In 1976, award-winning documentary filmmaker Peter Davis went in search of America. More precisely, he wanted "to understand America by going into one community and penetrating its society as deeply and widely as possible." To find the right setting, he asked the help of Richard L. Forstall of the U.S. Census Bureau, who, after poring over maps, charts, surveys and directories, said, "You could do worse than to go to Hamilton, Ohio." Davis went. The result was a book, Davis' first, Hometown, from which we have excerpted the article beginning on page 50.
Davis, 45, who was graduated from Harvard in 1957 and has lived in New York City for 24 years, was born in Santa Monica, Calif., of prominent Hollywood screenwriter parents, Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger. Peter's classmates from the more gilded Hollywood families received Cadillac convertibles on their 16th birthdays, but not Peter. That is not real life, his father and stepmother said. All in all, it isn't surprising that Davis chose to explore real life via the medium of documentary film.
One of his first efforts was Hunger in America for CBS in 1968, which he co-wrote with Martin Carr and which brought the wrath of Secretary of Agriculture Orville L. Freeman down upon the entire network. In 1971 Davis made The Selling of the Pentagon, also for CBS, for which he won an Emmy and a Peabody, and then Hearts and Minds, a documentary on the Vietnam war for which he received an Academy Award in 1975. His most recent film project is Middletown, a six-part series to begin March 24 on PBS television.
"But I always wanted to write," says Davis, "and after Hearts and Minds I thought, it's now or never."
Two and a half years (and more than 3,000 pages of notes) after Davis went to Hamilton, he began to write the book. Of the basketball game between the town's two high schools, which is described in these pages, he says, "It was the most exciting athletic event I ever went to. With one exception. In May 1972 I had tickets to see the San Francisco Giants play the Mets. I wanted my sons Tim and Nick [children from Davis' first marriage to Johanna Mankiewicz, who was killed by an out-of-control taxi two years later] to see Willie Mays play, and then we found out he had been traded—to the Mets! The score was tied 4-4 in the fifth inning when Mays came up to bat, I think for the third time, and hit a home run that barely cleared the leftfield fence. Everybody was pushing that ball over—he won the game for us. And we all started to cry."
A longtime baseball fan, Davis took Tim and Nick (he has two children by his present wife, Karen Zehring) to spring training in St. Petersburg for years. "We're not going this spring," he says, "because they're both playing baseball for their school teams."
This seems to work right in with one theme of his piece: Does sport imitate, provide escape from, or prepare you for life? Says Davis, "I think sport imitates and provides escape from life. It is also a preparation. It reflects feelings, in many ways better than work does. And it's a heck of a lot of fun."
DAVIS: IN SPORT, AN IMITATION OF LIFE