Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Barry Levinson's The Natural broke the traditional box office curse on baseball movies by taking the genre into mythic territory. Audiences couldn't always follow this piece of haunted Americana, but even kids could tell that miracles were involved -- baseball sensation Roy Hobbs accomplishes amazing feats on the ball field. After The Natural, baseball stories were accepted as the foundation for whatever metaphor a screenwriter was selling: Eight Men Out, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham -- even the agreeable feminist docudrama A League of Their Own.
The mildly pretentious The Natural wants to be all things to all audiences. It was soundly trounced in 1984 for altering novelist Bernard Malamud's downbeat ending. Actually, the screenplay by Phil Dusenberry and Roger Towne changes the Roy Hobbs character from a shallow man with talent, to a good man with a quest, making the role more suitable as a grand vehicle for top star Robert Redford. Heavily stylized images by Caleb Deschanel combine with an epic-flavored score by Randy Newman to achieve maximum emotional impact. So why is it that so many viewers were left confused by the story? As reported in the extras in this special Director's Cut edition, the film distracted Ronald Reagan from his re-election campaign to ask, "Why exactly did that woman shoot Roy Hobbs?"
In the depths of the Great Depression, talented baseball pitcher Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) leaves his hometown sweetheart Iris Gaines (Glenn Close) and takes to the rails in search of his place in the big leagues. At a trackside stop he gets into a bet that he can throw three pitches past famous ballplayer The Whammer (Joe Don Baker). This brings him to the attention of the mysterious Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), a fan of superlative athletes. By a bizarre turn of events, that meeting takes Roy out of baseball for a full fifteen years. In 1939, the 35 year-old Hobbs is far too old to debut in the big leagues, but is recommended just the same to the New York Knights manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley). Thanks to the kindness of Fisher's aide Red Blow (Richard Farnsworth), Hobbs is accepted as a Knight. Fisher is convinced that Hobbs is part of a ploy by the unscrupulous co-owner The Judge (Robert Prosky) to drive Fisher off the team, and so does not let him play. When Roy does get his chance, he's almost too good to be true -- his mighty home runs rally the Knights to victory after victory.
The Natural retains author Bernard Malamud's classical allusions to Homer and the King Arthur legend, shaping the bigger-than-life tale of Roy Hobbs into a Quest betrayed. Baseball is the American game and Hobbs the homegrown hero, complete with legendary accoutrements. His bat Wonderboy is forged from a tree struck by lightning on the night of his father's death. Hobbs, like King Arthur, has betrayed his own destiny by falling prey to female distractions -- his Penelope-like hometown girl Iris loses him to a mysterious woman in black lace.
Tales of great Americans are often about second chances. Roy Hobbs appears on the scene like a stroke of magic, a wondrously talented slugger who will lead the losing Knights to a shot at the pennant. He's opposed by an evil conspiracy rooted within the Knights organization. The patently Evil Judge (who even hates light, like a vampire) is teamed with an unscrupulous sportswriter (Robert Duvall) and a Machiavellian bookie (Darren McGavin) to make sure the Knights lose. Hobbs' Achilles heel is his soft spot for women, and he's soon diverted from his quest by the lethally seductive Memo Paris (Kim Basinger). Hobbs only regains his bearings through the intervention of the pure spirit Iris. Like a reverse Pillar of Salt, Iris appears as a white statue in the baseball stands, inspiring Hobbs, like Samson, to regain his superhuman powers. At one point Iris affirms that she still has her farm -- it's as if she derives her own super power from the good mid-western soil.
A remarkable filmic construction, The Natural demonstrates a command of cinematic graphics that betters today's comic-oriented action films. Hobbs' rural roots are shown in glowing sunset hues. A spider-like schemer lives in a darkened office den. The radiant baseball sequences link Roy Hobbs' skill with supernatural forces: Like shots from a cannon, Hobbs' impossible home runs smash stadium clocks and light fixtures. Rain falls when he knocks a baseball right out of its covering and electric bolts create showers of fire when he triumphs. We wouldn't be surprised if a holy spring were to burst forth when he strikes the ground with his bat. The miracles in the baseball diamond are accompanied by the majestic horns of Randy Newman's Aaron Copland-like score: Roy Hobbs takes his place alongside deified movie icons like Gary Cooper's Howard Roark. 1
Baseball fans reacted to the film's play with history, referencing the stories of greats like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, and a little-known player named Eddie Waitkus who was gunned down by a fan in the late 1940s. The movie is also true to the idea of the national game as a metaphor for life. In the final decisive inning, Roy Hobbs is suddenly faced with a young relief pitcher, who comes out of nowhere just as had Roy so many years before. Baseball's bitter lesson is that every great player will eventually be cut down by a new generation of younger, stronger men. Roy bested The Whammer, and who is to say that this unspoiled rookie won't be the one to strike out Roy?
