Judge Bill Treadways thinks that if your wife calls you "Slugger," you must be doing something right.
A love story about two of America's favorite pastimes.
The Slugger's Wife is a film remembered more for its behind-the-scenes turmoil than for the film itself. That is a shame since the film is not as bad as its reputation suggests. It's a sweet and funny film; when it makes sense, that is.
Facts of the Case
Atlanta Braves outfielder Darryl Palmer (Michael O'Keefe, The Great Santini, Split Image) is in a career slump. His team is on the road to yet another dark post-season. All that comes to an end, though, when he meets Debby (Rebecca De Mornay, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), a budding rock singer. After several attempts at picking her up, she finally agrees to date him. They hit it off and are soon married. As a result, Darryl begins a comeback that lifts the Braves all the way to the World Series.
But there is turmoil in paradise. Debby doesn't want to be known only as a slugger's wife. She wants her own career and to cut an album. Will their relationship survive this obstacle, or is it curtains for them?
The Slugger's Wife is a disjointed wreck. Producer Ray Stark and writer Neil Simon produced a series of films based on original screenplays. Most of them were directed by Herbert Ross, with whom Simon worked well. But Ross was unavailable to film The Slugger's Wife, so Hal Ashby was hired to direct it. Ashby was one of the finest directors working in Hollywood during the Golden Age of the '70s. From The Landlord to Being There, each Ashby picture managed to top the next. By 1985, when he made our film, he had gone slumming, a result of lackluster scripts and drug addiction. Ashby was fired from The Slugger's Wife after Simon objected to Ashby's willingness to allow his cast to improvise new dialogue and situations. (Simon, being a typical writer, demanded that his scripts be filmed verbatim.) The picture was finished and edited without Ashby. The result was panned by critics upon release.
So whose fault is it that The Slugger's Wife is a mess? I tend to gravitate towards Neil Simon and Ray Stark. I have nothing against Neil Simon—as a playwright and author, he has been responsible for some of the finest plays and scripts ever produced—however, at this point in his career, his glory days were behind him. Only When I Laugh, I Ought to Be in Pictures, and Max Dugan Returns were all uneven affairs. Those scripts had occasional moments of truth but were stuck in a rut of creaky sentiment and melodramatics. The main problem with The Slugger's Wife is that it appears to head in the same direction.
Simon wanted a dramatic comedy that tackled both love and sports. The problem was that he didn't know what he really wanted it to be. As a result, each topic threatens to overcome the other in Simon's story. Ashby and his talented cast made a game attempt to overcome the uneven script, but this is where Stark comes in. He allowed his friendship with Simon to overshadow his judgment. Instead of defending Ashby, he fired him.
Audiences seem divided over The Slugger's Wife. Those who despise it either expect it to be a romance or a baseball movie. There's no middle ground. Well, I am here to suggest otherwise. There are things to like in it, even if the film goes awry at the end. As sick as he was with addiction at the time, Hal Ashby does a solid job of directing the picture. The sports sequences are exciting to watch; they are so well filmed that it makes you wish Ashby had made a sports film earlier in his career. The music club sequences are filmed with energy and style. Had he not died suddenly, Ashby could have made a killing with the burgeoning MTV market. Best of all, he still had the ability to elicit great performances from his cast.
Michael O'Keefe made a promising start in The Great Santini, with a performance worthy of an Academy Award. He then made an attempt at a leading-man career with a stunner called Split Image (1982). In The Slugger's Wife he tries his hand at a romantic lead. Darryl Palmer is an irritating dolt at first, but O'Keefe's performance suggests redeeming qualities in the man. Few can pull off making a difficult character sympathetic, yet that is what he does here. Famous film director Martin Ritt (Hud, Nuts) is surprisingly good as Burly, the Braves' manager. Few realize that Ritt began his distinguished career as a quality actor before the blacklisting ended it. The supporting cast, including Randy Quaid (The Last Picture Show) and Cleavant Derricks (Moscow on the Hudson) are all fine. However, the best thing in The Slugger's Wife is Rebecca De Mornay. She brings the film to life in all of her scenes, investing Debby with carnality and sweetness. She also sings many songs, ranging from Neil Young to original songs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Columbia TriStar's decision to release certain titles in full-frame format only is proving to be a major mistake. Lord knows I have been eagerly awaiting a widescreen version of this flawed but entertaining film. Imagine my disappointment when I popped the disc into the player and saw it in pan-and-scan. My disappointment soared upon the condition of the transfer. It isn't any better than your old VHS copy. Lots of scratches and specks appear at various points in the picture, grain dominates all night and dark scenes, and colors vary between bright and muted. The image lacks the sharpness DVD is renowned for.
The audio track is much better. Columbia made the wise decision to issue a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track for the disc. Music is a major element of the film, and the previous mono videocassettes failed to capture the textures and tones properly. Also, the extra channels allow the dialogue to be easily understood.
The Slugger's Wife is one of Columbia's barebones discs. Not even the original theatrical trailer is included. I understand the lack of a commentary track, especially since two of the three main personnel are dead, but surely we could have been given at least a retrospective documentary detailing the troubled production.
The $24.95 retail price is too much to ask for a disc with lousy video elements and no extra content. The film itself is a mild curiosity at best. You'd be better off renting the disc or catching the film on cable.
Neil Simon is found guilty of refusing to remain open to changes that could have made his slight story a more important film.
Ray Stark is also found guilty—of allowing personal friendships to overrule common sense and business.
The cast of The Slugger's Wife and director Hal Ashby are found not guilty of attempting to make a stronger film from a by-the-numbers script.
Finally, Columbia is found guilty of shortchanging us with barebones discs at outrageous prices. Sentencing is to be determined soon.
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