*½/**** Image B- Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Richard Farnsworth
screenplay by Phil Dusenberry and Roger Towne, based on the novel by Bernard Malamud
directed by Barry Levinson
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Looking up Barry Levinson's The Natural on WIKIPEDIA, I came across this dopey quote from Bill Simmons, the ESPN reporter who goes by the insipid nickname The Sports Guy: "Any 'Best Sports Movies' list that doesn't feature either Hoosiers or The Natural as the No. 1 pick shouldn't even count." This is why sportswriters have no business writing about movies. Aside from lacking the vocabulary necessary to analyze them (Michael Bamberger's riveting hatchet job on M. Night Shyamalan, The Man Who Heard Voices, would read even better without so many painful sports metaphors taking the place of film terminology), they're a maudlin lot, suckers for the human-interest story that ennobilizes their vocation and heightens the vicarious kick on which they as armchair jocks thrive. I'm betting Simmons hears Randy Newman's triumphal score from The Natural while he's brushing his teeth. (Hell, it's probably his ringtone.) Assuming "sports movie" is not a handicap that some films are presumed to transcend--assuming that any movie featuring a protagonist whose life revolves around the playing or coaching of a single sport fits the bill, not just the uplifting ones--then I can think of at least ten titles more worthily crowned "Best Sports Movie" than Hoosiers or, especially, The Natural: Fat City, Raging Bull, Rocky, The Wrestler, Downhill Racer, The Hustler, Slap Shot, The Bad News Bears (original), and The Longest Yard (again, original). And that's leaving subjectivity out of it as much as I know how. The problem, of course, is that only about half of those flicks send you out of the theatre feeling like a champion, whereas the rest traffic in, to borrow a phrase from The Bad News Bears, "moral" victories--which is bound to be anathema to guys like Simmons, who propagate hero myths for a living.
If there's one sports flick with a feel-good finish, it's The Natural: Oft sampled, cloned, and satirized, the picture's climax out-Spielbergs Spielberg in terms of giving the audience everything they want plus a fireworks display. (Today's viewers will half-expect a narrator to chime in with, "Winning the big game: priceless.") More people should've been upset by how patently manipulative it is, but the only ones who really took offense were the devotees of Bernard Malamud's downbeat source novel. Personally, I'm less incensed by the changes to the book--specifically, to its ending, the literary conceit of which was always going to lose something in the translation--than by the fact that they piggybacked it to the big screen in the first place: If you're just going to prostitute it for its plot, officially adapting it as opposed to cribbing its generic-enough premise to tell a more Hollywood-friendly tale of an aging baseball player seems not merely irreverent, but peculiarly vindictive as well. Much more than the novel's last few pages were neutered by screenwriters Phil Dusenberry and Roger Towne, though if you laid the book over the film like a transparency, you'd say they were structurally identical. I guess I ultimately feel the same way about Malamud's The Natural as I do about Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, which was turned into a similarly chickenshit film by Mary Harron: that the only reason to adapt it is to be the asshole who adapted it with fidelity, otherwise what's the point? It's not like these books had a mass appeal begging to be capitalized on at the box office. John Huston understood that when he took on the "unfilmable" Wise Blood and Under the Volcano late in his career and made difficult movies of them both.
Coincidentally or not, the most compelling section of The Natural is also the most loyal to the book. This comes early in the film, once baseball prodigy Roy Hobbs (then-47-year-old Robert Redford, who tries to pass for 20 by pitching his voice an octave higher) boards a train bound for fame and glory. One of the other passengers is Babe Ruth manqué The Whammer (Joe Don Baker), who reacts with jealous cynicism when Roy's manager introduces Roy to him as the Next Big Thing. (The Whammer calls them "Pete and Re-Pete" after they pay him the same boilerplate compliment.) The train stops at a carnival, where The Whammer strikes out against Roy in an impromptu challenge--raising Roy's profile only too well: for all the magic-hour sunsets and Norman Rockwell tableaux DP Caleb Deschanel throws at us, no shot is more indelible than the Scorsesian slo-mo insert of wicked spinster Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey, who's also in Hoosiers) shifting her gaze from her intended target, The Whammer, to Roy with alien fascination.
