Monday, October 26, 2009

The Natural

"The Natural" (Barry Levinson, 1984) Bernard Malamud's novel "The Natural" took America's penchant for mythologizing its sports-heroes, and combined it with Arthurian legend to create one of the great sports novels of all time. The tale of a baseball player, Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) appearing in Major League Baseball, seemingly effortless of bat and glove, creating miracles in the field, has all the elements of nature and the Divine (his bat, "Wonderboy", was carved from a tree struck by lightning), the contest (he strikes out "The Whammer" (based on "Babe" Ruth), trials (his father's death, a near-fatal shooting, lost love) and battles which weaken him and threaten his reputation. Malamud completes the connection with Legend, by making Roy Hobbes vulnerable to attack from within and without, finally defeated by the passing age and his own failings.

The film made of "The Natural" is all about the myth; Caleb Deschanel's pristine picture post-card cinematography, lovingly back-lit by a dying sun makes a past perfect to the eye. There are few films as lovingly shot as "The Natural," and Barry Levinson, learning to be a pictorial director rather than just a shoot-and-run cast-coordinator of his own material, turns the film into an article of his devotion as a sports lover. In fact, despite the intrusion of some adult material—the hanky-panky with a team "widow" (Kim Basinger) and Hobbes' earlier indiscretions, it is a small child's view of baseball, where grown men playing a kids' game are larger-than-life heroes, miracles happen on one's own efforts and the glories last a life-time. From such a viewpoint—at about the strike-zoneeverything looks Legendary.

The cast is crowded with good actors doing some great work—not just Redford, whose own mythical presence of Aryan American brings its considerable WASP-ish weight to the story, but also Glenn Close, Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Joe Don Baker, Darren McGavin and Basinger. Layered over the top of the confection is Randy Newman's score—a combination of boogie-woogie, keening Americana and heraldic brass.*

Front-loaded with so much talent one would think of the natural as a grand-slam, the mythology built up to accentuate suspense** (Will Hobbs hit the game-winning home run? Will it kill him?
What about his new-found family? Will the gambling interests destroy him, no matter what?) It comes down to the last pitch and a finale so overblown that the only thing that could top it would be Hobbs ascending into Heaven, forget the impossibility of the stadium-wide natural fireworks display of the type pulled off by Levinson and crew. The crowd I first saw it with burst into spontaneous applause at the denouement, so, obviously it was a hit with audiences, despite what I considered an error on the play. Me? I thought the game was rigged.

For in Malamud's novel, Hobbs strikes out, is damned by the press and public and fades away, a passing moment of the age, when miracles happened unsullied by the evils of the world like
the Knights of Olde. Hobbs is defeated by the times. Not the movie-Hobbs, who is given his triumph and more, a return to simplicity, the sinking sun of previous shots now giving him a roseate glow,*** a Disneyfication of Malamud's intent.

* Redford, according to Newman, wasn't fond of the score: "I don't like horns" he was reported to have groused to the composer. Cooler heads prevailed. During an interview broadcast on Bravo, Newman said that there were half-hearted lyrics for the fanfaric Main Theme: "Look at that man/The Nat'ral/As nat'ral a man as can be/He hits the ball/And that's not all/So Na-tu-ral/Is he."

** I would put a "Spoiler Alert" on this review, but, really, the outcome is never in doubt, telegraphed by the score's hushed anticipation, and that everything joyous in the film, is presented in weighty slow-motion. Besides at that point in his career, Redford didn't want his characters to be weak—he had turned down "The Verdict," which pal Paul Newman snapped up and won a Best Actor Nomination.

*** The term used for those hours of twilight and dawn with the sun at its lowest point, providing long shadows, and a rose-colored glow is "Magic Hour."

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