It is World Series weather in Indianapolis. Thirty-five degrees. Charlie Sheen is dancing around center field, trying to warm up. He is worried about his arm tightening up before the big throw. He worries whenever he can. He worries about ulcers, hemorrhoids, heart attacks—old-man worries. He is 22. With his cap pulled tight on his head, and slightly tilted, he pounds his fist into a glove that resembles a leather four-leaf clover. A scout’s report might read: “Good face, wound tight, scary intensity.” Like a bottle of shaken champagne, Sheen is bubbling for the opportunity to let loose.
His director is almost ready. Of the 75 people on the field, and another 1,000 in the stands, John Sayles is instantly recognizable. There is more of him and less material trying to cover it. He’s wearing a green letterless baseball cap, gym shorts and a gray sleeveless tank top that shows off the best of his odd six-foot-four body: his biceps. In good weather and bad, the biceps are visible, and usually being patted, fondled or kneaded by their proud owner. If he weren’t a sensitive, independent, respected actor-novelist-screenwriter-director, you’d swear he was a macho jerk.
John Sayles is ready to roll.
Charlie Sheen is ready to throw a Redleg out at home.
Actors and extras have been waiting for this; rumor has it the kid’s arm’s something special. A couple of cohorts have already refused to play catch with Sheen. He hurts. Presently, surreptitiously, pepper games pause, fungo bats hang still, coffees are stirred. Though Sheen is a minor character in this strict ensemble, he is the cynosure of every landscape he inhabits. The kid stinks of Hollywood, of wild fame, of fury. There was his father and his brother and then Platoon and bleep you. If Sayles was careful to cast only those with baseball in their background or their blood, the line between athlete and actor blurs in Sheen: His winning percentage as a pitcher for Santa Monica High, .720, was more than twice his attendance record. A knuckleball-fastball tandem kept his ERA at 3.00, twice his grade point average. There were summers at the Mickey Owen Baseball School and scouts from colleges, but graduation never came and Sheen got a job on his first audition: Grizzly II. He was eaten alive.
Now, as Hap Felsch, uncelebrated Black Sox center fielder known for his defense and denseness, Sheen has to “act” a throw from center to home, no arc, no bounce, no excuses. He’s nervous. He shakes his arm out. Adrenaline courses. He looks around old Bush Stadium, knowing this is as close as he will ever get to a real World Series. That’s what brought him here. Certainly not the money, the $1,319 a week plus $42 per diem. The camera’s rolling. He gets the high sign. From 250 feet. Sheen uncorks a ferocious peg that doesn’t lose velocity until it sails beyond the catcher and the camera and hits the stands. A tight, lopsided smile creases the fielder’s face. He surprised himself. The arm feels good. Hell, all that drinking last night, all that sour mash and cerveza, only served as lubricant for his muscles, the way it did for Ruth and Cobb and the real Hap Felsch, rumpots all. Per diem down the hatch.
Sheen backs up to 280 feet, nearly out of range of the Arriflex, and unleashes a low, leather-seeking missile that travels about 7 feet above the ground until it smacks the antique catcher’s mitt, a modest stack of burned pancakes. A veteran of a dozen films, Sheen stays in character until he hears “Cut,” then allows himself a satisfactory sigh. The arm is still there. He looks homeward for a reaction.
Sayles had no idea the Santa Monica Kid packed such a rifle (although there was that run-in with the law for illegal-weapons possession). When they met in New York a few months ago, the director was checking out the Kid’s attitude. Sayles doesn’t brook actors more powerful than himself: They upset the balance, the community, the union. They also cost too much. Can’t have an actor working for scale racking up the bills in temperament. Sayles found Sheen smart as a whip, but frazzled. Working on Wall Street, where he was miscast and overextended, Sheen was highly susceptible to the city’s temptations: “I could get anything I wanted with a phone call,” he recalls with dread. “Living there would be impossible.” Indianapolis suddenly sounded nicely cloistered, with a modest role for which he was built. Eight Men Out was ideal.
That his brother Emilio Estevez had been penciled in at third base until financing fell through a few years ago, and is now too busy, no doubt upped the sibling ante. Money and the lack thereof have been blessings for Sheen—Estevez had been the first choice to star in Platoon until capital woes. The rest, as they say, is histrionics.
