral Lincoln, or—as with George C. Scott’s Patton and even Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi—had their authentic flaws somehow transformed into lovable quirks through the actor’s alchemy.

Things have changed. As three interesting recent movies suggest—all of them now likely to be available for rent at your video store—at least some of today’s historical filmmakers prefer to focus on their subject’s flaws and not their strengths.

In Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), the director Alan Rudolph manages to bring to surprisingly vivid life the circumscribed world of Dorothy Parker and her friends and fellow diners at the Algonquin Round Table. The characters in this screenplay are almost all well-known—or once well-known—literary personalities: Marc Connell, Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman, Charles MacArthur, Harold Ross, Robert Sherwood, Alexander Woollcott, and more—and in less sure hands the whole film could have merely become an exercise in name-dropping and caricature. Instead, I had a sense when the cast seated itself and began to chatter that I was somehow listening in on the real thing.

To lunch daily with this egomaniacal crew, as Parker did, must have been something like being a permanent guest on a TV talk show, expected always to come up with a gag while remembering never to say anything too substantive for fear of slowing the frantic pace. As the film’s protagonist, Jennifer Jason Leigh gets to recite some of Parker’s sly, bleak verse and to toss off some of her best one-liners in a strange, slurred, world-weary manner that somehow seems just right: “A girl can get splinters sliding down a barrister” isn’t a bad line; neither is “one more drink and I’ll be under the host.” But the film also shows how inane most of what passed for repartee at the Algonquin really was: If someone happened to end a sentence with “a Jew,” someone else could be counted on to say Gesundheit .

Beneath the brittle laughter Parker is seen as a self-loathing alcoholic, too frightened of failure actually to try writing the serious fiction to which she aspires, and unable to resist falling in love with men she can never attain—most notably the humorist and sometime actor Robert Benchley (played beautifully by Campbell Scott) who appears happily married when she first gets to know him but later kills himself with drink. Looking back from the grim vantage point of the late 1930s, the on-screen Parker concludes that for all the desperate fun they told each other they were having back in the twenties, she and her New York friends had really been just “a bunch of loudmouths, showing off.” On the evidence offered in this dispiriting but strangely moving little film, Parker seems to have got that about right.

As Hollywood history films go, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is a relatively small-scale effort. Jefferson in Paris was a big-budget disaster. But precisely why it went so wrong remains a puzzle. The filmmakers—producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala—are responsible for a slew of fine films, after all, including Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day , each a masterpiece of period drama. Furthermore, everything about the look and feel of Jefferson in Paris seems right: the bright-blue hot-air balloon that rises eerily above Versailles, the gleaming carriages flourishing across cobbled courtyards, the royal fox hunt in the heart of the impossibly green forest that is interrupted by the unhappy news that the French Revolution has begun.

Nick Nolte’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson is a big part of the problem. Despite his shyness and his carefully chosen plain dress, the authentic Jefferson was handsome, charming, and courtly, a Virginia gentleman who enjoyed the company of women. This Jefferson is merely handsome; he seems woefully out of his depth in Paris salons, so doggedly earnest and so slow-talking that when the elegant Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi) falls in love with him, this viewer, at least, could not imagine why.

Much of the initial criticism of the film centers around its assumption that there really was a sexual liaison between Jefferson and his fourteen-year-old slave, Sally Hemings (played by Thandie Newton). Whether or not he actually slept with her is unknowable, of course; someone was clearly sleeping with slaves in Jefferson’s household, and it seems to me that an equally plausible case can be made either way. Members of the Hemings family cite oral tradition in their family to say it was Jefferson himself and that he sired her children; members of Jefferson’s family can only counter with their own story, no more or less verifiable, that the Hemings children were really fathered by the notoriously randy, red-haired son of the President’s sister.

If alleging that Jefferson took Hemings as his mistress was the worst the filmmakers had to say about Jefferson, I suppose there would be little cause for complaint; he owned her and therefore could have bedded her—or killed her for that matter—and no one is likely to have lifted a finger. But the film goes on to portray Jefferson as selfish and viciously manipulative as well, willing purely in the interest of his own pleasure first to exploit the pregnant girl’s fear of abandonment to get her to return with him to Virginia and slavery rather than remain in France as a free citizen, and then to extract from his own daughter Patsy (who finds his relationship with his slave “unspeakable” but is desperate to remain at his side as the mistress of Monticello) a pledge that Hemings and all the children she bears him in the future will be freed at his death. Sally and her offspring were manumitted, and Patsy was slavishly devoted to her father, but the cruelty of the bargain he forces her to make here struck me as wildly implausible.

Cobb (1994) is as one-dimensional in its way as any biographical film made during the forties or fifties. The difference is that the single side it reveals is so unrelievedly unpleasant. The film chronicles Ty Cobb’s last months, when, suffering from prostate cancer and a host of other ailments (any one of which would have carried off a less grimly tenacious man), he determined to leave behind a ghostwritten autobiography as a monument to his own greatness.

As the relentlessly cussed old man, Tommy Lee Jones bites off more scenery than even he can chew; hacking, snorting, squalling, howling, there can’t have been a noisier physical decline in the history of motion pictures. But this Cobb is also genuinely scary in his rages and truly affecting when the terror and paranoia that underlies his outbursts is allowed momentarily to show.

When the film first appeared, critics were disappointed that it contained so little baseball; Cobb set 123 records during his long career, after all, and without seeing him in action, it’s hard to see why we should be made to care about him. But this film is about the secret fears of a dying old man, not the sublime skills of a young one, and for what it’s worth I thought pretty convincing the single flashback sequence in which the youthful Cobb is shown doing what he did better than just about anyone else. He arrives at the ball field late, gratuitously insults his Detroit teammates, wagers with a gambler beneath the stands that he’ll steal home before the afternoon is over, preens when a apoplectic fan hurls handfuls of peanuts at him, then storms out onto the field to win his bet. Stalking to the plate, he first ingratiates himself with the umpire by calling him “Cyclops,” then ostentatiously hands the catcher a pair of lacy step-ins he says the catcher’s wife left behind in his hotel room. He lets one pitch go by, insults the pitcher, and is nearly beaned by the next one, then whacks the third for a double. From second base—after saying some unkind things about the third baseman’s ancestry—he steals third, then races for home and, when the catcher dares try to tag him out, spikes him in the groin to send him flying. The injured man’s teammates charge Cobb; his own teammates reluctantly rush to his defense, and the sequence ends with Cobb exulting in the big fistfight that engulfs him.

Some have argued that the film’s portrayal of Cobb is too dark—that it is impossible to care about someone so luridly unattractive. But Cobb’s authentic madness is actually underplayed here—his repeated, unprovoked assaults on blacks are left out of the film, for example, and while he is shown hitting his wife on-screen, he doesn’t beat her with the handle of a baseball bat as he did in real life. As the sportswriter Al Stump suggests in the biography Cobb (Algonquin Books, $24.95), on which the film is partly based, he seems to have been psychotic from boyhood; his sense that the world was conspiring against him only intensifies by enforced inactivity and physical decline. It may really be true that with Ty Cobb a well-rounded biography would have been a contradiction in terms.