The only homer I know has four bases in it.
There’s a lot going on in Barry Levinson‘s The Natural and baseball is the least of it. The film had always been a blind spot for me as I’m not a fan of the sport and thus could never bring myself to watch—”classic” status or not. So the opportunity to sit down and experience it on the big screen after enjoying a lengthy interview session between Ben Mankiewicz and Levinson courtesy of Turner Classic Movies became my excuse to drop everything and give it a shot. But even then I still believed I was in for a sports drama, not the fable the filmmaker ultimately describes the finished product as. Baseball is merely the form in which this fantastical contemporary myth takes to inspire its enraptured audience.
I haven’t read the Bernard Malamud‘s novel, but synopses of it and the original ending lead me to believe that it’s the drama I assumed the movie would prove. It’s therefore Levinson and screenwriters Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry who I will give credit too as far as lending everything its otherworldly divinity and Herculean adventure sidetracked by the enticement of Sirens. It’s not a coincidence the mysterious Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) asks baseball prodigy Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) if he’s read Homer. She sees greatness in him and yearns to take it for herself. She understands his purity and knows greed doesn’t exist for which to prey upon. So Harriet hones in on his innocence. She plays with his trusting naiveté to steal his future without warning.
Harriet is the danger of our world, that pervasive sense of immorality, self-centeredness, and opportunism we must all combat every single day of our lives. She epitomizes the cruelty of predators feeding upon the weak and vulnerable, their pleasure derived from the anguish of their pristine targets. And Hobbs is a textbook prize, his life thus far insulated by the sun-streaked innocence and work ethic of a family farm unable to prepare him for the horrors lurking beyond its borders. His is a man born to love and galvanized by a tragedy endured in a way that made him stronger. With a lightning bolt his late father’s protection and faith is bestowed upon a now charmed vessel Roy could wield as both shield and weapon. His “Wonderboy.”
But even this homemade bat couldn’t stop his lustful eyes from straying off the path his father drew. Despite Roy’s pride and etiquette—the sort his emissary to big city life (John Finnegan‘s Sam Simpson) constantly stops him from using to not project weakness in the face of big shots like Robert Duvall‘s powerful reporter Max Mercy or Joe Don Baker‘s baseball legend “The Whammer”—the wonders of this new world prove too much for his lofty yet wholesome goals or the sweetheart (Glenn Close‘s Iris Gaines) left behind. It only takes one misstep to change the course of an entire existence and all those he has ever touched. For Roy this single error in judgement cost him sixteen years. Only now can he hope to finally prevail.
The film therefore begins with the slumped over Hobbs looking as though he’s been through the wringer and just barely escaped. There’s no fanfare as he boards the train, only the déjà vu of his first attempt to take this same journey. This is when we flashback to his youth, his talent, and the ill-fated encounter with Harriet’s seductive temptress. And only after the shock of what happens—I may have audibly laughed at the audacity of its melodramatic gravitas—do we finally set foot onto a major league baseball diamond. That it would be for a basement dwelling club run by the ornery Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) only shows how redemption won’t be easy. But Roy Hobbs isn’t one to quit or back down from a challenge.
What follows is his climb from unwanted benchwarmer to talk of the town forty-year old rookie. No one knows him or where he’s come from, but the more praise and notoriety he achieves means more interest and digging will occur. Iris sees his name in the paper. Max Mercy racks his brain to remember why this out-of-nowhere sensation looks so familiar. And with a bet set behind the scenes between Pop and team co-owner The Judge (Robert Prosky) about the club’s future as a passionate team set on winning or an entrepreneurial business only focused on the bottom line, Roy becomes tempted yet again. It’s the age-old quandary: fame and fortune or heroic integrity. To side with Pop means he may find the glory he seeks or destitution.
Side with The Judge and he’ll be secure for life whether he plays or not. Sell his dignity and he can have the big contract, the exclusive interviews with Max, the mansions and material gains provided by Darren McGavin‘s bookie Gus, and the beautiful young arm candy in Kim Basinger‘s Memo Paris. Theirs is the fasttrack to success that is available if he so chooses. It’s the seductive promise of getting more for doing less that shielded his vision when dealing with Harriet years ago. And you cannot blame him for wondering about those greener pastures, giving up the dream of strangers seeing him on the street and saying how he was the best player ever. You can’t blame him for trying to have both despite Pop’s warnings.
The Natural therefore proves a very black versus white parable about staying true to one’s values in the face of smooth talking charlatans. It’s about choosing the difficult path wherein you live or die by what you have to offer rather than rely on that which is provided to you. You could say it gets to the dark side of the sport—one maligned by betting scandals and doping controversy. But it’s really about the dark side of life with baseball serving as the universal metaphor used to resonate with the public, young and old. Some of the subject matter can be grim and mature in nature, but the PG rating ensures Levinson has delivered a contemplative fairy tale for the whole family to enjoy and learn from.
Does it deliver anything we haven’t seen before? No. Does it hinge on blatant clichés and overt archetypes to ensure we can guess everything that happens? Yes. But neither is bad when they’re part of a work as heightened in the impossible visual rhetoric of tall tale lore as this film. They actually enhance that aesthetic, turning drama into fantasy with broader appeal. There are literal demons and angels sitting on Roy Hobbs’ shoulders and each has his ear until the other wrests it away. Eventually, however, he’ll have to brush them both aside to listen to his own heart and know what’s right. By the end he’ll lose all crutches to sink or swim on merit alone. And if he remains pure enough, he just may succeed.
Watched in Buffalo, NY as part of the TCM Backlot series.