When “The Natural” opened in 1984, I thought it was the best baseball movie ever made. Thirty-six years later (after countless “Bull Durham” reruns), I find “The Natural” falls far short of that original designation, but it’s still got merit.
More of a fable than a story, it’s a hero’s journey tale that harks back to the old-fashioned American nostalgia of baseball-loving boys and the baseball stars they worship. It lauds the qualities of honor, benevolence, forbearance, and forgiveness, and the redemption, later in life, of youthful talent hijacked by the succubi of temptation.
Robert Redford took an acting break, during which time he won an Oscar for directing 1980’s “Ordinary People,” and also founded the now legendary Sundance Institute. Four years later, he played Roy Hobbs, a baseball prodigy.
We first meet Roy in the 1920s, being coached and mentored by his dad (father-son games of “catch” are the bedrock of baseball movies in particular and American father-son relations in general) on a Hallmark-level idyllic Midwestern farm.
Then, dad dies, and lo, a lightning bolt destroyeth the tree under which dad died. It’s a sign from above, destiny writ large. And young Roy, seeing the writing on the wall, commemorates the momentousness of all that by fashioning his very own baseball bat from that selfsame lightning-struck tree. He wood-burns the name “Wonder Boy” into it, embellishing it with a lightning bolt. In 1920, there was no such thing as hokey, especially when it came to baseball.
Leaving the Village
In his early 20s, Roy leaves home, as well as his girl-next-door first love Iris Gaines (Glenn Close), and heads to the big city (Chicago) to try out for the majors. This is the answering the call to the adventure phase.
He faces three tests, coming at him from the dark side of the world he hopes to conquer: 1) a predatory sports writer named Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), 2) a giant-ego’d baseball star, “The Whammer” Joe Don Baker (a role clearly modeled after “The Sultan of Swat” Babe Ruth), and 3) Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), a funereally garbed, literal femme fatale.
Falling Off the Cliff
Harriet, after seeing Roy strike out The Whammer in an alpha-male pitching versus batting baseball joust at a local carnival, comes after him seductively but with a jealousy-wrought psychopathic intent to maim his greatness.
She inadvertently fires wide of the mark but nevertheless leaves Roy with an irretrievable silver bullet eating away the lining of his stomach for 16 years, during which he (sort of like an exceptionally good-looking, blond-haired Gollum) disappears out of all recorded history.
When Roy finally returns, middle-aged, to baseball, he’s recruited by the New York Knights. They’re a fictitious major league ball club in last place, managed by Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) and coached by Red Blow (Richard Farnsworth).
Red kinda looks like he could be Pop after a 40-day fast. He also looks and drawls like an older Sam Elliott, while Pop yells a lot. These two quiet and loud stalwart men help guide Roy back up the mountain to find his baseball bliss.
And Roy needs that help because more pitfalls abound: this time in the form of the Judge (Robert Prosky), the Knights’ endlessly scheming co-owner, and Gus Sands (Darren McGavin), a wheeling-dealing bookie with another femme fatale on his arm.
These two are keen on maintaining the team’s losing streak due to foul business practices, but Roy can’t be bought, won’t throw games, for he is upright and righteous in such matters. And so Gus, knowing Roy’s weakness for women, sicks his “friend” Memo Paris (Kim Basinger as a platinum blond succubus version of the dark Harriet) on Roy to drain his energy. And Roy falls from grace again.
Bringing the Gold Back to the Village
Most people on a hero’s journey have to face risk and fear to find and nurture their gold (God-given talent). Not Roy. Roy had the gift of baseball talent from birth. But in order for him to be able to employ that talent for the greater good, he has to evolve his heart and mind nature; he has to go from being a shallow guy whose only ambition in life is to have people see him and say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was” to genuinely wanting to do good for others.
And so, although simplistic and more than a little of deus ex machina, Iris, representing the village compound, reappears in his life, standing like an inspiring, backlit angel in the stadium and sending him a note delivered via a bat boy, which reveals that her boy is Roy’s son.
Now, Roy should have probably come to this conclusion a long time ago, but never mind. He’s sufficiently inspired to go thwack that horsehide into the stadium lights, exploding them in a lovely melodramatic finale as he rounds the bases.
It looks quite heroic. It looks quite unreal. (It is actually possible to knock out stadium lights—I googled it.) It looks especially unreal when you add to the mix that his stomach is bleeding so badly that it seeps through his uniform. That’s next-level heroism, because that would naturally mean death. Regarding this sort of thing, “The Natural” is anything but.
“The Natural” is pure, unadulterated, old-fashioned hero worship, with a number of supernatural burnishings. All the more so when I noticed, after all these years of acclimatizing to movies where actors actually prepare as bodybuilders by lifting heavy and getting on “the juice” (steroids) to approximate professional athlete bodies—that Robert Redford’s scantily muscled 1984 body is very man-on-the-street-ish, with no jock swagger.
Redford was coasting on his blond movie-star looks. Which was quite OK back then. But “The (super) Natural” is a movie now best shown to boys in grades 1 through 5.
Director: Barry Levinson
Starring: Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Barbara Hershey, Robert Prosky, Michael Madsen
Running Time: 2 hours, 18 minutes
Release Date: May 11, 1984
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5