Friday, July 27, 2007
The Natural (1984) dir. Barry Levinson
Starring: Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Robert Duvall
“The Natural” is the best of its kind, a sports film that mythologizes America’s pastime into something beyond the bat and ball. The story of Rob Hobbs’ journey from youthful talent to failed talent to resurrection is indeed the stuff of legend and myth and could be a chapter in a Joseph Campbell book.
Rob Hobbs (Robert Redford) is introduced at an early age as a prodigious talent. Somewhere in the American Midwest (where American myths are born) during a county fair Hobbs gets roped into a bet that he can pitch three strikes to a Babe Ruth-esque baseball superstar. Of course Hobbs is reluctant but is eventually persuaded into the challenge. Hobbs strikes him out and thus the myth is born. But before Hobbs can launch his career though he is shot by a crazed seductress fan (Barbara Hershey).
The film moves forward 16 years to tell the tale of Hobbs’ comeback as an older man way past his prime. He walks into the dugout of the New York Knights claiming he’s been brought up from the minors. Hobbs makes the team but isn’t allowed to play, until he’s pinch hits for the team superstar. Hobbs literally takes the cover off the ball in his first big league hit. Hobbs quickly turns into a superstar player. But with the highs come the lows. His affair with one of the wives of the players gives him ‘bad luck’ and suffers near-season-ending losing streak. It isn’t until his old flame from the past Iris (Glenn Close) returns to his life, sparks his talent and reignites the team to victory.
“The Natural” is based on a 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud, and one his inspirations was the story of Percival and the Court of King Arthur. A boy from a talented pedigree takes a journey over the course of his life. He ends up in a wasteland presided by a dying king. Pop Fisher (like “the Fisher King”) is the coach of the team. He miraculously heals the team (and Fisher’s athlete’s foot) and turns them into a winner. Etc etc. The allegory to Percival doesn’t make the film great, it’s the heart and earnestness that it wears on its sleeve that is the reason to watch the film. If Frank Capra made a sports film, it would have been this.
Hobbs’ first hit is so thoroughly enjoyable, the smile on my face hurt my cheeks. Much of it is due in part to Randy Newman’s grand music score which accompanies all of Hobbs’ key moments. The simple cue is a just a few notes but it’s so effective it’s become synonymous with miraculous moments in all sports. Even now, it’s still a powerful piece of music.
“The Natural” is one of Barry Levinson’s best films as well. It was Levinson’s second film and it’s great second film – one which expands and builds upon the personal work of his first film (“Diner”) and showed everyone he’s a real filmmaker capable of telling a great story. His shot selection, framing and direction on Caleb Deschanel’s lighting creates the mythological nature of the film. Watch how he frames Glenn Close in the film. Her character, Iris Gaines, is supposed to be Hobb’s saviour and the one who brings him and the team out of despair. She is shot with supreme backlit angelic beauty. Her white hat even glows like an angel’s halo. It’s so overt and obvious, but it’s in keeping with the tone of the film, so it works tremendously. Levinson shoots and edits the baseball scenes superbly as well. The final climatic game should be a case study in extending and lengthening real time for a heightened cinematic reality. The final minute of real time in the final game is edited into about 5 minutes of screen time with just the right shots to get the biggest bang for its buck. And what a bang that is.
It’s easy to criticize the film. It’s overacted, overshot, overedited, and overscored. But it’s a film that establishes and plays within these rules from the outset and so it becomes a genre unto its own – the mythological sports film. I don’t care who you are, the final scene from beginning to end as Hobb’s rounds those bases, I guarantee, will put shivers down to your spine. Enjoy.
Buy it here: The Natural (Director's Cut)
Here’s Hobbs in batting practice:
And here Hobb's grand finale: