The natural is not just about baseball. In fact it would be a perfect movie to see if you were wanting to make your boyfriends friend like you. Adapted from Bernard Malamud’s novel by the same name and directed by Barry Levinson (Diner, Sleepers, Rain Man), The Natural seems like a mere baseball story on the surface, but is a multi-faceted look at the depths of human nature, the weight of expectations and the power of self-determination. The film stars Robert Redford in one of the best turns in his career as Roy Hobbs. The character of Hobbs is based on Philadelphia first basemen Eddie Waitkus and possibly another man, a former Chicago Cubs player Billy Jurges.
In the film we first see Roy Hobbs as a young man playing baseball with his father who dies suddenly. The film then flashes forward to young adult Roy on the cusp of trying out with the Chicago Cubs as a pitcher with a tremendous fastball. He leaves his smalltown home and the woman he loves for his dream; not just to be the best in the game, but the best ever. On the train to Chicago he meets “The Whammer” who is an obvious allusion to Babe Ruth as he is referred to as the greatest ballplayer ever. He even mimics the infamous “called shot” at one point. At a stop at a town fair, Hobbs and “The Whammer” get into a duel in which Hobbs embarrasses the star by striking him out on three pitches.
A mysterious ingenue woman is accompanying the star and takes an interest in Hobbs. Another hanger-on is Max Mercy, who factors into the story later. The ingenue is Harriet Bird who gets to know Roy. They share a moment on the train, but nothing happens, mostly because Roy is a somewhat of a narcissist. Harriett and Roy wind up in the same hotel in Chicago and she lures him to her room. When he enters the room believing they are going to have a tryst, she instead shoots him in cold blood with a silver bullet, nearly killing him. Harriet is apparently a serial killer of star athletes, but has jumped to her death leaving the circumstances mysterious and tangled for Roy.
Fast-forward sixteen years later and Hobbs has resurfaced as an aged rookie slugger on the downtrodden New York Knights. Managed by the superstitious and depressed Pop Fisher played brilliantly by Wilford Brimley, the team has some talent. They seem to find ways to lose pathetically all the time and Pop muses over and over about becoming a farmer.
Hobbs finally gets his chance and he turns out to be a power-hitting revelation. He seems to have some mojo working for him courtesy of his custom made bat “Wonderboy”. His tape measure homers rejuvenate the team and they go on a winning streak.
Hobbs is surrounded mostly by shadowy characters: a nefarious team owner, a Machiavellian millionaire bookie and the beautiful distraction of Memo Paris played by Kim Basinger. Hobbs also suffers a slump when success goes to his head, his ego swelling due to all of the adulation. Then in the midst of his slump his former love of his youth, Iris comes back to him played by Glenn Close. There are several transcendent moments in the film, but when Iris stands up during a pivotal Hobbs at bat and he sees her, it is pure movie magic. Of course he hits a monstrous game-winning long ball on the next pitch. Even though Hobbs continues back on a path to glory, his murky past catches up with him. Both the conspirators who are against the team and Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), who is now the local beat writer covering the Knights, know about that shooting in the hotel room years ago. Plus Roy’s injury from the shooting returns and nearly derails his ability to play again. He is going to give up, but Iris delivers a hospital room pep talk that changes his mind.
With all of the odds against him he musters the will to play the final game. Iris has again intervened yet again when the chips are down in the form of a note. Roy realizes while there is glory in personal achievements, having a greater purpose in life is more rewarding and in the final at bat of the final game of the series he is forced to choose a new bat when his charmed one is shattered.. He hits a dramatic two-run homer into the light stanchions that explode as he rounds the bases, with sparks falling all around him. It is one of the indelible images in cinematic history, not just baseball movies.
Although the film was criticized for being hokey when it premiered, it is a great movie on many levels and was nominated for Academy awards in four categories. From the stellar acting, to Levinson’s poignant slow-motion action shots, to the compelling Randy Newman soundtrack, The Natural is heart-warming drama.