From The DVD Shelf: The Natural (1984)
I have fond memories of watching The Natural with my father as a kid, but it’s been quite a number of years since I’d seen it last. When I saw a blu-ray of the film on-sale at Amazon for just a few bucks, I snatched it up. What fun it was to revisit this fine film!
In Barry Levinson’s 1984 ode to baseball and Americana, Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs. As a young man he is clearly gifted with amazing skills at the game of baseball, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can stand in his way to become the best ball-player to ever play the game. But one moral mis-step cuts his dreams short. Roy gets a second chance sixteen years later, when as a middle-aged rookie he comes back to the majors to help a losing ball-club on it’s quest for the pennant.
There’s a dramatic through-line to the film, of course, but The Natural really is a fairy-tale. That had always been by recollection of the film, but I was still surprised, re-watching it now, just how prominent those fairy-tale aspects of the film are. Watching the film, you might notice that the dangerous females all wear black, while the honest, noble heroine wears white. But it cuts deeper than that. The film is, at essence, a morality play. It’s clear that we’re meant to understand that young Roy Hobbs is struck down by the woman in black not out of some random chance, but because he chose to break faith with his girlfriend back home (Glenn Close). Then, later in the film, during his come-back season, when he takes up with the duplicitous Memo (Kim Basinger), his seeming invincibility at the plate suddenly ends. In the world of The Natural, only the morally true can succeed.
I found this puzzling as a kid (I didn’t really understand why one moment Roy Hobbs could hit nothing but home runs, while the next he was striking out, and I was totally befuddled by the motivations of the woman in black), while now as an adult I find it to be endearingly sweet. Such a simplistic, moral story could collapse into silliness, but the film is carried along by strong direction by Barry Levinson and some great performances by a high-wattage cast.
At the top, of course, is Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs. Other than Christopher Reeves’ performance as Superman in the late seventies and early eighties, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with such a striking representation of truth, justice, and the American way. The performance works because Mr. Redford — as did Mr. Reeves — plays the role with such straight-faced honesty and enthusiasm, with not wink of subtext. He has the striking good looks to portray an American super-hero, but Mr. Redford also has the depth behind his eyes to show us the pain felt by Roy at the many years he lost to his own foolishness.
Wilford Brimley is marvelous as the frustrated but big-hearted manager of the Knights, Pop Fisher. He’s a baseball man, through and through — a great manager saddled with a losing team. He’s able to see right to the heart of people — he understands the weaknesses of his niece Memo, and he also sees right through Roy to understand both his great potential and his failings. I can’t say that I’ve seen many Wilford Brimley performances. I know him mostly from Quaker Oats commercials. But watching this film I can understand why he became a star. He brings enormous charisma and humanity to the role of Pop. And it’s a lot of fun to watch him get angry! Equally wonderful is Richard Farnsworth as Pop’s right-hand man, Red. This could be my favorite role in the film, even though Red doesn’t have much to do with the over-all plot. But Mr. Farnsworth fills Red with a a beguilingly potent combination of seen-it-all world-weariness and also child-like optimism.
Glenn Close is winning in her small role as Roy’s childhood love, Iris. We can see in her face the life that Roy could have had, but didn’t. On the other side of the coin is Memo, played by Kim Basinger. Memo is clearly a creature hungry for attention from powerful men, and she quickly latches on to Roy. Ms. Basinger’s acting doesn’t feel quite as naturalistic as the performances of the heavy-weights surrounding her in the cast, but she makes an appealing siren to tempt Roy.
I’ve named five pretty big stars in the cast and I haven’t even scratched the surface. There’s the great Robert Duvall as sports-writer Max Mercy, a man whose pen can make or break careers. The scenes between Mr. Duvall and Mr. Redford are electric. There’s Joe Don Baker as “The Whammer,” the Babe Ruth stand-in who challenges young Roy Hobbs to a quick pitching challenge at a mid-western state fair. It’s a small role, but Mr. Baker really sinks his teeth into it, and the result is one of the most indelible characters in the whole film, despite being on-screen for just a few minutes. There’s Robert Prosky as the evil Judge, there’s Michael Madsen (yes, Michael Madsen!) as arrogant outfielder Bump Bailey, and there’s even an uncredited Darren McGavin (Kolchak: The Night Stalker) as the wealthy Gus Sands, who tries and fails to tempt Roy.
I was really impressed by the nostalgic glow that Barry Levinson (Diner, Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man), working with the amazing cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, was able to give to the entire film. From start to finish, The Natural feels like a half-remembered dream, or a fable of the American heartland. The film has a timeless quality to it, and that’s not just due to the fairy-tale aspect of the film’s story. The “magic-hour” tinted visuals really enhance that impression.
Then there is Randy Newman’s marvelous score. The main theme for The Natural has got to rank up there with the most iconic film themes of all time. I defy you to watch this film and not find yourself humming that theme for days. It’s an astounding achievement.
Amongst all of my praise, I have to make note of two major mis-steps made by the makers of the film. First, there’s the ludicrous fate that befalls Bump Bailey mid-way through the film. I understand that the story needed a device to get him out of the way so Roy could get his shot, but why not just say he ran through the fence and broke his leg? What actually happens is so silly that it totally threw me out of the film for a while, and that’s a big problem.
Second, I really think that they should have cast younger actors in the role of Roy and Iris in the early parts of the film. Seeing Robert Redford and Glenn Close cavorting as characters supposed to be teenagers was absolutely laughable, and it prevented me from connecting in any way to those early scenes. It actually caused me to get a bit confused, wondering “wait, HOW old are these characters supposed to be here??” There was such a disconnect from what the dialogue led me to believe (that these were young kids we’re supposed to be watching) and the evidence of my eyeballs watching the decidedly NOT-teenaged Redford and Close on screen. That was really problematic.
Still, what fun it was to re-watch this film. I was also delighted at the wealth of special features on the blu-ray. All of the featurettes are strong, but the best extra is a really substantial making-of documentary which contains a lot of fascinating insights into the making of the film, particularly the film’s ending. I had NO IDEA that the film’s famous ending was actually a dramatic and controversial departure from the ending of the book on which the film was based! The discussions about that change are fascinating. History has clearly proven the filmmakers right.
The Natural is a classic. I’m glad to have seen it again!