Monday, July 17, 2017
Reeling Backward: "The Natural" (1984)
In the vast and expanding forest of films whose echoes take up much of my cognitive array, "The Natural" stands out like a crowning oak. Its memory towers above nearly all others; its roots are sunk deep into the formation of my perception of cinema.
It's one of the movies that made me fall in love with movies.
I think about it often, though it's probably been close on to a decade since I last saw it in its entirety. I recall flashes, moments, snippets of dialogue -- generally not the big "wow" stuff, like Roy Hobbs smashing the final home run into the stadium lights, setting off a shower of falling stars.
More like, Pop's grumblings about his awful team and the middle-aged rookie they stuck him with; his whistling contest with Red to guess old songs; or the nimbus of light director Barry Levinson continually puts behind Robert Redford's head to give Hobbs a beatific halo.
Like the best sports movies, it's not really about the game. Rather, it's an exploration of the creation of myth.
Roy Hobbs was destined to become a legend, but didn't. Then in the twilight of his youth he decides to make another go of it, and runs into a buzzsaw of disdain, suspicion, sudden fame, greed, envy, betrayal and regret.
Odysseus' journey was no more laborious.
Ostensibly an uplifting movie, "The Natural" has sadness clinging to its every molecule. Bernard Malamud, upon whose novel it was based, had a very pessimistic view of humanity in the days after World War II. If you've read the book, you know that the big difference from the movie is that in his ending Hobbs strikes out, and is forgotten.
(At least, that's what we gather, given Malamud's signature run-on sentence writing style, where trains of thought can go on and on and on and on and on and on and...)
The essential tale is thought to have been inspired by Phillies first basemen Eddie Waitkus, who was stalked and shot by a female fan in a hotel in 1949. He had been nicknamed "the natural" during a brief major league stint prior to the war. However, he was already several years into his career when he was injured, returned to play less than two months later and batted .306 for the season.
Hobbs, of course, was just a kid going for a tryout with the Cubs when he was wounded by a black widow (Barbara Hershey) who'd already killed two other famous athletes and was gunning for the trifecta. She had set her sights on "The Whammer," a not-at-all subtle mirror of Babe Ruth played by Joe Don Baker. But after the young pitching prospect, on a dare, strikes out the pompous star with three straight pitches, her aim is altered.
Hobbs spent two years in the hospital recovering and was told he'd never play ball again because of the silver bullet lodged in his guts. As he reluctantly answers anyone who asks where he's from, he knocked around from here to there, odd jobs of this and that. Sixteen years after his shooting, now in the 1930s, he decides to give his dream one more try.
After two weeks of playing for the semipro Hebrew Oilers -- a fictional team that became a real one -- he's signed to a $500 contract by a scout for the lowly New York Knights.
Aging and the passage of time are very much at the forefront of the film's themes. To my recollection, the book is pretty specific in giving Hobbs' age as around 35 -- which is advanced but hardly ancient for baseball. Even back then, top players continued their careers into their early 40s.
(And, if they're Satchel Paige, allegedly well past that.)
Redford was nigh unto 50 when the movie came out, and looked every day of it. He remained gloriously handsome -- still is, past 80 -- but he wore his years plainly and proudly. Not until "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" has another movie star's aging process been so intrinsically woven into the fabric of a film.
Hobbs isn't the only major character worrying about his last shot at baseball glory passing him by. Pop Fisher is the manager and co-owner of the Knights, who loves the game more than anything but saw his heart strewn to pieces by it. His lament is a refrain: "I shoulda been a farmer!"
It's probably the signature role of Wilford Brimley's career -- he's just two years older than Redford, by the way -- a cantankerous oldster who's capable of small-mindedness and vindictiveness. He refuses to play Hobbs and is ready to send him down to the minors before a batting practice performance in which the lefty right fielder seems to hit every seat in the far stands.
Hobbs has many nemeses in the movie, the chief of which is The Judge, the other owner of the Knights. But the Judge's true antagonist is Pop, from whom he bought controlling shares of the team the previous season when fortunes were down. Unless the Knights win the pennant, Pop is out and the Judge becomes sole owner.
Physically Brimley and Robert Prosky, who plays the Judge, resemble each other so much it could not have been happenstance on the part of director Levinson. They're both older, squat men with thinning hair and owlish glasses. While Pop lives very much in the dirt and the sun, forever traipsing about the dugout, the Judge preens blackly in his high nest above the ballfield, the shutters kept perpetually shut against any ray of sun or inadvertent glimpse of baseball.
The sun-dappled counterpoint to all this darkness is Glenn Close as Iris, Roy's childhood love and (unofficially) betrothed. He was so hurt and embarrassed about being seduced and wounded by another woman that he apparently never bothered to even contact her again -- and likely would not have, if she hadn't gone to a game when the Knights were visiting Chicago. In one of the film's more iconic scenes, she stands in the sun when Roy, in the midst of an epic hitting slump, goes to bat, inspiring him to wallop a titanic homer.
The character isn't well fleshed out -- Close only has a handful of scenes, in which Iris remains rather remote and distracted. Nonetheless, she scored the film's only acting Academy Award nomination. We get the sense that she is reaching out for her own sake, a sense of closure, rather than seeking to rekindle long-dormant ashes. But, of course, she brings the light back into Roy's eyes.
He had been carrying on with Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), niece to Pop but secretly a creature of the Judge and his nefarious partner, Gus Sands. I love that name: Memo Paris; it connotes that she's exotic and beautiful but also somehow lacking a complete humanity. Her story is not a book or a chapter or even a poem -- just a scribble is all you need.
Roy's poor play coincides with his romance with Memo, who distracts him with the high life and moral corrosion. Iris acts as the tonic that cures him of what ails. It's the classic good woman/foul temptress dichotomy straight out of the mythology of the Greeks, Norse, Egyptians, etc.
Gus (a curiously uncredited Darren McGavin) is the bookie who's got a line on everyone, laying odds on everything and always finding a way to come up the winner in the long run. He even claims to have a magic eye to help him pick winners and losers. I had never noticed before this most recent viewing that one of Gus' eyes appears to be larger than the other, possibly even prosthetic. I believe this was achieved with makeup, as McGavin had two good googlers.
Richard Farnsworth plays Red, the laconic assistant manager who acts as Pop's shield man, protecting him as he can from the uncaring fates, but also from Pop's own ornerier instincts. Red's the one who convinces Pop to keep Hobbs around after he shows up unannounced, and quietly nudges everyone to behave better than they are.
Any movie about mythologizing isn't complete without the character of the chronicler, a journalist or storyteller whose job is to bear witness and relate the great events to the world with tremendous accuracy, or not. Here it's Robert Duvall as Max Mercy, a weaselly sports columnist and hustler.
He's happy to use Roy as a springboard to a great story -- oldest rookie inspires kids -- and also more than happy to turn him into a chump as needs be. It's implied that he's on the payroll of the Judge and Sands. He's the one who digs up Roy's salacious past and threatens to use it against him, after the gambits with Memo and outright bribery fail to force Hobbs to throw the big game.
Also bearing witness is Bobby Savoy (George Wilkosz, in his only film role), the plump, smiling batboy for the Knights who becomes Roy's first baseball apostle. He makes a bat of his own, the Savoy Special, as tribute to Hobbs' mighty Wonderboy, which he carved out of a tree split open by lightning outside his boyhood home.
When Wonderboy is shattered in Roy's last at-bat, Bobby offers up the Special like a knight's page surrendering his own sword to his master. Indeed, if Roy Hobbs is a mythological hero straight out of an Edith Hamilton text, then he needs his signature weapon: Hobbs/Wonderboy, Arthur/Excalibur, Thor/Mjölnir
Let me tell you about my favorite scene, which since I first saw it I have been able to recall with near-eidetic clarity:
The Knights are on a roll, playing great team ball on the back of Roy's power hitting. Max, who was witness to Hobbs striking out the Whammer so many years ago, has been unable to recall where he met Roy, or how such a great player could have come out of nowhere. He even drew a cartoon of the event that was going to go out to all the papers that syndicate him, but presumably when Roy failed to show up for his Cubs tryout, the story died.
(How any competent reporter would forget the young lad who struck out Babe Ruth, or fail to follow up on that story, we'll chalk up to Hollywood's general ineptness in depicting journalists.)
Perturbed at this vexing puzzle, Max hangs around the team all the time, even sneaking into the stands during batting practice. Roy saunters in from right field, passes across the pitcher's mound and is challenged by another player to throw one pitch in for fun. Roy pauses, considers, goes into a long wind-up -- possibly for the first time in 16 years -- and throws a heater with such force it sticks in between the links of the chain fence.
Everything goes into slow time; the music dims to practically a hum. Pop, Red and the other players sit speechless, before and after the pitch. The challenging hitter simply lets his bat slide through his hands to the plate, an ineffectual cudgel against such an immortal beast of a throw.
And up in the stands... Max's perched seat is suddenly empty. The lost connection has been made.
Randy Newman's musical score is critical to the success of this scene, and indeed to much of the movie's surging emotional tides. Its soaring crescendos and blaring horns have justly become some of the most recognized musical cues in moviedom.
Director of photographer (as he prefers to be credited) Caleb Deschanel had just scored his first Oscar nomination the year before for "The Right Stuff," and would add his second with "The Natural." There's an elegant washed-out beauty to his cinematography, a slightly gauzy quality that underscores the sense of history unfurling.
"The Natural" may be one of my favorite movies, but it is not one without flaws.
The character of Roy Hobbs is at the center of a tremendous tale, but he is rather uninteresting in of himself, aside from his prowess at baseball. He is good-hearted, unfailingly polite and cherishes the game for its own sake rather than what it could do for him materially. As we know, his only wish in life is to be able to walk down the streets and have people say, "There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was."
Screenwriters Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry translate Malamud's depiction of Hobbs as deliberately flat and pure. Like King Arthur, he is the stuff of legends, and I guess they thought the legends would be enough.
Still, at times it seems like even Redford struggles to imbue Hobbs with the basic shadings of an individual personality beyond the mythic persona.
The plot can be rather languid and shaky, particularly in the third act leading up to the big game. Hobbs has been laid low after being poisoned by Memo, which caused doctors to pump his stomach and inadvertently retrieve the silver bullet -- a totem of past misdeeds that causes the hero to doubt himself.
In short order Hobbs is visited in the hospital by his teammates, Iris and the Judge, who offer him condolences, empathy and $20,000 in cash, respectively. (About $350k in today's dollars.) Tonally, these encounter are all over the map, and for a moment it almost seems the movie will trundle completely to a halt just as it's approaching its denouement.
There's also the matter of Bump Bailey -- the star player played by Michael Madsen in one of his earliest roles, who happens to occupy the same position as Roy. He's a petulant prima donna, a thorn in Pop's side, and an impediment to Roy's rise. So the movie simply kills him off, having Bump ridiculously crash through the outfield wall chasing a long hit. His ashes are scattered over the field by airplane in a comic hiccup that sticks out from the rest of the movie like a sore thumb.
(And granted, my baseball knowledge is bupkes, but is playing right field really that different from center or left? Bump that guy.)
Still, in my long view these faults are less deficiencies in the facade of "The Natural" than intrinsic parts of a great movie's makeup -- like moles on the Madonna. Somehow, the imperfections make the film more approachable, human and eye-level. It's a story about how we come to look up with reverence, but the movie never condescends.
Can a film still be a masterpiece while remaining intrinsically flawed? If so, "The Natural" comes as close as it gets. Here is a movie that swings away.