A strikingly original creation I'd rather watch a movie about, Harriet is a real-world archnemesis for real-world superheroes, a serial killer of athletes who can legitimately claim to be the greatest in their chosen sport; as if they're, well, supernatural, she loads her gun with silver bullets. Brilliantly realized by Hershey, who does amazing crazy-eyes (she exposes a sliver too much white above and below her pupils), Harriet reels Roy into her web with an exotic worldliness that implies the promise of sex tutelage to a hick who's surely going to be flooded with pussy on the road. Taking the puritanical sting out of Roy's consequent comeuppance, it's his ego, not his libido, that seals his doom: When Harriet summons Roy to her hotel room and asks him--quite literally, point blank--whether he'll be "the best that ever was in the game," he lacks the humility and tact to demur, and pays for it with a gunshot to the stomach that delays the start of his career in the majors by sixteen years.
It should be noted that this passage of The Natural, though faithful to the source material in and of itself, is informed by a significant deviation from the same that ironically puts the film's conception of Roy closer to Malamud's than he ever gets. The script balloons Iris, a character who serves as a muse and a brief fling for Roy late in the story, into the requisite Girl Back Home; a one-night-stand with Harriet may not materialize, but simply in contemplating it Roy betrays Iris (Glenn Close)--fleetingly making him more of an antihero, more human, than the hollow symbol of virtue he'll become. I actually don't want to keep flogging The Natural with the novel, since enough critics did that when it opened (notably the New York contingent, who felt protective of Brooklyn-born Malamud as one of their own), but the subtle differences between the two, particularly in the characterization of Roy, really do review the movie.
Thing is, I can picture a version of The Natural that hews a lot closer to the text, but it would likely be relegated to HBO (there'll never be a place for an epic this pessimistic at a studio) and definitely wouldn't star someone as image-conscious as Robert Redford. And so we have these political compromises, like Roy going from someone who lobbies for a raise to someone who refuses the corrupting influence of a raise, from someone who dumps Iris upon learning that she's a grandmother--a fact which has brought his own advanced age into harsh relief--to someone who loves her unconditionally (though that tidbit about her being a grandmother was dropped), from someone who's thick to someone who's savvy, that help ideologically invert the novel. Although Roy is bribed to throw the big game in the book and film alike, the two Roys are puppets of very different establishments, and the cowardly thing for Roy to do on the page, i.e., lose, is the most rebellious thing he could possibly do on screen.
Still, the grand finale is an effective piece of sinny--Levinson, a bland filmmaker, channels his inner Eisenstein for possibly the first and last time in his oeuvre--that's obviously almost single-handedly responsible for the hall-of-fame status ascribed The Natural by the likes of Bill Simmons. For the kind of guy who belongs to a fantasy league, I imagine that Roy hitting the homerun of the century, shattering the stadium's lighting grid and turning the field into the Fourth of July (a feat that not only sticks it to the Man (the doctors who told Roy he couldn't play; the crooked judge (Robert Prosky) who had a vested interest in his failure), but also wins the fictitious New York Knights the pennant), extrapolates Mittyesque daydreams with a pornographic shamelessness. Roy is a fitting avatar to that end, a golden god with a magic bat who's also, from certain angles, an underdog. He accommodates the two types of pornstar wish-fulfilment: the scenario in which you're the beefcake with a reputation that precedes him, and the one in which the schlub defying expectations is you. Indeed, the porn analogy is as versatile as it is apt; the picture is silly, repetitive, episodic, mannered, and only cares about the beautiful people. (Richard Farnsworth and Wilford Brimley, who could surely identify with Roy Hobbs as a couple of stealth talents coming to their profession late in life, are flagrantly squandered while Kim Basinger--who, Golden Globe nomination notwithstanding, can't even act yet--hogs the limelight.) It builds to a hell of a money shot that works because of delayed gratification, but countless Chuck Workman-style montages, maybe actual Chuck Workman montages, have since proved it works equally well out of context, as money shots are wont to do. I guess what I'm saying is, it's sort of embarrassing to see somebody publicly define his taste by The Natural instead of filing it away in the spank-bank where it belongs.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Sony brings the theatrical cut of The Natural to Blu-ray in a surprisingly mediocre 1.85:1, 1080p transfer. Considering the renown of Deschanel's cinematography and Sony's track record of producing gorgeous HiDef renditions of films from the same period such as Starman, it's a big disappointment, one of those 'mortar and pestle' presentations where the grain looks ground into the image and the detail is scarcely more impressive than an upconvert. (The soft-edged opening title card lowers the bar for the rest of it.) Only contrast appears to benefit from the upgrade, drawing attention to an overabundance of Fordian silhouettes. As an aside, early colour stock footage was used for a handful of establishing shots that evidently couldn't be faked in those pre-CGI days, and its mismatched, mottled appearance is all the more conspicuous on BD. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track sounds fuller than '80s mixes usually do but rarely employs the surround channels for anything other than reverb.
