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Viewer Guide: Eight Men Out and The Homesman

April 7, 2021 | Richard Peña


Eight Men Out (1988)
Directed by John Sayles
Shown (left): Bill Irwin (as Eddie Collins); (right) Gordon Clapp (as Ray Schalk)

This week’s classic is Eight Men Out, the 1988 historical baseball drama written and directed by John Sayles.

Adapted from Eliot Asinof’s 1963 nonfiction book, Eight Men Out dramatizes the Chicago White Sox scandal of 1919, when eight players were charged with participating in a game-fixing scheme during the World Series playoffs against the Cincinnati Reds. With the accused players ultimately branded as “the Black Sox,” the film traces the team’s descent into disgrace as the White Sox finish their triumphant season that year; despite achieving the best record in the majors, the players’ resentment of their shabby treatment by tightfisted White Sox owner Charles Comiskey has hardened into bitterness. Into this summer of discontent enters a shady bookie named Sport Sullivan, played by Kevin Tighe, who ingratiates himself with first baseman Chick Gandil, played by Michael Rooker. Gandil’s somewhat flexible sense of ethics makes him willing to listen to Sullivan’s proposal: why not make some real money for a change—by losing? Gandil embarks on a discreet campaign to recruit enough players to make the scheme work, including the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, the team’s batting prodigy, played by D.B. Sweeney. Believing he can out-smart the swindlers, the cocky Gandil plays along with another proposition from a pair of gamblers played by Christopher Lloyd and Richard Edson. But the key to it all is Eddie Cicotte, the team’s veteran pitcher played by David Strathairn. Although he initially rejects Gandil’s crooked scheme, Cicotte knows his glory days are waning. And when Comiskey maneuvers him out of a much-deserved bonus…Cicotte decides it’s time to “play ball” a little differently.

Rounding out the outstanding cast are Charlie Sheen as the aptly-named Happy Felsch, Bill Irwin as the straitlaced Eddie Collins, and John Cusack as the conscientious Buck Weaver, who struggles to look the other way. John Mahoney plays White Sox manager Kid Gleason, who senses something fishy is going on, with Michael Lerner as the steely mob boss Arnold Rothstein. And observing it all are acclaimed author Studs Terkel and writer-director John Sayles himself as Chicago sportswriters Hugh Fullerton and Ring Lardner.

Pioneering indie filmmaker John Sayles’ interest in bringing the story of “the Black Sox” scandal to the screen dated back to the mid-70s, and he secured the rights to author Eliot Asinoff’s nonfiction book in 1980. Sayles reportedly cast the film as much for his stars’ baseball talents as for their acting ability, with the game sequences shot at Indianapolis’ Bush Stadium requiring the strategic placement of the limited number of extras, while cardboard cutouts were used to “fill up” the far background. Ah, the old days, before digital! Director Sayles had to become especially nimble with the changing weather, switching between the various playoff games being recreated in mid-shoot in order to better match the shifting lighting conditions. In 2009, Asinoff’s nonfiction account of the scandal generated new controversy around Joe Jackson’s alleged guilt, with “Chicago Lawyer” magazine contending that Asinoff’s book was based on incomplete information, and that “Say it ain’t so, Joe” was in fact not involved in the scam. In 1994, Ken Burns’ nine-episode Baseball series provided an unofficial mini cast reunion, with John Cusack, John Sayles and Studs Terkel all contributing character voiceovers.


The Homesman (2014)

Tonight’s indie is The Homesman, a 2014 western drama adapted from the novel by Glendon Swarthout and directed by Tommy Lee Jones.

Hilary Swank stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a 31 year-old New York transplant somehow managing as a single woman on her own farm in the stark Nebraska Territory of 1854. Keenly aware of her advancing age, Mary Bee can hear the loud ticking of her biological clock, and has dropped all pretense of coy femininity when presented with the rare opportunity to attract a prospective husband. However, Mary Bee also doesn’t have to look far to see that marriage is no picnic, especially when three women in the tiny community become psychologically unglued as the harsh winter season recedes. To address this strange epidemic, Reverend Dowd, played by John Lithgow, convenes an emergency meeting, asking for a “Homesman” to transport the three damaged wives back east to a church in Hebron, Iowa, that cares for the mentally ill. Yet when none of the men step forward, Mary Bee takes on the risky assignment, acquiring a makeshift paddy wagon for the purpose. Prepared to make the journey alone, the practically-minded Mary happens upon unexpected assistance in the form of George Briggs, a curmudgeonly claim jumper played by Tommy Lee Jones. At the end of his rope—literally—George has no choice but to reluctantly join the expedition, with the duo embarking on a reverse eastward trajectory toward an uncertain salvation.

Also featured are Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and Grace Gummer as Mary and George’s troubled human cargo, with cameo appearances by James Spader as an oily hotel manager, Tim Blake Nelson as an ornery drifter, Hailee Steinfeld as a wary tavern maid, and Meryl Streep as a compassionate minister’s wife.

The Homesman shines a rare cinematic spotlight on the stories of women’s lives in the very male-dominated world of the movie western. Director and star Tommy Lee Jones drew on the period images of prairie photographer Solomon Butcher, whose record of frontier life provided invaluable research for many aspects of the production. Premiering at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, the film marked the second movie collaboration of Meryl Streep and her daughter Grace Gummer, who in 1993 had portrayed her mother’s character as a young girl in The House of the Spirits.

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

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