The sentimental baseball drama “For Love of the Game” from 1999 was playing on cable over the weekend. I stopped surfing for a moment to watch the scene where Kelly Preston’s Jane Aubrey takes a seat at an airport bar where the TV is tuned to the Tigers-Yankees game, with Jane’s estranged romantic partner, the veteran hurler Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner), taking the mound for what could be his final game.
An obnoxious Yankees fan is already at the bar, chomping on pretzels and downing beers, ripping Chapel and bloviating about his beloved team. “I’ve been a Yankees fan since 1958, I can name a Yankee for every [jersey] number,” says the fan.
“Oh God, please don’t,” says Jane, and though it’s just a four-word reaction line in a two-hour-plus movie, Preston’s timing is spot on and her facial expression is perfect as she expresses exactly what everyone who has ever been seated next to a know-it-all sports fan in a bar has ever felt.
“For Love of the Game” is not a great movie, but the dynamic between Costner and Preston is the most authentic thing about the story, from the moment they meet-cute after her car has broken down (of course, Jane has no idea Billy is a famous baseball player) to the final and quietly moving scene in the now nearly empty airport, where these two grown-ups who have been through a roller coaster of highs and lows come to realize they’re better off together than apart.
Kelly Preston died on Sunday at the age of 57, two years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is survived by her husband of 28 years, John Travolta, their 20-year-old daughter, Ella, and their 9-year-old son, Benjamin. (Their son Jett died in 2009 at the age of 16.) “She was a bright, beautiful and loving soul who cared deeply about others and who brought life to everything she touched,” a family representative told People magazine.
After small parts in films such as “Christine” (1983) and a role on the TV series “For Love and Honor” (1983-84), Preston made a splash in two leering teen-sex comedies from 1985, “Secret Admirer” and “Mischief.” They were not the best films even of that dubious genre, but the camera loved Preston and she had an instant, natural presence — and a gift for comedy, as in the infamous sex scene in “Mischief” in which Preston’s Marilyn nearly sustains a concussion from repeated knocks against the headboard.
Preston had a small but integral straight dramatic role in the underrated and gritty thriller “52 Pick-Up” (1986), joined Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in the monster hit comedy “Twins” (1988) and met and fell in love with her future husband Travolta on the set of “The Experts” (1989).
After a series of mostly forgettable parts in the early 1990s, Preston delivered one of the most memorable performances of her career in “Jerry Maguire” (1996) as the title character’s gorgeous, ambitious and hilariously disappointed girlfriend, Avery, who is wildly self-centered but says to Jerry, “It’s all about you, isn’t it? Soothe me, save me, love me … there is a sensitivity thing that some people have — I don’t have it.” Avery then literally delivers a one-two punch to his face and a kick to his gut when they break up. That two-and-half minute scene was perhaps the best showcase for Preston’s talents in her career. She was … brilliant.
Preston continued working through the decades, from “The Cat in the Hat” (2003) to “A View From the Top” (2004) to a recurring role on the TV series “Medium” to co-starring with her husband and the late Robin Williams in “Old Dogs” (2010) to once again teaming with Travolta in “Gotti” (2018), in which she played the wife of the title mobster. A promotional tour for the latter film brought Travolta and Preston to Chicago, where I co-hosted a screening and Q&A with them.
Backstage before the event, I spent a little downtime with John and Kelly and their then 18-year-old daughter, Ella. It would be a mistake for any media person to assume they know someone based on limited share time, but what I remember about Kelly Preston from that evening was how down-to-earth she was, how low-key, how close she seemed to her daughter. How lovely and sweet she was.