1984 audiences liked The Natural but its central mystery confused many. Roy gets a wonderful start at greatness, only to be sidelined for fifteen years because of a bizarre, violent event. Story details support two separate interpretations of what happened between Hobbs and Harriet Bird in that fateful hotel room. (spoiler) Early throwaway dialogue supports the idea that Bird was a serial killer of promising athletes, using a gun loaded with silver bullets. Later on, it is alluded that the crooked dealmaker Gus Sands -- who has ambushed Hobbs with his hired seductress Memo -- may have paid Harriet to shoot Hobbs because he lost money on the trackside bet. We're left unsure whether The Natural's main conflict is with business enemies over money, or simply Hobbs' internal struggle with his fatal inability to resist women.
Director Barry Levinson (Diner) assembles a sterling cast behind the 47 year-old Redford, who does a fine job playing 35. Most are cast to type, giving the picture the flavor of an old studio film. Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth are the sentimental foundation while Darren McGavin and Robert Prosky provide the front-office villainy. Glenn Close has little to do but look ethereal and wear a white dress. Robert Duvall is more of an actor than is needed but he hits all the right notes as the corrupt newsman. Barbara Hershey is properly ambiguous as the Lady in Black. She seems self-motivated rather than a gun for hire and is completely unpredictable. Kim Basinger makes a notable debut as the second fatal female in Roy Hobbs' life, all baby fat and pleading eyes. Also making an early impression is Michael Madsen as a cocksure ball player who has already sold his soul.
TriStar/Sony's Director's Cut of The Natural is a worthy two-disc set for fans of both film and baseball. In a taped introduction, Barry Levinson explains that this longer re-cut clarifies the opening half-hour while both adding and subtracting footage. The film transfer is stunning, taking its place beside The Right Stuff and The Black Stallion as a showcase for cameraman Caleb Deschanel.
Disc two contains one of the better overall DVD extras packages Savant has seen, assembled by the people at New Wave. Covered in the usual multiple short subjects instead of one coordinated documentary, excellent interviews have been assembled from most of the key personnel -- Robert Redford, Glenn Close, director Levinson, writers Towne and Dusenberry, Caleb Deschanel and even Bernard Malamud's daughter. Clever graphics and handsome original-shoot recreations contribute to the flow; we are always shown relevant images, not visual "filler."
The entire genesis of the show is covered, from Malamud's childhood to the reactions of big-league ball players. Robert Redford goes right to the crux of the matter when he laughingly admits that the film courted disaster by changing the book's gloom & doom ending. Ms. Close talks about minor disasters during filming and Deschanel remembers chasing bits of ebbing sunlight around a field to get the film's final shots. Although no deleted scenes are offered, a short group of sidebar attractions are amusing and informative. Other featurettes look at the Eddie Waitkus story and the wealth of classical allusions in Malamud's text; classically speaking, Roy Hobbs' fatal flaw is Hubris. The only imperfect extra on the disc is Charles Kiselyak's The Heart of The Natural, an overlong and sentimental analysis of the film's baseball significance hosted by Cal Ripken, Jr.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Natural rates:
Sound: Excellent New 5.1 mix
Supplements: Introduction by Barry Levinson, 8 featurettes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 23, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
1. Written in 1952, was Malamud's novel The Natural the inspiration for the Broadway play The Year the Senators Won the Pennant, which was eventually filmed as Damn Yankees? Like Roy Hobbs, Joe Hardy comes from nowhere and spurs a team to the pennant by his miraculous talent on the field. His conflict is between a devil-sent woman and the pure one he leaves behind. The Natural has no literal deal with the devil, but the devil appears to be iniside the hero, whose name just happens to be Hobbs.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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