Special features begin with a three-part, fairly even-handed retrospective making-of, "When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural" (50 mins. in toto, SD/16x9). On hand to represent Bernard Malamud, daughter Janna Malamud Smith talks about how her father went through life not wanting to be stereotyped by his Polish-Jewish heritage and finally felt like a true American upon seeing The Natural and realizing he was indirectly responsible for a piece of sentimental pap. The controversial ending is, I'm relieved to say, not left to swell into the proverbial elephant. (Smart-cookie Glenn Close pragmatically speculates that Roy's fate was rewritten because "America hates losers.") Great Baseball Films author Rob Edelman argues that The Natural rehabilitated the sub-genre of baseball movies, citing Bull Durham, Eight Men Out, and Major League as pictures that reaped what The Natural sowed. It's a strategic omission of The Slugger's Wife (Deschanel's very next assignment, by the by)--and furthermore, I think I'm inferring some revisionist history on Mr. Edelman's part. If baseball flicks were not a safe bet in 1984, it had less to do with stated but unspecified precedents than with the lingering effects of the 1981 players' strike. Lucky for or shrewd of The Natural, built into its unfashionably halcyon view of the national pastime was a corrupt portrayal of team owners, whom fans had always held responsible for said strike. Now, as far as The Natural's scope of influence is concerned, I personally see its modest success as the 12th-highest-grossing release of 1984 not as having created an appetite for baseball-themed films--if it did, you'd better believe The Slugger's Wife nipped that in the bud--but as having inspired Brian DePalma and Francis Ford Coppola to use it as a cultural touchstone for their own Americana period pieces The Untouchables and Tucker: A Man and His Dream, respectively, the latter going so far as to utilize Newman's score in its trailer. For what it's worth, neither Hershey nor Basinger participates in these extras; Redford does, and the whole time I was distracted by whatever's going on with his face.
Four short segments--"Slow Motion," "Uniform Color," "The Sandberg Game," "The President's Question"--comprise "Extra Innings" (7 mins., SD/16x9), outtakes from the long doc that aren't as superfluous as that makes them sound. Well, "The Sandberg Game" is pretty pointless, but "The President's Question" alone redeems it: therein, co-screenwriter Dusenberry describes a meeting with Ronald Reagan, who asked him to explain Harriet Bird's motivation for shooting Roy Hobbs. This man ran the country. Next, "Clubhouse Conversations" (15 mins., SD/16x9) invites George F. Will, baseball players Don Mattingly and Jason Giambi, and others to wax philosophic; the piece hums along nicely until the interviewees are expected to weigh in on The Natural, at which point it becomes tediously self-promotional. "A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waitkus" (17 mins., SD/16x9) finds Waitkus biographer John Theodore and Waitkus's son Ted painting an intimate portrait of a gifted first baseman whose near-fatal brush with a deranged fan Malamud co-opted for Roy's pivotal encounter with Harriet. Waitkus bounced back a hell of a lot quicker than Roy, only to be plagued by post-traumatic stress that landed him in an institution.
The Hero's Journey scribe Phil Cousineau dominates "Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural" (9 mins., SD/16x9), unpacking Malamud's hardly-cryptic use of archetype and eventually trotting out Camus to defend the book's retooling for a Reagan-era audience. Lastly, in "The Heart of The Natural" (44 mins., SD/4:3 lbx), famed content producer Charles Kiselyak conducts through the prism of The Natural an in-depth sit-down with Cal Ripken, Jr., who dares suggest that Roy Hobbs ain't much of a role model due to his callow obsession with breaking records. Perhaps needless to say, it's a rewarding antidote to the supplements' increasingly hagiographic slant. HD Ghostbusters, A River Runs Through It, Facing the Giants, and, you guessed it, "Blu-ray Disc is High-Definition!" previews round out the platter. Originally published: April 12, 2010.