This upcoming weekend signals that special moment in time that comes but once a year. It is a moment looked forward to by those individuals whose hearts yearn to hear the crack of the bat, listen to vendors attempt to sell beer, popcorn, and crackerjacks, all the while waiting for the moment when nine men in uniform take the field, as the umpire yells for the first time: “PLAY BALL!” Yes, it is almost opening day of a new baseball season. Fans of certain teams like the Yankees, Phillies, and Red Sox have reason to be optimistic, while fans of other teams (who shall remain nameless) will probably be out of playoff contention by mid-June. I am not a sports writer. I’ve never been a sports writer, nor do I envision becoming one in the future; but I do love baseball, almost as much as I love movies, so the focus of this week’s blog is one of this blogger’s favorite films which combine the two…The Natural.
Bernard Malamud’s main literary focus was to show in his writing heroism through suffering. If director Barry Levinson (Rain Man) had insisted on having screenwriters Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry stick to the original ending of Malamud’s 1952 novel, The Natural might not be the beloved movie it is today. Often hailed as one of, if not the best, baseball movies ever made, the film truly encompasses so much more than just pontificating about and promoting America’s national pastime. The Tri-Star distributed picture that was released on May 11, 1984 and stars Robert Redford (Three Days of the Condor), Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction), Robert Duvall (The Godfather), Kim Basinger (Batman), among a host of others who share screen time, takes things even further. It is a lesson in life and the unexpected turns we as human beings sometimes are confronted with when we think we have the future all mapped out. It also, along the way, asks the viewer to think about the following questions: If we’re dealt a bad hand, what would we do in order to get back on top? Who would we be willing to hurt in the process?
To begin with The Natural is not your typical “rah, rah” sports film which often showcases an individual’s rise from a talented childhood prodigy to a superstar athlete. No, it is a movie that explores the “what if” notion that I imagine many of us often find ourselves asking at night when we can’t sleep. Redford’s character of Roy Hobbs starts out as a child who possesses incredible athletic ability, and he is shown progressing into a young man that is going to make his mark on the game; but it is a line spoken to him by Ed Hobbs, his father, portrayed by Alan Fudge (The Man Who Wasn’t There) that foreshadows for the viewer the dark path that Roy’s life will take. “You’ve got a gift Roy… but it’s not enough – you’ve got to develop yourself. If you rely too much on your own gift… then… you’ll fail.”
What begins as the dream of a young man with a driving determination to be the best in the game of baseball takes a lengthy detour of sixteen years, none of which is seen by the viewer, thus serving to further deepen the mystery surrounding the consequences of what happened to Redford’s character during that period of time. Roy is now in his 30s, which is an age that his manager, Pop Fisher, played by the lovable curmudgeon, Wilford Brimley (Cocoon) says is when most guys don’t start playing ball, but retire. Roy will be given his shot to play for the lowly team, The New York Knights, but the short time that he is given begs the “what if” question. If only he could’ve avoided giving in to the temptation that came his way in the guise of a beautiful woman because she was attracted to his talent, he could have perhaps, in the fictional setting the film takes place in, been the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Roy Hobbs can play the field, run the bases, pitch the ball, and hit better than anyone else; had he started when he first set out to play, he might have shattered all records that would perhaps still stand until this day. But alas, that is not what happened in the movie and sadly, that is not what usually transpires in real life.
So, what is the big secret about the life of Roy Hobbs? What diabolical things has he been up to the past sixteen years away from the game? The answer is, nothing but living. After suffering the tumultuous set back that he does in the beginning part of the film, Roy drifts into the background and gets caught up in the mundane aspects of everyday life instead of immediately attempting to go after his dream once he has healed from a gunshot wound inflicted by a would-be killer.
Robert Redford gives a bravura performance as the character of Roy Hobbs. The role itself is not one that contains a tremendous amount of depth, but this is purposely done because of the archetypal nature of the character. The film has certain aspects which can be viewed as mythic, but they would quickly diminish if this were a film that concerned itself with being only a character study. These mystical happenings include the lightning bolt that shatters a tree enabling the creation of Hobbs’s special bat named Wonder Boys charisma, but actually is enhanced by it. The same can be said for the other players in the film. None of the roles can be classified as intricate, but what each character does serves as a symbol of a particular type of mythic image.
There is a treasure trove of trivia, too much to detail in this blog, but a few of the more interesting ones are as follows: It was the first film released by TriStar Pictures; Bernard Malamud based a part of his novel on the shooting of former Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ed Waitkus by Ruth Ann Steinhagen in Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel on the night of June 14th, 1949; The quote by Roy Hobbs about what it takes to be a big leaguer. “you have to have a lot of little boy in you” was actually something that was originally said by Brooklyn Dodgers’ catcher Roy Campanella. Actor Darren McGavin had a major supporting role as the unscrupulous bookie Gus Sands, but received no credit for his role in the film, the reasons why are spoken about on the extras of the DVD version.
From the incredible music, performed by singer-songwriter Randy Newman, which soars to heights of uplifting perfection, to the associations one can draw from the film to the Arthurian legend, as well as the effortless exchange of dialogue and believable chemistry amongst the members of the cast, The Natural is a film that is not to be missed. In terms of how the journey ends for Roy Hobbs, well, few films I’ve seen have made me feel more satisfied when the movie was over. I could use the word touching, or say it pulls at the heartstrings, because I am sure for some people it does. I could write that it is inspiring, dramatic, powerful, and maybe even in certain respects haunting. As Roy Hobbs circles the bases after hitting a homerun into the stadium lights causing them to explode like firecrackers on the 4th of July, the viewer sees reflected in the eyeglasses of the manager, Pop Fisher, a look of wondrous awe. The man had his whole life riding on the outcome of the game, and in the end, the person he originally would’ve felt, had this been real life, could not have helped save his life financially speaking or otherwise, came through for him. The incredible feeling of coming through and being able to help another when you’re the only hope they have left is something that, despite whatever differences we may have, we can all cheer for.