Written by Roger Towne, Phil Dusenberry, and Bernard Malamud
Directed by Barry Levinson
Ah yes, it’s that time of year when hope springs eternal: spring training. What better way to get myself motivated for the next season of baseball than to take in a flick that’s always been one of my favorites: The Natural.
There are things in life that are good for us and things that are bad. In between are the choices we make. Every man has a weakness, and Roy Hobbs’ is women. From his childhood sweetheart, Iris, to the mysterious siren who shoots him, to the seductress Memo Paris who tempts him and almost manages to thwart a legendary comeback.
As the film opens, a young Roy Hobbs is heading off from his father’s farm and his childhood sweetheart for a shot at the Major Leagues in Chicago. Despite having told his sweetie, Iris, that he loved her, once in Chicago it doesn’t take much for him to appear in the doorway of a beautiful woman who proceeds to shoot him and jump out of the door in her negligee. So much for the brilliant pitching career, he was going to have.
Many years later, we see Hobbs being sent to try out for the New York Knights. It’s there that he meets a curmudgeonly coach who goes by the name of “Pop” Fisher. Pop is reluctant to let the aging “Rookie” play. Once he does, it seems that Hobbes will finally get the acclaim he’s been due all these years.
Once again a woman interferes. This time it’s in the form of Memo Paris, whom Pop warns Roy to stay away from. Does Roy listen? He’s a man, of course, he doesn’t listen. Soon after, his career seems to be going into the toilet. That is until the sweetheart he left behind hears of his fame and travels to Chicago with a surprise for him.
The film plays almost like a fairy-tale of the game. It has all the makings of the stories which have been bantered around ballparks since baseball was first played. There’s a young hot-shot rookie pitcher who manages to strike out a legend of the game; a bat made from a tree struck by lightning, a manager whose ownership of the team hinges on Hobbs helping the team bring home the pennant while sinister forces work against that, a sportswriter who has all the answers if only he can put it all together.
The performances are good. Robert Redford is nearly perfect as Roy Hobbs. I wish the film had been made when he was younger. My one complaint is that right from the beginning he seems too old to be the young rookie, despite being filmed in such a way that his age didn’t show. He seems to have the perfect sense of boyish enthusiasm for the game as those who haven’t been jaded by the money and manipulation that’s gone on in sports over the years.
Wilford Brimley was perfectly cast as “Pop” Fisher. He achieves the perfect balance of affection for his “middle-aged rookie” as well as gruff unease when he sees Hobbs screwing up and knows there’s little he can do. Robert Duvall is Max Mercy, the sportswriter who’s sure he’s seen Hobbs before but can’t place him throughout much of the film. His enthusiasm for a game he doesn’t play is apparent and brings a sense of balance to the cast.
On the feminine side of the aisle, Glenn Close does a good turn as Hobbs’s childhood sweetheart, Iris. She seems to have matured well and knows to keep her distance initially to see how Hobbs changed over all the years. Instead of fawning over him and demanding he honor the promise he made all those years ago, she seems to take a step back and let him decide for himself if he still has a place in her life. Close does this without having to harp on facts over and over again but just has an inquisitive and sometimes amused expression when dealing with the man she once loved, and possibly still does.
A young Kim Basinger is here as Memo Paris. She brings the right sense of sultriness and temptation to the role. I didn’t buy that all of her attention and affection for Hobbs was genuine, nor that it was entirely contrived for her benefactors either. She rides a fence here, trying as best she can not to sell her soul.
The Natural featured beautiful cinematography right from the beginning at the train station and then again in the field – the lighting and the use of shadows are just incredible. The costumes are perfect for the period depicted herein. Visually the movie was as terrific and stunning as the story.
Based on a novel by Bernard Malamud, The Natural is a love affair with the game of baseball and seizes on the hopes of all who have ever played it and dreamed of having their chance at the “big leagues”. It’s the perfect inspiration for the start of a new season.
• Documentary featuring Cal Ripken Jr.
• Talent Files (Biographies of cast & crew)
• Theatrical Trailers