“Okay. Let’s do it again,” says Sayles.
The Kid does it again, almost a carbon-copy throw, pulling the catcher one step up the third-base line. It is a gorgeous, horizontal throw. Again, Sheen looks home for the response.
Sayles is looking at the replay on the video monitor. Though he thinks the Kid has some kind of arm, he says nothing. Rushing through his award-winning brain is the editing, the continuity, the position of the sun, the disposition of the producers, the mood of the crew, the AD’s girlfriend’s pregnant pet. Sayles loves the jigsaw puzzle that is moviemaking. What a perfect life for him—the solitary job of writing accomplished quickly (would you believe in a week?) and in the service of creating a small society that collaborates for art. That Sayles is the mayor of his cinema communities makes it even better. He has been eerily beatific throughout this shoot. No yelling, no flash floods of emotion. None of the crew can remember John so serene, and many have been with him from the beginning, from Return of the Secaucus Seven. It’s the baseball, some say; the women, mainly, and they make up 50 percent of the workers, including all three producers. (Shoeless Joe is spittin’ tobacco juice somewhere.) Sayles says Eight Men Out is more fun only because he’s working less; shooting in the daytime in a ballpark in Indianapolis is a pleasure after the sooty blackness of West Virginia coal mines for Matewan.
Perhaps Sayles is riding the high you attain when a screenplay you wrote ten years ago at the age of 27—your first script and just an exercise to prove you could handle interweaving story lines—comes to life. A film about the fixing of the 1919 World Series is a sweet meshing of obsessions for a man whose first novel was Pride of the Bimbos, about an amateur baseball player (all right, a midget amateur player), and second novel was Union Dues, and whose movies are invariably about everyday politics and underdogs and capitalism, conspiracy, America and how people interact through it all.
Sayles looks out to center field and says neutrally, “Okay, let’s do it again.”
Sheen pulls his White Sox cap down a little tighter, as if putting a lid on his volatility. He is bleeped off. Didn’t anyone happen to notice I just threw two stone strikes from dead centerbleepingfield? I don’t mind doing it again if I could get some feedback. These ain’t lollipops I’m tossing. On the set of Wall Street, when frustration got the better of him, Sheen fired a high hard one through a wall, brushing back a surprised sound man on the other side. Scouts agreed: Good velocity, needs control. If Oliver Stone were directing, Sheen can’t help but muse, Oliver would be doing cartwheels. Like Tommy Lasorda on greenies. No wonder this Sayles guy stays away from Hollywood—he’s too reserved. Doesn’t he know actors need support, effusive and unconditional support? “John likes to get film in the can,” Sheen says later. “When it comes to reading lines, to actual emoting, John figures if you can’t get it in three takes, you can’t get it. Oliver will do something until it’s perfect—four times or forty. One scene in Wall Street took two days!”
Sheen’s reverie is interrupted by the call for another howitzer home. Bull’s-eye! Did Oliver ever see him throw a grenade? Platoon could’ve had a happy ending.
Once again, the director looks at the monitor and says, “Let’s do it again.”
Sayles may give acting only three strikes, but baseball is another matter. Ten or twelve takes are nothing: If the newspaper account has a line drive just beyond the reach of a diving shortstop, Sayles’ll shoot it till it’s correct or the shortstop is lame. If the baseball fan doesn’t dig the movie, no one will. So there’s been a year of research, and a full-time historian on staff, and photos of the Chicago Eight and their gangster coconspirators decorate trailer walls like the post office’s most wanted. Bush Stadium, donated by the Indiana Film Commission, has been unfurbished to look like old black and whites of Redland Park and Comiskey Park, her midsection adorned with thirty-some billboards, advertising everything from shaving cream to chewing tobacco (the actors use licorice wads to produce Dizzy Gillespie cheeks and endless dark expectorant). Displaying the poster for Hillerich & Bradsby, bat makers, is a trade off for exact replicas of the Louisville Sluggers used in the White Sox–Reds series. Everything is to seventy-year-old specifications: balls, spikes, gloves, uniforms.
“Actors can be very neurotic,” says Sayles. “They are always going on job interviews, no matter how successful their last job has been.”
