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The Natural: The Best or Worst Sports Movie Ever?

The Natural
Directed by Barry Levinson
Written by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry from the novel by Bernard Malamud
Tri-Star, 1984

Back in the mid-eighties, I saw The Natural for the first time. It just happened to coincide with my interest in baseball, which during the era had produced some great and dramatic World Series: In 1985, the Don Denkinger-assisted Royals win over the Cardinals. In 1986, the Buckner folly in the Mets comeback over the Red Sox. In 1987, the homer-hanky happy Twins, again over the Cardinals. Then in 1988, Game 1. Kirk Gibson’s impossible game-winning home run over the A’s, of course accompanied by Randy Newman’s memorable theme from the film.

I just supposed, since I was under the age of 10 at the time, that everybody loved The Natural. The Natural reinforced my belief that baseball is the most dramatic sport in the world. What I love about baseball, the little boy’s dream of being at the plate in The Big Game in the bottom of the ninth with a chance to win it with an unexpected blow. Imagine my surprise a few years ago when I found out that my friend and baseball fan Sam Loomis hated it.

Sam Loomis: I do love baseball. Love it, Love it, Love it!!! It’s easily my favorite sport to watch, and therefore, I love baseball movies. Major League, Bull Durham, the original Bad News Bears, etc. Hell, I’ve even been known to watch the stupid contributions to the genre. If I’m flipping through the channels and crap like Rookie of the Year or Major League: Back to the Minors is infesting the airwaves, I will sit through the rest of the film due to my enjoyment of the sport. However, and I cannot state this clearly enough, I cannot watch The Natural.

Well, that’s not completely true, since I did watch it again for this lovely debate we have before us. It’s a film that as a kid everyone told me it was an instant classic, a great film, and I, all eight years of me, sat through it and just didn’t get the praise. I’ve often cited this film to be the beginning of my critical inception into the fact that a film could actually be bad. I went back and watched the film a couple of times once I got a little older thinking that maybe there was something I missed, and the experience got only worse.

Let’s start off with that memorable score that you so mentioned. Randy Newman’s simplistic repetition of “DUH-DUH-DUH!” over and over is fine on its own. I kind of like simple orchestrations; it’s one of the many reasons I have such a fondness for early John Carpenter work. However, in The Natural, it is imposed over the cheesiest of events: Lightning strikes, shattering glass, etc. I don’t enjoy a film telling me when exactly I should feel something; the way Barry Levinson and company decided to use the music was as if to say: “Look, you bastards, this is a defining moment in our film! Pay Attention!” I’ll make up my own mind when to pay attention, Mr. Levinson, but thank you for talking down to me with your stupid baseball movie.

Since you bring it up, we’ll go straight to the film’s most famous sequence, which is the ending. I cannot imagine this scene, the most legendary home run ever hit, not being accompanied by a bombastic score. The Natural is an allegory of The Knights of the Round Table, hence the team name, The New York Knights. Roy Hobbs’ bat is his sword. His quest was to be the best baseball player ever, but he had to pass a test and his dream was stymied by his failure to see the ugliness behind a pretty face.

A story such as this, heroic in nature, is supposed to be a tale that grows in stature every time it’s told. Literally, Roy Hobbs probably didn’t hit a home run that smashed into the stadium lighting and caused a fireworks extravaganza, but the story is better to hear it that way. It’s the same sort of mystery and legend that surrounds Babe Ruth’s “called-shot” homer. To not have a score that swells with such emotion, simplistic as it may be, during this home run would be disingenuous. I don’t think Levinson is trying to make us feel anything. There’s really nothing else to feel during a scene like that. I well up in tears watching that, the moment that single bulb gets crushed, to watching genuinely great reactions: the guy in the stands immediately after yelling, “Oh shit!”, Iris (Glenn Close) laughing in disbelief, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) giving a fist pump, and meanwhile, Roy Hobbs is just doing his job, strolling the bases.

But I enjoy the journey as well. It’s a tragic story. Here’s a guy who has all the tools, and all he has to do is not stray from the path, but he does. 9 out of 10 guys in his same situation might choose to chase after some tail and not have any consequences, but he can’t. He’s got a special kind of talent and must always work to keep it special. As his father says, “Rely too much on your own gift, and you’ll fail.” The movie has so much more meaning than your average sports movie. I really, really, like Major League and Bull Durham, but come on. They don’t beat The Natural’s dramatic force.

SL: The epic dimensions that Levinson tries to take this film to are what mostly causes it to fall flat on its face, and while I see where you’re going with the Knights of the Round Table, this is Homer’s The Odyssey more than anything. From Barbara Hershey’s crazy loon shooting Hobbs to the one-eyed bookie (Darren McGavin, who I actually like quite a bit in the film), this film reeks of Homer; Hershey even makes a Homer reference. Hell, if you really wanted to push it, you could look at Red (Richard Farnsworth; also great) and Pops (Wilford Brimley) as the Greek Chorus, along with the rest of the Knight players.

Levinson is at his best when he keeps things on a simple and level plane; movies such as Diner and Wag the Dog prove this. The only time he stretched out a little bit was with Bugsy, but even then he kept it on a character level. When he tries to reach something a little more abstract in his films we end up with Jimmy Hollywood and Toys. The Natural, I will give you is better than either one of those films, but it still falls short of its goals.

