watchers and baseball fans who like myths and fables
will love The Natural,
director Barry Levinson's adaptation of Bernard
Malamud's metaphorical novel. It's about a middle-aged
baseball talent who arises from nowhere to create
a legendary finish to a storybook pennant race.
The film tells a simplistic story of good and evil,
painted in blacks and whites to make sure the audience
doesn't miss the blatant symbolism.
Most will remember two key
cinematic scenes from The Natural:
1. The climatic
explosive fireworks that erupt when hero Roy Hobbs
(Robert Redford) slow motions a gargantuan homerun
into the light fixtures that would awe even Mark
Not meant to be realistic, these
two homeruns show what can happen to a significant/historical
homerun as the story gets passed on to future generations
(look for a glimpse of the old fan beginning to describe
the homer). Both scenes are unforgettable, and they
tend to make fans exaggerate the overall value of
the movie—just as fans transform historical homeruns
into mythological baseball lore.
2. That magical moment
in Wrigley Field when the "woman in white" stands
to inspire Hobbs to break out of his prolonged
slump and smash the centerfield clock to smithereens.
There's just something about
fathers and sons and baseball, and there are a few
symbolic scenes to establish this idea. Levinson
frames the movie with such a scene in the middle
of a golden wheat field late in the day while father
and son play a game of catch. Young Roy's father
offers his talented son sage advice:
You got a gift,
Roy. But it's not enough. You gotta develop yourself.
Rely too much on your own gift, and you will fail.
Baseball is full of players
like this--the "can't miss" prospects who fall on
their faces for unknown reasons, the "flash in the
pan" players who fade from memory. On his way to try
out with the Cubs, Roy strikes out a Babe Ruth clone
nicknamed “The Whammer” (Joe Don Baker) and appears
to be on his way to becoming the best ball player
there ever was. Striking a blow for symbolic evil,
Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) sidetracks Hobbs for
Make-up remarkably takes
12 years off Redford's ruddy complexion to make
him look like a 35-year old rookie who comes to
rescue Pop Fisher's woeful cellar-dwelling New York
Knights. Fisher (Wilford Brimley) is even more convinced
that the Judge (Robert Prosky) is attempting to
do him in professionally by saddling him with a
rookie who is old enough to retire from the game.
Fisher wants to win a National League pennant more
than anything else in the world, and his frustrating
last place team brings back regrets for not going
into farming instead. The pressure is on, because
Pop will be out of baseball if the Knights don't
win this year, giving way to the personification
of evil, the Judge.
Again everything is painted
in black and white—the Judge is evil, and he has
a couple of co-conspirators in Gus (Darren McGavin)
and Memo (Kim Basinger), who all inhabit dark rooms
and wear black (just in case you don't know they
represent the Dark Side). Hobbs will vascillate
between the forces of good and evil all through
the movie until the inevitable climax. Even the
Knights as a team go on "black" or "white" streaks
throughout the movie—either going on pathetic 20-game
losing streaks or 20-game winning streaks.
Opposing the dark side are
two prominent forces for good—the lovable Pop Fisher
and Iris (Glenn Close). No femme fatale attraction
this time around, Close looks better than ever.
The soft lighting greatly compliments her, erasing
many years to paint her as the White Angel of Wrigley,
complete with a sunlit white-hatted halo effect.
Is there any doubt that Iris will play a key role
in Hobbs' life? To make sure, she offers important
I believe we
have two lives. The life we learn with and the life
we live with after that.
Lessons for life, suitable for
the Disney Channel and inspiration for people who
love fairy tales, The Natural
will be a favorite of people who love sentiment and
melodrama. If watching this film with a group of people,
you can almost feel the audience want to hiss the
villains and cheer for the guy guys. Even Field
of Dreams has more believability! Now,
if you really want realism you will not find a better
baseball movie than Bull
Lest you dismiss this whole
film for its hokeyness, there are some charms besides
the two memorable highlights I cited earlier. Some
of the best lines are reserved for Brimley and his
coach Richard Farnsworth, who matter of factly observes
things like "Fowler (Knights' pitcher) is killing
worms." Brimley remains one of the top character
actors in Hollywood, one who could easily play a
crucial part in nearly every movie that's ever been
made. Here he's the good hearted pure soul who just
wants to win one pennant for its own sake. He elevates
this role beyond the flat cardboard caricature outlined
in the screenplay by infusing his part with little
touches of humanism. Both real frustration and humor
come out when Brimley decries his role of playing
“nursemaid” to the worst club in the league and
spits out the rusty drinking water from the fountain
that the Judge will never fix.
isn't a bad movie; it's just not the greatest baseball
movie you ever will see. But most baseball fans
will enjoy it to a degree—as long as they don't
mind the fantasy and preachiness of Levinson's vehicle.
Note: The newly
release DVD edition features an hour long documentary
of Cal Ripken, Jr. commenting on baseball and his
views of the game in relation to The Natural.
The documentary is not especially deep or illuminating,
but Ripken represents the ideal baseball player—the
guy who loves the game and has used his talent and
truly developed it to the best of his ability. He
surpassed Lou Gehrig's remarkable record of playing
in 2,130 consecutive games, so baseball fans will
want to check it out.