Sportsflicks: "The Slugger's Wife," Or Everything And Everyone Strikes Out

In which a legendary playwright and the most successful filmmaker of the 1970's collaborate on an extremely shitty baseball-adjacent movie.
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In early 1985, an irredeemable clusterfuck of a baseball movie was unleashed upon the American people. Few of them watched it, which is for the best. I was among that happy group of fortunate humans never to have seen The Slugger’s Wife until I watched it one and a half times in the process of writing this review. I would like those 154 minutes and 30 seconds back, but while I know that is not possible, the experience has made me all the more grateful for all the hours I’ve spent not watching The Slugger’s Wife. What great times those were.

The Slugger’s Wife, written by Neil Simon and directed by Hal Ashby, is probably the worst credit on both of their otherwise distinguished c.v.’s. Simon, the legend behind The Odd Couple and other comedic masterpieces, is not at his best; in place of the usual banter is a great deal of one-sided whining and extremely frank and extremely un-sexy talk about sex.

Ashby, for his part, just kind of lets it happen, showing none of the flourishes which made him one of the greatest directors of the 1970’s, or for that matter any other kind of flourish.

***

Michael O’Keefe is Darryl Palmer, which is to say he is a slightly less Mormon Dale Murphy. How much less, you might ask? Oh, he’s very slightly less. Like The Murph, our hero is a star outfielder for the Atlanta Braves, although our Dale never spent his wee hours picking up ladies with his teammates. One night, as Darryl is filling in the lineup card for the night’s orgy, he sees Debby (Rebecca De Mornay), a nightclub singer who will soon become his object of affection, lust, and half-hearted revenge. They soon get married, but Debby Huston-Palmer is “the slugger’s wife” in name only; in our hero’s eyes, she is his possession.

There is a scene in which Darryl brings a portable stereo playing Debby’s music to the plate, which only four years before Major League was what passed for MLB walk up music. There is also, I shit you not and I’m sorry Mom, a scene where Debra has cunnilingus performed on her while Darryl describes a single, double, triple, and a home run.  Just wait till you see his slider. Sensual baseball and brand development aside, Darryl is a terrible human being, routinely putting his career over Debra’s, blaming her for an 0-for-5 night when she has a chance to perform. He travels across the country to see her sing, and we’re supposed to empathize with him when she gets upset at his borderline stalking. The title The Slugger’s Wife is misleading in that the story is by and large about the slugger himself. We are supposed to care more about a guy following his dreams than his wife, who is... also following her dreams, but somehow it is bad, now.

During a rough patch on the field and off, Darryl does the noble thing, flying to “Kansas City” and assaulting Debra’s manager, who is played by Loudon Wainwright III in the film's most daring/inexplicable casting choice. Hal Ashby is shown as a patron of this establishment—having his director’s cameo taking place hundreds of miles away from the film’s main setting is a perfect symbol for Ashby’s level of involvement in and on this picture. Darryl copes with the inevitable separation as any adult man would: by having a nervous breakdown while breaking into Fulton County Stadium. Or, as a drunken Darryl calls it before bullying the night guard into running the Juggs machine for him, “Atlanta Braves Stadium Where The Atlanta Braves Play.”

Needless to say, Darryl’s work and art suffer as a result of his broad asshole-y behavior; at one point, he wears the most hangdog look any person could manage while still keeping his chaw in his mouth. A chase for Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 homers emerges out of nowhere and is suddenly in jeopardy. He threatens suicide, and his manager threatens back by saying he’ll replace him with a gay. Era-appropriate gay-baiting aside, Hud director Martin Ritt isn’t bad as Burly DeVito, the manager/father figure of this Atlanta Braves squadron.

The end of The Slugger’s Wife is not nearly as batshit as the first two acts, which is something considering how profoundly fucked up it gets. Teammates Moose and Alvarado try to get Palmer laid, but Darryl is so obsessed with Debby that he can’t have sex anywhere that they had previously done it, which takes pretty much the entire house off limits.

