A-Ron’s Film Rewind Series Takes You Back To 1984 To Celebrate The 35th Anniversary Of The Best Baseball Film Ever Made As The Legendary Robert Redford Proves He Is “The Natural”
Baseball films are as beloved as the sport itself. While there have been many films about America’s favorite pastime: “Field Of Dreams”, “Bull Durham”, “For Love Of The Game” (all Kevin Costner films), “Mr Baseball”, “Major League”, “A League Of Their Own” or even “The Sandlot” and “Rookie Of The Year”, among others. The best of all baseball films is easily 1984’s “The Natural”. Directed by veteran filmmaker Barry Levinson as his sophomore effort following his superb ensemble film “Diner” (1982). “The Natural” was based on the praised 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud.
“The Natural” is the first film to be produced by Tri-Star Pictures. It was the first new major Hollywood studio to be established since RKO Pictures was founded in 1928. “The Natural” found itself to be a moderate hit in theaters, but to be a major hit by critics which led itself to garner four Academy Award nominations, including best supporting actress for Glenn Close and best original score for Randy Newman. Sadly it ended up winning no Oscars for the night. Levinson’s film has received a reputation and a fan base that has grown over the years, and is now widely considered to be one of the most beloved sports movies ever made. In my opinion it’s easily the best baseball film ever made, as it certainly gets talked about more often than a lot of other movies from that year.
“The Natural” takes place primarily in two narrative chunks, one in the early ’20s and one in the late ’30s, that find wannabee baseball player Roy Hobbs (Redford), as a young man – and all other misgivings aside, it was a titanic miscalculation to have Redford play the 19-year-old Hobbs as well as the 35-year-old version – getting shot by a deranged baseball groupie-slash-serial killer (Barbara Hershey), and I will confess that at this point, The Natural very nearly lost me.
But it muscles on through to find the much older Hobbs, still nursing his talent in silence, being signed by the desperate New York Knights, and proving himself an unprecedented phenom for an old guy, with a virtually supernatural ability to hit the ball with his homemade bat, Wonderboy, carved from the wood of a tree from his childhood farm. This kind of success attracts all the wrong kinds of attention, with the team’s corrupt owner (Robert Prosky) and a charismatic gambler (Darren McGavin) colluding to throw a temptress, Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) in Hobb’s path and convince him through her to start throwing games. And he falters, on and off, when not being bolstered by his newly returned childhood sweetheart Iris (Glenn Close).
The book that “The Natural” is adapted from ended on a much darker note. Levinson’s adaptation changes the authors meaning by discarding the original’s bitter conclusion that ends in failure and he replaces it with a grandiose victory. In the last scene of the book, Roy leaves the stadium after throwing the championship game and burying both Wonderboy and his career. He’s feeling pretty lousy about himself as it is, but the worst is still to come. A newspaper boy is selling a paper with the headline that Roy might have thrown the game. He begs Roy to say it isn’t true, but unfortunately Roy can’t. Roy looks into the boy’s eyes as he wanted to say that he didn’t throw the game but Roy couldn’t say it, as he lifted his hands to his face and wept bitter tears.
As you await to see Roy lose the game purposely, bury Wonderboy, and become a loser who betrayes his city. Levinson however changed the film’s ending to where none of the books ending actually happened in the movie. In the ending of the movie, Roy steps up, hits a home run to win the game for the Knights. Where Roy and Iris then presumably live happily ever after with their son.
The film’s golden hero is Roy Hobbs, embodied by the legendary Robert Redford in his first role in four years since winning an Oscar for directing 1980’s “Ordinary People” and developing the Sundance Institute and Film Festival. Redford as with every film has such a charming presence, ready to fall into such warm and invigorating line deliveries at the drop of a hat. Hobbs’ is always equipped with his magical sword, his Excalibur. A homemade bat from his childhood he calls Wonderboy that he carved from the wood of the tree his father died under which was split open by lightning.
While Redford is the star of “The Natural” and Levinson is the director, and both are absolutely at the top of their game. Credit is also due to the production designer and set decoration team of Mel Bourne, Angelo Graham and Bruce Weintraub. Costume designers Bernie Pollack and Gloria Gresham, who impeccably recreate the 1920s and ’30s America, and let’s not forget cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, whose lighting of these period sets makes virtually every shot gorgeous enough to be a postcard. Another crucial component to the film’s winning formula is the majestic musical score by music veteran Randy Newman that’s still heard today, often during baseball broadcasts.
A subplot that gets Hobbs sidetracked for 16 years is based on a true event. In the film Hobbs gets involved with a women (Barbara Hershey), who shoots him in the stomach. Causing Hobbs to stop him from his dreams of reaching the major leagues when the injury causes him to become a middle aged rookie with the last place ranking New York Knights in 1939. The incident was base upon the bizarre shooting and subsequent comeback of Philadelphia Phillies player Eddie Waitkus and of Chicago Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges, who was shot by a showgirl with whom he was romantically linked, but there has been no evidence to support this claim.
“The Natural” feels free of urgency as Barry Levinson, who was directing only his second career feature at the time, makes none of the decisions in how to pace the film and doesn’t rush it to race the Knights to the pennant. “The Natural” feels like it stretches out and slows down the closer it gets to the climax, indulging itself in lingering with these characters.
“The Natural” is a larger than life fantasy, but it’s a mature fantasy done with feeling and sincerity that captures the magic of old time baseball. No other actor could embody Roy Hobbs better than Robert Redford. “The Natural” hearkens back to a more innocent time, before outrageous salaries and when the national pastime was played just for the love of the game. It is arguably the best baseball movie ever made and any ‘Best Sports Movies’ list that doesn’t feature either “Hoosiers” or “The Natural” as the number one picks shouldn’t even count. “The Natural” is a film that’s good in almost every possible way as it has earned it’s rank as one of the most beloved sports films of all time. “The Natural” is set for a 35th anniversary 4K release on June 4th 2019, which features the film in both it’s theatrical and directors cut versions. Having re-watched the film for it’s anniversary it still has that special magic 35 years later and still connects with both big screen and baseball fans alike.