The Santa Monica Kid found out that finite budgets can be as infuriating as they are fulfilling when, as he was surrounded by the usual mob of extras the other day, a young female grabbed his cap, begged for an autograph and received the scribbled-upon cap as a souvenir. When the wardrobe lady discovered the hat missing, having scoured the countryside for the perfect material and hatmaker, she berated the star, hunted down the girl and retrieved the cap in question. Women of all persuasions are stricken by Sheen and his smoldering stare: He needs mothering, he needs a spanking. In turn, women bring out the best and worst in him. “My last three relationships were nightmares,” he says, “because the women didn’t understand me.” One was an actress. One was a Lakers cheerleader. One had his daughter. Charlotte Lewis is the most recent one. She, of The Golden Child, of a Chilean neurosurgeon father and an Irish mother, of European sophistication, is an independent 20. Sheen loves that she can take care of herself. She’s already had four tests for AIDS.
Sheen now jostles the hat that has his own autograph. He takes a deep breath and sends the projectile homebound. On the straight and narrow. And again his director treats it like a routine grounder. Sheen has to laugh now. It’s a bleepin’ joke. But nothing will disturb his two-month-long baseball meditation. Without the unbearable weight of carrying the movie, it feels more and more like the Super 8 jobs he used to make growing up with Sean Penn and Rob Lowe. If this one is screwed up, don’t blame me. Blame him! Three-Take John! I’m here, in a frosty center field, in my sacred White Sox uniform, in the boonies, to capture this 35-millimeter throw for posterity, to be part of the Great American Baseball Movie.
Inspired, he grips the ball across the seams and brings it behind his right shoulder and takes one hippety-hop step toward the infield, and if this were a for-real World Series, they’d show this one over and over, from four different angles, in super slo-mo—it’s a humdinger of a peg.
As the high-school dropout waits for the final “Okay, let’s do it again,” he stares at his director and thinks: So this is a genius?
Yes, John Sayles is a genius. The MacArthur Foundation said so. Gave him money to prove it. A couple of hundred thousand bucks.
He must be a genius. He gets everyone to work for scale so he can make the movies he wants, how he wants. This one is a bargain-basement 6 million. Millions are saved in salaries alone. Not to mention unions. It is just bizarre enough to make sense that the crusader for, and chronicler of, unions, big U and small, is not making a union movie. No teamsters on this team.
What he also doesn’t make is Psycho-Porky’s-Beach-Party-the-13th. If all actors are hungry for serious movies, young actors are starving. The Bat Pack is here because Sayles is, like, a Serious Dude. His genius may be his ability to keep a pristine reputation while churning out screenplays for Piranha and Alligator and Clan of the Cave Bear. All things considered, his heart remains as pure as polluted times allow, when plots are constructed by lawyers and endings by survey groups. Sayles sticks to his populist guns whenever possible. Sure, he directs videos, but they’re Springsteen videos. Remember the baseball motif of “Glory Days”? Sayles-manship. So the Bat Pack—Sheen, John Cusack, D. B. Sweeney, Perry Lang, James Read, David Strathairn, Don Harvey, Michael Rooker—gladly give up some money to be in the Great American Baseball Movie, about eight young men who ruined their lives by wanting more money.
The White Sox of 1919 were heavily favored to win the World Series because they had a truly marvelous team: hitting, fielding, pitching. What they didn’t have was money: Owner Charles Comiskey was penurious to a fault, paying as little as possible in the play-for-this-or-back-to-the-farm pre-free agency days. He had promised star pitcher Ed Cicotte a bonus if he won thirty games; when Cicotte had twenty-eight victories, Comiskey sat him down. Everyone except Eddie Collins, the smooth second baseman from Columbia University, was paid far below his league counterparts. Collins was perhaps more hated than Comiskey. He had no excuse.
First baseman Chick Gandil realized he could earn two years’ salary if his Pale Hose lost the best-of-nine Series. And if the lucre was wagered wisely, much more. That losing would also hurt Comiskey was a splendid bonus. Gandil approached the gamblers. It was easy: Gamblers and athletes traveled in the same circles. So easy, in fact, Gandil eventually sold the Series to two sets of gamblers, although both roads led to one Arnold Rothstein. Once Gandil had pitchers Ed Cicotte and Lefty Williams, he held meetings to inform certain teammates that the fix was a fait accompli, and their choice was to cash in or not. Some said yes and meant it. Others said little. No one knows just what Shoeless Joe or Buck Weaver said or did. Jackson, who begged to sit out the Series, ended up hitting .375, Weaver played his heart out. The word was everywhere—ballplayers have a hard time keeping a bunt sign secret. The smart money went down on the Reds. The White Sox lost. It stunk.
In the end, which came late in the 1920 season, although some of the eight confessed, all were found innocent of conspiracy by a jury of peers (fans); although acquitted, all were banned from the game for life. Banishment became common punishment for gambling; thirty-eight major-leaguers were banned for, or accused of, serious wagering, including Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. The courtroom scenes were farces. The Chicago Eight ended up with the best mouthpieces money could buy in exchange for their silence. Comiskey and Rothstein paid for their collective dumbness—the owner and the hood, the Old Roman and the Big Bankroll, entrepreneurial partners, partners in crime, teaming up to save themselves, their livelihoods and the game of baseball. A sordid tale about everyday politics and underdogs and capitalism, conspiracy, America and how people interact through it all.
“I’m not worried about the movie,” says Bill Irwin, “they have enough of me, but sixty people watch you screw up, at $150 a second or something. I stand out there and pray: Don’t hit it to me! Don’t hit to me!”
And it all happened right up the road from here, in the Windy City. One wonders how many of the $20-a-day extras who sip hot chocolate and try to catch a glimpse of Charlie Sheen know about the scandal they are reenacting. The turnout says not too many. Maybe citizens of Indianapolis don’t care about movies; Inherit the Wind is playing at the major downtown theater. Maybe they don’t care about baseball movies; basketball is their sport, Hoosiers was their flick. So poor was the attendance that when a $5,000 raffle didn’t attract enough folks, actors were raffled off as door prizes. “Win a Date With Charlie Sheen and John Cusack” posters were plastered all over town. Sounded kinky.
A 12-year-old boy won. They had lunch.
The 1,000 folks who do brave the weather have to deal with a bullhorn that instructs them to move around the stadium with each new shot. If the ball rattles around the left-field corner, “Let’s move on down to the left-field corner!” Before a Red slides into third, “Let’s move behind third base, folks!” More moves than a Gene Mauch play-off game. And if there wasn’t enough money to buy fans, there wasn’t any to remove all the anachronistic light towers. So Three-Take Sayles has the job of avoiding game-of-the-week angles while shooting too few extras between too many lights and approximating the look of 1919, the year the game almost died, and the year Eliot Asinof was born.
I may be dumb, but most o’ them writers don’t know half what / know. Writers can’t hit a baseball. If they could, they wouldn’t be writers. —Hap Felsch
Eliot Asinof could almost hit, enough to get him to the lower minors of the Phillies organization. In his warm-up jacket, he looks as if he could still play. The author of the 1963 book Eight Men Out has arrived at the stadium for a small part, some chump change, and to bathe in delayed glories and distant ironies. “It’s like a fucking joke,” he says. “Everywhere I turn, someone has my book. Imagine. When it came out, nothing but trouble. Then after Watergate, sales did pretty good. With Contragate, sales picked up again. Every conspiracy in high and unbelievable places brings new life. This book has had seven different editions, not seven printings—editions. What a fucking life.”
Indeed. As tough and stubborn as that of its author, who at 68 beams with the same anger and integrity (as if they could be separated) he had when he married Marlon Brando’s sister, was befriended by Hank Greenberg, studied under Dash Hammett in the Army, wrote screenplays for and was fired by Jack Warner. His stories still have the flavor of strong cocktails, his language being equal jiggers locker room, show biz and tough lefty intellectual.
“I remember when I was growing up,” he says, “my father would look at an election, the Olympics, everything, and say, ‘If they can fix the World Series, they can fix anything.’ Remember, this was before TV, before talking movies, before basketball, football—baseball was the national pastime, the World Series was like nine Super Bowls. People followed every inning on every street in America. And these guys fixed it! We had just beaten the Huns in World War I, were feeling high and mighty, and these jokers fix the fucking World Series. Not that gambling wasn’t prevalent—it was everywhere—but this affected the country. The fix, not entering the League of Nations, and Prohibition dictated America’s moral code for the next decade. What followed? The Roaring Twenties. The Age of Cynicism.”
Eight Men Out was from the start considered one of the best sports books ever written. And one of the most troublesome. The publisher yanked support for it when two lawsuits were filed. One of the complainants was, ironically, predictably, Chick Gandil, the leader of the Chicago Eight! Earlier the story was to be a network special, until Ford Frick, then commissioner of baseball, persuaded DuPont to withdraw its sponsorship. Then David Susskind, the powerful and prestigious producer, wanted it. For next to nothing. With lots of changes. Asinof stood firm. Figures a guy who wrote a book about men selling their game down the river for a sack of gold wouldn’t do likewise.
“When you sell your rights, you’re just more shit in the pen,” sneers Asinof. Lawsuits flew. The author was hit for $1.75 million. The best he could do was win the right to keep a million seven he never had.
Asinof’s total income for the first edition of Eight Men Out was $4,725. About the same as Hap Felsch made for his 1919 season.
“Did more fucking harm than good, my scruples. I got a bad rep. I was the victim, and I got turned into the bad guy. I was known as litigious. No one likes a writer who’s litigious.”
His involvement in the movie Eight Men Out is none. Today, he will meet John Sayles for the first time.
“He’s breaking every rule of screenwriting I ever learned,” says Asinof. “He’s got no lead character, no one to empathize with, no point of view. Smells like a damn docudrama. He could use Buck Weaver or Shoeless Joe or, best of all, Ring Lardner—he was so disgusted by the whole affair he never covered another baseball game. I got no illusions. In the end, if the thing looks right, that’s 70 percent of the battle.”
Asinof plays National League president John Heydler. He has one scene with two veteran actors, John Anderson and Clifton James. The three agree their office repartee is too static, so when the camera rolls, Anderson swats flies and James pulls out an Irish shillelagh and Asinof plays with his hat. This autumn still life has turned into the Rockettes at Christmas.
Is he nervous about his film debut?
“Nervous? No way. I’m a fucking ham. The only thing I know about this Heydler is that he’s an asshole. So I’ll play him like an asshole. I spent too much time on Hollywood sets to be nervous about this shit. If I fuck it up, they’ll shoot it again. No pressure whatsoever. In fact, I wish I played Joe Jackson as an old man so I could use my shit-kicking southern drawl.”
Did the director offer any insights to the novice?
“He said five words to me: ‘Eliot, you stand over here.’ I like Sayles. Two things really impress me about him. One is that he didn’t try to steal the book—he’s the first person who ever paid me in full and put my name on the fucking thing. Secondly, he got the whole book into one movie. Amazing. Very complicated story. I never thought it possible. But what the fuck—the guy’s a genius, right?”
The problem with making a movie of the Black Sox is that of engaging the emotions of the viewer. Unlike a book, a movie is more something you experience than something you learn about, and as such, for a movie to work, one must, as a viewer, share in the experience of one of the characters. —Bill James, baseball expert and amateur movie critic.
And on the seventh day, he plays hardball. The genius flips on his green cap and sleeveless top and grabs his glove and moseys on down to the public field, in smelling distance of a popcorn factory and just round the corner from the housing-project hotel where everyone lives, everyone except Christopher Lloyd, that is, who plays one of the gamblers and is too shy or too in love or too weird; he lives closer to the Indy 500 Speedway. Anyway, the rest of the cast gather on Sundays, for free, to do what they pretend to do, for pay, the preceding six days: Play Ball! Three-Take Sayles puts his beloved biceps to good use here, powdering pitches far and deep.
What a scene: the sheriff from Matewan on the mound; a poet friend of Sayles’s in left; a mime at second chattin’ up the infield; Johnny “the Sure Thing” Cusack at third, grousing about not getting enough camera time the day before. In Stand By Me and Sixteen Candles, he could do a scene for as long as he wanted. Not here. Sayles figures they’d be there till Christmas if Cusack had his way. No time to kibitz now, not with this one-hopper heading toward him, which he snares and tosses over to first baseman Michael Rooker. Rooker drove from Chicago to audition as a two-bit hood, until the bigwigs got a load of his mug, with his nose of many directions, and they heard him read, with his scabrous, screw-me-and-I’ll-kill-you voice, and he wound up playing the pivotal role of Chick Gandil. Word has it that Rooker was hit in the head with a fastball and laughed it off. The stage actor loves going toe-to-toe with the back-lotters. Don Harvey is at short, his Black Sox position. Between grounders, he moans and groans about not getting to hit in the movie. He took batting practice daily with Ken Berry, the film’s baseball coach and secret star of the whole shindig, for Ken Berry alone has done what everyone here, and across the Americas, wishes he could have done: Played Ball! In the Show! For ten years, he patrolled center field for four teams. A minor-league coach now, he started training the Black Sox two weeks before shooting began: The Bat Pack Goes to Boot Camp.
Auditions for Eight Men Out involved a short reading and a long catch. No Gary Cooper as the Iron Horse or Tony Perkins as a girlish Jimmy Piersall. The only actors approached over the years were known players: Tom Cruise, Jeff Daniels, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russell. In the end, no good lefties were available to play Shoeless Joe Jackson. So they called D. B. Sweeney, right-handed softball player on four Central Park teams, who had once tried out for the San Francisco Giants rookie team. He traveled with the Kenosha Twins in A-Ball for a month and did it left-handed. Everyone loves to watch Sweeney’s sweet southpaw stroke.
The subterranean envies that usually stir a set are hard to come by. There are a lot of mock fisticuffs and much bragging about penis size, but hard-edged jealousy is in little evidence. Maybe the dearth of actresses helps. Maybe all the physical activity leaves too little energy. Maybe Sayles has constructed a system wherein no one gets special treatment, financial or otherwise, and therefore no one is permitted to act special. Sayles wouldn’t stand for it. The group wouldn’t stand for it. So there are no outrageous demands, no tantrums, no taunting of authority. Sayles likes actors, and they know it. He treats them like adults, even if they’re not.
“Actors can be very neurotic,” says Sayles, who sends out a character sheet to each actor before each film to avoid debates. “They are always going on job interviews, no matter how successful their last job has been. Not like baseball, where if you hit .300, you can assume you have a position. Actors are forever second-guessing themselves about a whole bunch of choices.”
Not Sayles. He has appeared in nine movies, mostly his own, with nary a second thought. He’s an artist—he don’t look back.
“I rehearse myself on a home-video camera. In Matewan, after I finished up all my other stuff, about three in the morning, I went into the church and got a ladder and stuck up the video camera, opened it up wide and just did my scene a bunch of times, blocked myself, adjusted my acting, and the next day I told [cinematographer] Haskell Wexler where I’d be moving on what line. I didn’t have to do too many takes, because I knew what I wanted.”
“The work is challenging,” says Sheen. “It’s a controlled atmosphere. When you leave, when you shut the door behind you and say good night, then it gets crazy.”
The process is more complicated in group scenes. In Eight Men Out, most of his scenes are with a reporter played by Studs Terkel, who accepted his role on the condition that the movie “would get that bastard Comiskey.” Sayles cast himself as the legendary writer Ring Lardner. What a neat literary combo, Sayles and Terkel: The populists’ Abbott and Costello, doing not “Who’s on First?” but “Who’s Not on First and How Can Society Help Get Him There?”
What’s on second? An unhappy clown. Bill Irwin is not having fun. He plays Eddie Collins, the Hall of Famer so hated by his teammates that no one threw him the ball during warm-ups. Collins was not involved in the scandal, because no one would let him. Irwin feels much like that lately. At 38, he is well outside the Bat Pack in lifestyle and spirit; he was also the first performer to win a MacArthur genius award, which makes Eight Men Out the only movie in history with a pair of certified geniuses. Only trouble is, Bill Irwin has trouble with grounders. They eat him up. You can often find him sitting by himself, staring into space, despondent over his inability to turn a double play. Or he’ll be watching James Read pitching. Read recently played Cary Grant on a miniseries. Jesus, Irwin thinks, even Cary Grant can break off a wicked curve.
