IT IS MAN that we need. A look caught with surprise can be sublime.” That’s Robert Bresson
quoted in Babette Mangolte’s The Models of Pickpocket (showing at Anthology Film Archives),
a documentary exploring the mystery of Bresson’s art by interviewing the performers of his 1959
film Pickpocket 43 years later. Mangolte investigates the processes that made Bresson’s
films distinctive, but her inquiry into the phenomenon of film acting is a pop-art coup. It dovetails
with Bernie Mac’s remarkable performance in Mr. 3000.
Comic-turned-actor Mac intuitively and instructively reveals a mutual
sensitivity to the dilemma of a public figure fighting for his place in history. With Pickpocket, Bresson gave its principal actors Pierre Leymarie, Marika Green and Martin Lasalle a form
of immortality. First called “interpreters,” then “models,” they all feel that their lives were
changed by working with “Monsieur Bresson.” Leymarie carries the memory into his work as a genetics
researcher, Green became a professional actress and Lasalle pursued various career options as
actor, painter, gardener, always haunted by Bresson’s influence. Each performer admits how they
“gave” themselves to Bresson. Years later they understood his dictum, “When the model is free of
all intentionality, his expressiveness is adequate for the filmmaker.” This is not just a high-art
command; one gorges on the honest and authentic humor of Mac’s characterization.
Mr. 3000 is such a robust comedy that when you realize it
also has depth, it nearly becomes an embarrassment of riches. Mac plays Stan Ross, #21 of the Milwaukee
Brewers, who gets his 3000th hit, qualifying him for the baseball Hall of Fame, then quits the team.
He’s not exhausted, just selfish—and that selfishness is a result of his career-long, goal-oriented
struggle. To achieve eminence, Ross has pushed against all obstacles of competition that are routine
in an athlete’s life, that men know especially well, that black men experience as part of society’s
racist tradition. Ross doesn’t give a damn what anybody else thinks about his decision to retire;
he’s fully aware that he has earned respect if not likability.
What makes Ross the finest characterization on screen this year (comparable
to Bresson’s realness) is that Mr. 3000 represents a hell of a balancing act. He’s an existential
American man going through psychological and political slapstick, which Bernie Mac makes absolutely
credible. Unlike the neo-W.C. Fields irascibility Mac shows on his Fox tv series, Ross is wound
too tight to warm up to anyone. “I’m a certified immortal! And there ain’t nothin’ y’all sons of bitches
can do about it!” he declares. This boast goes to disgruntled fans and peeved sports writers who
think Ross gets his comeuppance when he has to return to the team due to a counting error. Though short
of his goal, Ross doesn’t immediately change his habits, because Mr. 3000 isn’t pabulum
like Seabiscuit, where a sports hero turns sweet. This characterization digs down into
the core of masculine pride that makes people simultaneously admire and resent outstanding athletes.
There have been great jock performances in other movies, like Nick Nolte’s
in North Dallas Forty, Jamie Foxx’s in Any Given Sunday and the extraordinary tandem
expose of bravado by Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames in Undisputed. But none of them matched
Mac’s resilience, the way Ross swaggers with the pride of talent and experience.
Ross’ individuality seems authentic, and director Charles Stone III
never makes the insult of connecting Ross’ behavior to a bogus patriotic ideal. Simply through
his arrogance, Ross embodies the contemporary American ethos in which success and power are considered
the rewards of intense self-regard.
Ross doesn’t have to go to the Olympics to show what team he plays for;
it’s apparent in his tv-commercial image and the sense of entitlement that carries over into his
one-on-one relationships. This portrait of modern, desperate determination lives alongside
the perseverance that Faulkner ascribed to Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury and that Ralph
Ellison gave to Invisible Man, except for one crucial difference—it’s also funny.
Ross has a magnanimous attitude about projecting and protecting his manhood, playing the game
of Celebrity Race Man with a wily smile. His friendship with white former catcher Boca (Michael
Rispoli) flips and updates the bossman/toady convention that Ron Shelton perpetrated between
Kevin Costner and Cheech Marin in Tin Cup. Stone’s special insight is that both ballplayers
share a sardonic approach to the game and to life. It’s implied that they overcame racial differences
by realizing that such “differences” were only superficial distractions from society’s basic
unfairness. Partners in a sports bar, they don’t let race or ego get in the way of their pursuit of
peace—a jock’s version of zen.
This is a major advance in ethnic characterization (both Mac and Rispoli
peak). It illustrates how individual responsibility (casually referred to as brotherhood, or
teamwork) often founders in an age when so many people lack any agreed-upon moral imperative. Ross
(and Boca urging “Do your thing”) is up against a team of apolitical jocks and a world of self-interested
owners, clueless fans and a battalion of hostile sports reporters. Mr. 3000 breaks ground
by honestly exposing—and mocking—the biases that small-minded sports writers
put into the culture. This role is a deep-down refutation of that sports writers’ canard calling
blacks “natural” athletes. Ross first appears to be a stupid egotistical jock, but he responds
to the baseball institution with a sense of humor; he’s always wary, always mindful of keeping his
own conscience. Ross’ intelligence shows in his business sense, which comes down to a shrewd if
cynical people sense.
And he nearly outsmarts himself in the way he calculates the advantages
of making up for lost affection with a female sports reporter, Maureen (Angela Bassett). The jock
and journalist once shared a rapacious youth but now look toward middle age with a rueful lustiness.
No tête à tête in any 30s screwball comedy (not even Tracy and Hepburn in the
50s sports romance Pat and Mike) was better than Mac and Bassett’s testy flirtation. A bedroom
scene featuring their satisfied grunts is high comedy, because these are also moans of age. Their
sighs express appreciation; the unexpected poignancy is sublime. (Bresson might have approved.)
Older and wiser, these former hotshots are gravely passionate—and with a devastating sense
of irony. The inflection Maureen uses when calling Ross “Sluggah!” is like a curve ball; it whistles
past your dazzled eyes and mushiest expectations. This romantic subplot isn’t the usual premeditated
sex angle; it grows out of the film’s interest in Ross’ capabilities, suggesting that his masculine
prowess comes from more than luck or genetics; it is also part of his intelligence. (“I can’t let
them take away my legacy,” Ross confides to Maureen.) How he learns to bring his physical, mental
and spiritual gifts together fulfills the manhood that the League had always put to the test.
Screenwriters Eric Champnella and Keith Mitchell find resonant comedy
in Ross’ return to a team with younger players, men who grew up watching his power and his arrogance.
They are the legatees of Ross’ selfishness, especially the Adonis-like pitcher T-Rex Pennebaker
(Brian White), who perfects Ross’ iconic status. After T-Rex hits a ball, he arches back—beautifully
tense and elegant. It’s a dreamboat pose and Ross sees right through it. He sees the vanity that he
let get the best of his younger self. His confrontation with T-Rex is a wondrous mixture of paternalism
and playing the dozens—a movie first.
Stan Ross recalls Lionel Trilling’s assessment of a black man in John
O’Hara’s short story “Bread Alone”: “The Negro is so precisely seen in all his particularity as
a Negro that he wonderfully emerges, by one of the paradoxes of art, as a man.” That comment from 1945
was made without the benefit (or confusion) of the many social changes that would affect the social
condition and mainstream perception of black men. Though making an entertainment, Charles Stone
gets real; he, too, knows, “It is man that we need, not another black macho cartoon.” With Bernie
Mac’s contribution, he’s created a movie character sensitive to all the paradoxes black athletes
have represented for the past quarter century. Watching Mac combine nerve, chagrin and wit is better
than a paradox; it’s a delight. o