Then Darryl gets concussed—this is the set-up to a joke, don’t worry—and the team tricks Debby’s friend Aline into appearing in the hospital, as Debby. Debby’s friend lets her know about this, and she’s actually kinda cool with the idea, but Darryl de-fogs himself long enough to figure things out and get pissed...at the innocent Aline, which enables our hero to continue his heroic trend of yelling at women a lot. I am giving away a lot of what happens in the film, admittedly, but these are not spoilers, per se. The only thing that would really spoil this film for you would be if you watched it.  

***

Both the funniest and saddest thing about The Slugger’s Wife is that it is A Hal Ashby Film. Every movie Ashby made from 1970 to 1979 was a classic in some way, and any flaws therein were at least the result of deliberate artistic decisions. It is hard to make that case with The Slugger’s Wife, because it is so indifferently made and because it is, itself, one long, loud, unforgivably horny mistake.

Most tend to gravitate to Harold And Maude as their favorite Ashby film, but it’s very hard not to feel something at the end of The Last Detail or Coming Home, or in the middle of Being There. Ashby took the words of a Robert Towne or a Colin Higgins or even the words Jerzy Kosinski may or may not have actually written, and made them his own; this was not so much a matter of bringing a screenplay to life so much as it was creating a living world in which that story could happen, and then moving in with it. Any connection Hal Ashby had with anything in this movie, from Simon’s screenplay to the mannequins delivering it, barely registers.

Simon’s script was clearly intended as an attempt at recapturing the screwy rapidfire magic of old-timey romantic comedies. It fails miserably, not because Ashby sabotages it, but because this is the type of old-timey romantic comedy that should never have existed in the first place, infused as it is with both warmed-over sentiment and malignant misogyny. This is stranger still because Simon could do baseball, and make it work—from Bill Mazeroski’s triple play, which Felix causes Oscar to miss in The Odd Couple, to an important cameo by Charley Lau in 1983’s Max Dugan Returns (Jason Robards pays for his grandson’s love by hiring the renowned hitting coach), Simon gets the way the game matters to people. He just doesn’t create a single character worth caring about, here.

The Slugger’s Wife almost, almost works when it gets to focus on mid-’80’s Atlanta and the Slugger’s Wife Cinematic Universe in which it occupies. An alternate universe where Mark “The Bird” Fidrych is healthy for long enough to be the third starter on the 1984-ish Houston Astros, and “The Mad Hungarian” Al Hrabosky is his closer. Much of the action takes place at Atlanta’s then-hot Limelight club, which was basically what Studio 54 would have been if it were located next door to a 24-hour supermarket in the ATL. Ultimately, though The Slugger’s Wife is less Disco Kroger than Murder Kroger.

Randy Quaid isn’t bad as Moose, the white Bob Watson to Palmer’s MRA Dale Murphy. Quaid was 33 or 34 when The Slugger’s Wife was made but could easily pass for 40, which makes him the most convincing baseball player in the film. Clevant Derricks (Rembrandt from “Sliders!”) is also fine as Alvarado, the token black and/or Latino player.

I am not here to acquit Hal Ashby of the mistakes he made while directing The Slugger’s Wife or excuse his drug-hastened decline in the years leading up to this; it’s more sad than anything else, and his perfect decade more than makes up for it. But everyone involved with this film has done better work elsewhere, even Chief Noc-A-Homa.

Seriously, if you want Peak De Mornay, then watch her in Runaway Train. If you want to see Michael O’Keefe at his best, watch either Caddyshack, The Great Santini, or rent a movie starring Miles O’Keeffe instead and play pretend. If you want to see a better baseball movie with Randy Quaid in it, you can watch Major League 2. That is absolutely not a thing you or anyone else should watch, of course. But if the alternative is The Slugger’s Wife, you should absolutely keep your options open.


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