‘Is this heaven?’’
‘‘No, it’s Iowa.’’ — Exchange between ‘‘Shoeless Joe’’ Jackson and Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella in ‘‘Field of Dreams.’’
Ray Kinsella is the George Bailey of baseball, and ‘‘Field of Dreams’’ is the ‘‘It’s a Wonderful Life’’ of its time.
Both films feature a classic 20th-century American family man mired in a financial crisis. (And a relative is involved in each case.) Ray and George even have precocious charming little girls of about the same age who experience medical issues.
Both men start hearing and/or seeing things, which ignites a magical, fantastical journey.
And in ‘‘Field of Dreams,’’ as well as ‘‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’’ there’s a heart-tugging, massive show of support from the locals.
Written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson (adapting W.P. Kinsella’s novel, ‘‘Shoeless Joe’’) and starring Kevin Costner in arguably his most beloved performance, ‘‘Field of Dreams’’ is almost always near the top of any list of the best baseball movies ever, as well it should be. Few films about the game have done such a superb job of capturing the special place it holds in the heart — and in the Heartland — of America.
The baseball diamond scenes in ‘‘Field of Dreams’’ are beautifully filmed, with director Robinson and cinematographer John Lindley capturing the pure, timeless joy of the game — from the simple, bonding exercise of playing catch to the special camaraderie among teammates to the unmistakable THWACK! when bat meets ball. (If Ray had trotted to the plate with an aluminum bat, the old-timey players would have tossed him in the cornfield, never to be heard from again.)
Of course, the baseball isn’t just about baseball. The game serves as the vehicle for Ray to seek reconciliation and closure with his father; for the world-weary characters of Moonlight Graham (Burt Lancaster) and Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) to find inner peace; and for players and fans alike to recapture the pure joy of playing and watching a child’s game.
We’re just a week away from the 30th anniversary of Opening Day for ‘‘Field of Dreams,’’ which was made for $15 million and grossed more than four times that. (Adjusted for inflation, the domestic box office total would be $130 million.)
When you look at the basics of the plot, it’s kind of a miracle the movie was made. An Iowa farmer starts hearing voices saying things like, ‘‘If you build it, he will come,’’ so he builds a baseball diamond. Eventually, a bunch of players from the distant past emerge from the corn stalks in full uniform and, oh, yeah, Ray’s dead dad shows up. . . .
One can imagine a studio exec saying: ‘‘You want to make a zombie baseball movie? Let’s put a pin on that for now. What else you got?’’
It even seemed a little strange for Costner to take the lead role, given he had just starred in ‘‘Bull Durham’’ a year earlier. (Little did we know Costner would go on to front more sports films than any major star in Hollywood history.)
But Costner was a newly minted movie star in the late 1980s, with the box office power to open a film, and he was the perfect choice to play a role Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck would have performed back in the day. We believe Costner as a steady family man but also a dreamer. And it doesn’t hurt that when he picks up a glove or a bat, he looks like he knows his way around the game.
(A key scene in “Dreams’’ featuring Costner and Jones was filmed during a 1988 A’s-Red Sox game at Fenway Park. While Costner was in town filming, he joined the Red Sox for some batting practice and cracked a few drives off the Green Monster.)
The casting of Ray Liotta as ‘‘Shoeless Joe’’ Jackson, however, is a bit problematic.
Jackson batted left and threw right. In the movie, Liotta bats right-handed and throws left-handed. After a month of trying to learn how to bat left and throw right under the
tutelage of former White Sox and Orioles player Don Buford, Liotta and the filmmakers agreed it was a lost cause and exercised artistic license.
No slight to Liotta, a great actor, but why not cast someone who accurately could fill the shoes of ‘‘Shoeless Joe,’’ so to speak?
Then again, this is a movie about a seemingly crazy person who hears voices, builds a baseball field and welcomes fully uniformed, long-dead major-leaguers as they emerge from a cornfield. If we can buy that — and we buy it all the way — we can buy Jackson standing on the ‘‘wrong’’ side of the plate.
Every year, fans from all over make the pilgrimage to the ‘‘Field of Dreams’’ movie site in Dyersville, Iowa, where you can take tours, catch a ballgame featuring players clad in
period-piece uniforms, even take a few swings at the plate and play catch in the outfield, with those glorious Iowa corn stalks rising in the summer sun. (As you might expect, they’ve got a whole lineup of special events planned for the 30th anniversary celebration.)
I’ve taken the 200-mile drive from Chicago to Dyersville twice, and there’s no denying the chills you feel as you approach the field; the united-in-spirit feeling you share with fellow movie and baseball lovers; and the smile on your face when someone lobs in a cookie, you take your mightiest swing and somehow the ball finds the sweet spot on the bat.
Anyone 35 or younger who visits the field of dreams these days either wasn’t around or wasn’t old enough to have seen ‘‘Field of Dreams’’ when it was released.
No matter. There’s a generational pull to this film more powerful than that of any other baseball movie.
‘‘People will come, Ray,’’ says Jones’ Terence Mann, Baseball Encyclopedia in his lap. ‘‘They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway, not even knowing for sure why they’re doing it. . . .
‘‘And they’ll walk out to the bleachers . . . and they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. . . .
‘‘People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. . . .
‘‘People will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.’’
Thirty years later, they’re still coming.