Natural, The (1984)

Director: Barry Levinson

Stars: Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth, Robert Duvall

Release Company: Tri-Star

MPAA Rating: PG

Best Baseball Movies H.M.

Robert Redford: The Natural


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The Natural
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Movie 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 McGwire.

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.

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.

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 16 years.

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 philosophy:

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 Durham.

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.

The Natural 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.

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