“This is truly excruciating,” Irwin whispers. “I’m not worried about the movie, they have enough of me, but sixty people watch you screw up, at $150 a second or something. I stand out there and pray: Don’t hit it to me! Don’t hit to me! Fielding is dangerous. That’s a very fast missile. And very hard.”
Imagine! Bill Irwin, whose show at Lincoln Center, The Regard of Flight, proved his body could defy most natural laws; Bill Irwin, who has studied T’ai Chi, mime, dance and gymnastics at Cal Arts, who mastered the trampoline, juggling, acrobatics and elephant riding at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College; Bill Irwin, whom The New Yorker placed in the “pantheon of postmodernist performance artists,” whose next project is Waiting for Godot, with Robin Williams and Steve Martin and Mike Nichols—the same Bill Irwin mopes around Indianapolis, Indiana, because he can’t complete a convincing twin killing in a make-believe movie about deceased baseball players from 1919.
Ah, the regard of flight of horsehide!
The rest of the cast are less grave. They go-cart or shop for used clothing or haunt the topless joints. That is, when they are not long-distance with their agents, which is constantly, resulting in sulking over lost parts or gloating over juicy offers. Everyone knows everyone’s business because everyone has worked with someone who has dated someone in someone else’s film. John Cusack’s sister was on Saturday Night Live with Robert Downey Jr. who was in The Pick-Up Artist with Molly Ringwald who worked with John Cusack on Sixteen Candles with John Hughes who did Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with Charlie Sheen. There are several discussions about how Molly Ringwald kisses. It is concluded that she will drive many a young man behind the camera or maybe to a typewriter. Like John Sayles, whom most of the Pack admires more for his writing than for his directing.
“Writing is work,” says Sayles, “but it’s relatively easy work. I don’t have writer’s block or anything like that. If I take the job, it’s because I’ve got the story in my head. There are other things I’d rather do than write, so it’s not like I have this restless urge to write, sitting there facing a blank page with nothing in my head. If I don’t have a bunch of ideas, I don’t sit down.”
He wrote The Brother From Another Planet in six days. He wrote a nonfiction book called Thinking in Pictures on frequent bus rides between New York and his home in Hoboken, New Jersey, while editing Matewan. Energy is never a problem. Second-guessing himself is unthinkable. Eight Men Out, despite being his first shot at a screenplay, and written over a decade ago, remains fairly intact.
“Structurally, it hasn’t changed. I was committed always to telling the big story, rather than saying this is from Buck Weaver’s point of view, or an overview from the reporter’s eyes, or through flashbacks. We decided to plunge in and try to make sense out of all the characters with all their cross-purposes and different stories. But it has to be an ensemble piece. I kept telling people, ‘This is called Eight Men Out—not Three Men Out.’ It is a complex story that will raise questions rather than satisfy expectations. This is one reason the movies I make should cost less than other people’s movies. It’s a risky thing to do.”
Some would say foolish. Sayles confuses complexity with ambiguity. Without being able to identify a sustaining notion, one feels torn apart rather than focused. If you left Matewan feeling confused, he is pleased, for that was the auteur’s point: “I have no answers about violence, pacifism or unions. Growing up makes life very complex.” Ask him point-blank about a central theme and he is injured, as if being reduced to the dread High Concept. “My stuff is more complex than that,” he says, and then lists the themes of Eight Men Out: adulthood, capitalism, greed, pride, community, conspiracy, male bonding, etc. He touches on many bases but stands on none. Strange. This principled lefty, this clear thinking, last vestige of thirtysomething integrity—this man who makes personal, political films says he has nothing to say.
“When I come down on one side or the other,” he says with a smile, “it’s generally on both sides.”
John Cusack is praying he comes down on either side, any side, in one piece. Daredevil crew members have just asked him to join their skydiving party, and young Cusack has converted their invitation into a challenge to his manhood.
Ah, the disregard of flight.
“Don’t be scared, we’ll tape your ankles,” says a tattooed grip.
“Great,” deadpans Cusack. “My spleen is mush, but my ankles’ll be fine.”
“Why not wait till you do a war movie?” suggests D. B. Sweeney, who did Gardens of Stone.
“Fucking Sheen killed off war movies,” says Cusack. “Where is Sheen?”
