If horse racing is the sport of kings, and football (except for certain college games) is for Joe Six Pack, then baseball is the sport of writers. Particularly the intellectuals. Remember Marianne Moore, that little old lady poet, sitting in the stands at all the old Brooklyn Dodgers games? Or all the various famous essays that have been penned by New Yorker writers over the decades? Now novelist Don DeLillo, right up there with the late Susan Sontag when it comes to intellectual fame and acclaim, has gone and written a movie about baseball, called Game Six. It’s his first screenplay, and it’s fascinating to watch him mix Jungian angst with that old standby, the baseball movie.
There’s always been a baseball movie. It’s an accepted subgenre of film that goes way back to Pride of the Yankees and Fear Strikes Out. At the beginning of Sunset Boulevard (1950), down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) begins his pitch to a producer, "It’s a baseball movie… Can’t you just see Ty Power as a shortstop?"
The genre continues today, more popular than ever. Its movies are made with great craft, and their themes are spelled out in big letters for maximum emotional impact. Bull Durham is about acceptance and redemption. A League of Their Own is about community and self-empowerment. And Field of Dreams-well, I’m not sure what Field of Dreams is about, but it sure was emotional.
Game Six is about a New York intellectual, a famous playwright named Nicky Rogan (played by Michael Keaton), whose new play is facing opening night. It’s a risk for him, more serious and personal than the light comedies he’s been turning out. So he’s jittery and scared, particularly because of that awful drama critic Stephen Schwimmer (Robert Downey Jr.), known as the Butcher of Broadway, so hated that he has to attend plays disguised. Then there’s also his elderly, disapproving father to contend with, his teenage daughter with her own problems, his man-eating mistress and financial backer, and a wife who wants a divorce. (My favorite piece of dialogue: Wife: "I’m seeing a prominent divorce lawyer." Rogan: "How prominent?" Wife: "He has his own submarine.") There’s a lot on his plate, and it’s all anxiety provoking. All he can see is impending doom.
And today of all days. It’s Oct. 25, 1986, and his beloved Boston Red Sox are one game ahead in the World Series. If they win tonight they win the Series. This, of course, has been the dream of Boston fans ever since the Curse of the Bambino began, when they traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees back in 1920.
DeLillo’s screenplay is held together by the same device that holds together his novel Cosmopolis: a traffic jam. In the book an enormously wealthy capitalist tries to make it across Manhattan in his limousine; in the movie Nicky tries to get to his barber in a series of taxicabs. (Insider’s note: The script for Game Six was written before Cosmopolis, an example of a writer stealing from himself.) It’s a dangerous journey; an explosion forces him to take refuge in a bar, along with various other dead ends. During the journey he meets an odd bunch of characters who add to or reduce his mounting anxiety, and everywhere-that damn Schwimmer.
I got so intrigued with Game Six that I tracked down its director, Michael Hoffman. (Efforts to track down Don DeLillo were rebuffed at every turn; he’s the classic reclusive writer.) Michael lives in Idaho; he’s previously directed Soapdish, that hilarious Sally Field movie about backstage life at a soap opera, and the Calista Flockhart version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So he knows his way around a movie set. He explained that the movie was made for $600,000 and shot in 20 days. None of the stars had trailers in which to cool their heels between takes (and they were some pretty talented heels, belonging to Bebe Neuwirth, Griffin Dunne and Catherine O’Hara, among others). He made them sneak into restaurants when they had to use the bathroom. Michael Keaton didn’t even have a chair-he had a stool.
Hoffman is a classic example of an intellectual under the thrall of baseball. It dates back to his grandfather’s influence. The old man managed a Coca-Cola plant and a semi-professional team; he would lure the best players by offering them jobs in the plant at inflated salaries. Later, when Hoffman was living in England and directing plays with the Brits, baseball was the thing he missed most. To him it represented the most "romantic" aspects of his homeland. But he admits it brings out the control freak in its fans. "There are so many opportunities for strategizing," he says. "But in the end it all boils down to chance and luck."
One of the good things about Game Six is the way it invites discussion, and I must say, it’s even better to discuss it with the director himself. Michael was extremely patient with me, although we disagreed slightly as to what the movie was about-I said it was inescapable fate, he said it was mythologizing loss. But, really, aren’t they virtually the same thing? You say potato, I say potahto.
As baseball movies go, Game Six will certainly remain unique. Just as a piece of writing by DeLillo it’s worth seeing. Keep your eyes open for the taxicabs and the traffic jams. Also listen for the voiceover that ebbs and flows from the existential weatherman-Hoffman told me that DeLillo particularly labored over getting it just right. And Nicky Rogan the playwright, as interpreted by Michael Keaton, is a great DeLillo character: uneasy, angst ridden, an outsider, removed from his upbringing, basically alone in a world of media-driven systems and hidden machinations. Yet very good looking and very well dressed.
And with Game Six DeLillo has found the perfect metaphor for the classical Greek tragedy of which he’s giving us his version. There the Red Sox are, seconds away from breaking the evil curse. Everything is in their favor. The champagne in the clubhouse has been put on ice. And then the ball rolls through Bill Buckner’s legs. It’s one of those real-life moments much stranger than any fiction, and thus full of lessons.
And personally, I still think they’re about fate.