The Natural in a League All its Own

“I should’ve been a farmer. Since the day I was born, I should’ve been a farmer,” ‘Pop’ says to ‘Red,’ scuffling around the dugout, kicking seeds. 

This many years later The Natural still gives me goosebumps.

For the sake of argument, The Natural often gets relegated to the narrow discussion of not only “best sports movie ever!” but goes one step further into merely “best baseball movie ever!”

“Batting practice tomorrow, be there.”

How about this: Barry Levinson’s The Natural (1984) is one of the best films about life ever made. Big subject, life. Not too big for this film.

“I have been. Every day.”

Adapted from the short Bernard Malamud novel of the same name (screenplay by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry), The Natural is both mythological (Homer) and mystical in its portrayal of ‘Roy Hobbs,’ the fallen golden boy who re-emerges from the clouds (and his transgressions) to lead the lowly New York Knights to the promised land and reclaim the girl he let slip away, battling a few warlocks and demons along the way.

From those wonderful opening images of ‘Hobbs’ waiting for a train, so still and dreamlike, Edward Hopper paintings in rich earthy sepia tone (cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), to the lyrical and transformative score by the great Randy Newman, to the exquisite costuming of Gloria Gresham, The Natural is master craftsmanship, beginning to end. One hand painted frame at a time. Levinson has made some real gems (Diner, Tin Men, Rain Man) but none compare to this film’s fully-realized compositional and thematic aesthetic.

“Hey Fowler! Don’t you know how I hate losin’ to the Pirates?”

Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, The Sting, and The Way We Were may be the more defining roles in the charmed career of Robert Redford, but baseball fans will always remember him as ‘Roy Hobbs.’

Who else could have captured the wholesome yet heroic yet boyish quality required to make ‘Roy Hobbs’ come to life on screen before (“Only homer I know has four bases in it.”) and the sun-beaten and wise patient demeanor required after (“Things didn’t turn out the way I planned.”) he made the mistake of answering the loaded question “Will you be the best there ever was in the game?”

Levinson said of his star “In some ways you can’t get enough of Robert Redford. Because he’s always going to make you come to him.”

So true.

“Well, yer a swell uncle.”

Redford was perfect as Odysseus, the hero trying to find his way home.  And how about the rest of the cast. Joe Don Baker’s snorting and arrogant turn as ‘The Whammer.’ Barbara Hershey’s ‘Harriet Bird,’ the messenger of death. Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth as ‘Pop’ and ‘Red,’ career baseball codgers looking for a sniff of success. Kim Basinger and Darren McGavin (who goes uncredited!) as ‘Memo’ and ‘Gus,’ the nefarious underworld entities plotting to foil Homer’s salvation. Glenn Close as ‘Iris,’ the haloed Lady in White, there at the beginning (“Wouldn’t your daddy be proud.”), there at the end (“I didn’t want to see you fail.”) Robert Duvall as ‘Max Mercy,’ the all-powerful sportswriter working against ‘Hobbs’ – “I can do it by making or breaking the likes of you.” Even the young Michael Madsen as the pampered ‘Bump Bailey’ – “I lost it in the lights.”

I wouldn’t recast one of ’em.

“Thought I saw you once in a train station.”

What I love most about The Natural is how over-the-top it allows itself to be. Not even sure what that expression means at times, but if it means heightened reality or exaggeration for emphasis, then I’m kind of a fan of over-the-top. Fantasy is a powerful force and when blended seamlessly into ‘reality’ we are all elevated.

“I used to look for you in crowds.”

I watched The Natural with my sons this past weekend and they scoffed at some of the moments, the moments that seemed “over the top.” But isn’t it great that the first time ‘Hobbs’ takes batting practice – using his homemade bat Wonderboy – he hits every single pitch into the bleachers, that in his first big league at bat he literally knocks the cover off of the ball, that when he senses ‘Iris’ in the stands and feels her love he hits the ball so far it crashes into the giant clock above the scoreboard, setting back time? And that final mammoth blast that soars into the lights and sprinkles the field with stardust? Perfect. Absolutely perfect.

“Don’t ever look back, Max!”

With the Texas Rangers on the brink of their first ever World Series appearance, it’s fun to look back and remember that Ted Williams was the very first Manager of this long-suffering franchise (1971). Redford’s ‘Hobbs’ was largely modeled after Williams. Both wore #9, both homered in their final at bats, and both sought a singular goal: “To be the best hitter there ever was.”

“I thought I could rely on your honor, Hobbs,” says the wicked and manipulative ‘Judge’ (Robert Prosky). “You’re about to,” says the noble slugger.

For my money, The Natural holds up to this day as the best sports movie there ever was.

Hobbs “My dad wanted me to be a baseball player.”

Pop “Well yer better’n anyone I ever had… an’ yer the best Goddamned hitter I ever saw. Suit up.”

And one of my top twenty films of all time. 

“God, I love baseball.”

5 thoughts on “The Natural in a League All its Own

  1. Great John
    I can hear the lines you reference as I read them in your piece
    I to love this movie and go back to it time and again
    Sometimes I just need to experience goosebumps
    I still stumble over the Barbara Hershey character
    Thanks for shining some light

  2. Best analyitical breakdown of The Natural I’ve ever read. It’s a movie I’ve seen at least 50 times and it still makes the hairs on the back of neck stand at attention.when I watch it..”I won”t be put to sleep my some two bit phony hypnotist. I won’t do it, Pops! I can’t. I came here to play ball”.

    Thanks, Lars. Great stuff.

    • Chris, knowing just how much you love baseball and this film, I am honored and flattered by your post. Thank you, fine sir. I think of you each time I watch The Natural, you’ve got a little ‘Roy Hobbs’ in your giddyup. “You were right, we have met before.”

      On another note, my Himalayan wife and I were watching ‘Dancing With the Stars’ the other night and we saw a new Time Warner tv commercial. The handsome actor playing the father in what was clearly an homage to The Natural, looked an awful lot like the whiffle home run king from L.A.R.C. 1979. Could it be the same fellow?

  3. nice catch, Lars.! Yes, the actor you saw in the TW spot is both handsome and talented, and he is the homerun king of the LARC gym circa ’79. He still, as you can see in the commerical, hurls a pretty mean deuce.

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