Charlie Sheen is flying. With Jack Daniel’s as his copilot, he is drinking his way to New York to promote a cop movie he made with Sweeney. The star of Platoon hates to fly. Abhors it. Does it only when necessary, like to see the World Series in Minneapolis. He still wears his Twins cap, along with a sport coat from Goodwill, jeans from last year, a T-shirt, sneaks and a prominent attitude. Days go by with the same outfit, and a prominent attitude. Sheen rarely appears to be having a good time. Having a good time isn’t easy when you’re too famous and too rich and too young to know what to do about it.
“The work is challenging,” he says. “It’s a controlled atmosphere. When you leave, when you shut the door behind you and say good night, then it gets crazy.”
Something like last night. Sheen is at the hotel bar, minding his own business, running up a tab. There is this young woman at a nearby table whose creamy demeanor and powers of concentration, not to mention her tanned, exposed midriff, would lead any objective bystander to conclude she would prefer to be sitting on Mr. Sheen rather than in propinquity.
She finally speaks to him. She is a masochist. He is not unhappy. He plays with the bare-bellied girl as a cat would with a mouse, not to maim, nothing murderous, but she is alive and moving and, well ….
Sitting hunched over at the bar, he reminds you of a kid who spent too much time sitting in the principal’s office, waiting to hear about his potential and his IQ and what’s gone wrong. He is comfortable here. Without words, the bartender knows when to pour the Jack Daniel’s. It is not going to be one of those occasionally violent, let-’er-rip, kick-out-the-jinns-with-Jack routines tonight, for Sheen is pleasantly loopy, just a kid trying to have a good time, going over the day’s work, proudly recalling how he deftly handled the crowds at the stadium and the crush of writers, the local, national and interbleepingnational writers, for chrissakes. He sat in the dugout, cigarette between his fingers, cap pushed back on his head, fielding queries like a team captain, bright, lucid, oddly formal until oddly relaxed. Major-league cool. “I’m just happy to be a small part of the team …. I’ll do anything they ask of me …. I’m a Reds fan, actually …. It’s a thinking man’s game.”
This baseball fantasy is working! The Kid has chilled out.
Promotion has not been his métier. The press has been tough on him. Aged him. Made him pine for the good old macrobiotic strictly-hanging-out Malibu days, when the large questions of his kid world were cars and girls and baseball instead of the large adult questions they now ask about cars and girls and baseball. Which he answers honestly. Which they write down honestly. It just all looks so different in typeface, so haughty and indelicate, so 22 and cocksure.
Even that has changed. He likes his clippings now. He has taken to Xeroxing them and handing them out when he’s misunderstood. A recent fight with the makeup lady—just a minor contretemps, mind you—ended copacetically when Charlie dropped off a magazine article he considered enlightening, if not somewhat flattering. On the cover, next to his dark, sultry face, was printed: “Contrary to popular belief, this young man is not an obnoxious jerk as he often has been described.”
Sheen liked that story. That’s what happens when you relax, he thinks to himself. He has some more copies in his room upstairs. In a restaurant around the comer, one of his producers is saying, “Charlie doesn’t get it. He’s safe here. It took the other kids a day or two to catch on, but Charlie, he never got it. He’s so intense, so uptight, so much like his old man.”
The Old Man, as Charlie too calls Martin Sheen, has been friend, counselor and model. The son carries himself like a movie star, with an appealing aloofness, a come-hither paranoia. At the bar, the young woman toasts every insult he tosses at her. As the verbal Apache dance heats up, so does the unconcealed woman, inching closer and closer to the source of her dark delight. And just as the scene is about to spiral from raunchy to ugly, just as Charlie Sheen is about to leap headfirst into trouble, he orders a Corona to go, throws her a good-night wink and disappears.
The lady stands stunned. The Kid pitches no woo. She was looking for heat and got a knuckler kiss-off. He’s maturing.
The all-seeing bartender shakes his head in admiration. “That Sheen can drink,” he says. “He gets pretty jacked-up some nights, but the moment before losing it, just before doing something he’d be sorry about, pooft, he goes to bed, or somewhere. He’s one smart drinker. And the kid’s what, 22, 23?”
And counting. Quickly.