April 11, 2013
There is the legend.
There is the truth.
Then there are the movies.
In the movie-poster parlance of Warner Bros.' "42," its new Jackie Robinson biopic is "the true story of an American legend." Truer words about an American legend have never been mass-marketed. The film, an uplifting, honey-glazed ham, sits nicely alongside familiar baseball movies full of cornfields, nailbiting 3-2 counts and rookies out of nowhere.
It tells the story of a young, noble Robinson, who broke color lines, acted without much guile and generally turned the other cheek. Because it is about his rookie year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, it does not mention how Robinson played himself in the 1950 biopic "The Jackie Robinson Story," made only three years after he became the first black major league ballplayer.
Or that Robinson later wrote bitterly in his autobiography that most of his teammates came to accept him only because his success meant their success, therefore more cash in their pockets. It does not mention how he always considered himself too aggressive for conservatives and not aggressive enough for liberals.
Or that the signature line in the new biopic, spoken by Harrison Ford's Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (he's not looking for a player to fight racists, just a player "with guts enough not to fight back"), was lifted from the old biopic.
Or that Ebbets Field in "42" is actually Engel Stadium in Tennessee with a digital makeover. It also does not flash forward many decades and note that, ka-ching, Warner Bros. and Marriott, as a marketing tie-in, are using the movie to promote the hotel chain to African-American travelers; odd since, in the film, Robinson is refused service by hotels.
And it does not mention — because, of course, it cannot — that 36-year-old actor Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson, got his start on "All My Children," and his biggest credit before "42" was playing Syracuse University running back Floyd Little in the 2008 Ernie Davis biopic "The Express," and that he likes baseball fine, but he's not, you know, a fanatic about it. "I like baseball to some extent," he says.
"Meaning, I'm going to tell you," he says sharply, nursing a cold, sitting in a corporate suite overlooking Wrigley Field. "I'm not the type of person who can watch an entire game, OK? I might watch the beginning, then the end. Once it gets to playoffs and World Series, I'll watch baseball sometimes. But I'm never like, 'I have to watch this game!' I root for my dad's team, the Braves, then the Dodgers. I root for the Braves because I find myself in situations where I have to talk to him about the Braves, and that's why I root for the Braves."
We did not think to mention — this is so weird! — how he (somewhat) likes the Los Angeles Dodgers. And also, Robinson's first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 15, 1947, was against the Boston Braves, which a year later lost the World Series to the Cleveland Indians, and five years after that decamped to Milwaukee, where eventually nobody liked them there either, which resulted in … the Atlanta Braves!
The day was going badly for Boseman; in addition to his sickness, his flight was late, his baggage lost and he sat in traffic on the Kennedy, surrounded by bone-numbing cold Chicago. So we should have cheered him up and mentioned how baseball history is full of all sorts of trivia like that!
Instead, we asked if he played Little League.
"Yes, but I didn't play in high school or college," Boseman said. "I would say there was a lot to learn for this movie. We had spring training, which lasted from mid-January until May. And, of course, I remembered some things from Little League. I knew how to catch a ball. I knew how to throw a ball."
We nodded, encouraging. After all, it's good that the actor playing Jackie Robinson can throw a ball.
"But in this instance," he continued, "it's not about what you know, but how do you do it the way (Robinson) did it? So I watched tapes of him, and it doesn't matter what my batting stance was, this is how he held a bat, this is how he stepped into the box. He had this open stance, a hitch in his swing. If the script says he hit to third base and beat the throw, I did that the way he did it, run the bases the way he ran, which was audacious, like lead, lead, tease, tease. I would say I got pretty good; I could join a weekend league."
We said we loved softball.
He said, "No, baseball."
Behind him, footage of Robinson and advertising for the movie played in a loop. We mentioned how odd it was that the same parks where the man himself was jeered are greeting his actorly doppelganger several decades later. Boseman said yes, he was aware of the irony.
We should have mentioned here how Robinson's Wrigley debut (May 18, 1947) was before a sold-out house of 46,500, how the Chicago Defender estimated 20,000 more hovered outside the gates and earlier in the week gave tips to African-Americans on the South Side making a rare jaunt to the North Side for the game. We should have mentioned the Cubs took a team vote to boycott the game but played anyway. And that in 1972, when Robinson died at 53, Mike Royko famously wrote in the Chicago Daily News, describing the opportunism beneath a warm childhood memory, that he was there that day in 1947, caught a foul ball Robinson hit and sold it to a black man for $10: "When I left the ballpark, with that much money in my pocket, I was sure that Jackie Robinson wasn't bad for the game."
Instead, we asked, when the ball is thrown at your head in the movie, is that really your head?
"Real," Boseman said.
We asked how an actor could act knowing a ball is being thrown intentionally at his head?
"I never got hit," he said, "and at least I knew it's coming."
But how do you not wince?
He said, "It doesn't matter what you are playing. You are playing the moments before the thing. It's my job as an actor to not know it's going to happen, though I know it's going to happen, to forget what you are going to say to me and forget what I am about to say, and just trust that the right things come out of my mouth."
We said we were impressed.
He said, "I had a stunt double and was expected to not do certain things, but I didn't want to play it like that. I had prepared, and so much of how he played the game was a response to what was happening to him. Even that slide, we wouldn't have this movie poster with him sliding if it wasn't really me doing the sliding."
We should have mentioned Photoshop, but we forgot.
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