The movie is not consistent enough or empowering, if you will, to keep up that epic feel Levinson and Redford so strive to make it be. Take for instance something as stupid as the death of Bump, which was the most ridiculous death scene in a sports film until Chris Rock bit the big one in The Longest Yard. It’s supposed to have this deep resonance to it by the way everything leads up to it, but then the scene gets glossed over rather quickly and all of a sudden Roy Hobbs is kicking ass and taking names. This was a moment where something interesting and unique could have happened, but instead we get the clichéd middle section that we see in just about every other sports film, and even in the early eighties this was already a worn out tradition.

And I’m curious as to what you think about the acting because with the exception of McGavin, Farnsworth, and maybe, Brimley, I think it’s terrible across the board. And, yes, that includes your golden boy, Mr. Sundance himself. Redford is so blasé throughout the entire film; there’s supposed to be this noticeable change in him after he gets shot and stuck in the big leagues 12 years too late, but he acts the exact same as he did before the incident. The middle section, while not only being clichéd, also makes me really care less about the character of Hobbs. He’s so eager to prove to everyone what he can do, and then once he has the fame, he starts fucking Kim Basinger and not giving two shits about anyone around him. How original. And, I’m sorry, but they do nothing to make you feel any better for the guy by the time he realizes his mistake.

And I love how he finds his stroke again, sorry for the pun, with the help of Glenn Close, who everyone tried so hard to make a babe in the eighties. Close is a great actress, and she’s wasted here, but she’s not a sex symbol, and she never will be. It’s not her fault that Levinson decided to shine this ridiculous light on her in every scene she was in, but it just brought out her, how should I say it, more mannish qualities. The less said about Basinger, the better, except I’ve never thought the woman could act, and this movie doesn’t disprove my theory.

You’ve actually brought up some things here I do absolutely hate about The Natural, and you’re going to get a salvo here. Keep in mind that none of the things I hate about it make me hate the movie itself.

You brought up the Close-as-sex-symbol thing, which is actually quite laughable. When Hobbs makes the comment, “Hard to believe a girl with your looks could be on the loose so long,” it might be my own transference, but I could swear Redford has a hard time saying that line. You also bring up another problem with the film: Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen). The death scene is most assuredly the most botched part of a film, ever, that I love. I always thought his death was unnecessary; why can’t Hobbs play left field (he’s left-handed, it would make sense) and let some other poor schlub ride the bench?

And there’s another thing wrong, too. When Hobbs hits the game-winning, clock-smashing HR after he regains his mojo by seeing his long-lost love in the stands of Wrigley Field, everyone forgot that the visiting team doesn’t have the last at-bat.

But God, do I love that scene.

You bring up Kim Basinger, who plays femme fatale Memo Paris, and it’s true, she sucks. But it makes it all the easier to hate her for screwing with Hobbs. She’s a symbol, nothing more. I mean, is it any different from the big Jessica Simpson/Tony Romo fiasco this past NFL season? I think most of us see Simpson as a vacuous sexpot, which is what Memo Paris is in this film. Someone needs to be Superman’s kryptonite, and for Hobbs it’s a hot girl with no soul. Now as for the other acting: Redford’s certainly isn’t great here, but I think it’s serviceable considering that most really, really talented people are hard nuts to crack (think ARod, who many people hate for being so stoic). There’s no doubt Darren McGavin has the meatiest role here as gambler Gus Sands, but did you completely forget Robert Duvall as newsman Max Mercy? Duvall is absolutely terrific! And look at the 1984 Oscars in the Supporting Actor category…Duvall’s was shamelessly excluded.

So I’ve brought up the film’s deeper meanings, which you feel are weaknesses somehow, so how about something simple? How about The Natural’s true love of baseball? Beginning with Hobbs’ appreciation of the game from his father, to the act of fashioning a bat out of a tree that fell where his dad had a heart attack, to the thrill of striking out the best baseball player in the game with three pitches: the beginning of the many legends the film maps out for Hobbs, to wit: knocking the cover off the ball, the clock smash, and that ending. I think that’s the main point I want to hammer home: the film’s mythology is exactly in tune with baseball’s best stories.

SL: But in the end, my dear sir, is the fact that the best of cheese is still CHEESE!!! The beginning moments with the father are glossed over so quickly, I forgot about them as soon as they were over. Which is strange, considering I watched the director’s cut where they supposedly added ten minutes to the beginning of the film, but I didn’t catch anything different.

I guess in the end what I love about baseball is the simplicity of it. The fact is, which is being hammered home even more with the present day steroids scandal bullshit, is that it’s not necessarily the big home runs that fill up my joy for the game. I enjoy the subtleties like the pick-offs, great pitching duels, smart managerial decisions in which I realize you cannot make a film about. However, even in the big moments of baseball history such as Kirk Gibson’s homerun in the World Series, I don’t recall needing shattering lights and a seeping ulcer to make me appreciate it more.

Fine, it’s a film and not real life, but there are times when you can go overboard. Armageddon would be boring as hell if we just watched them go up to the asteroid and drill a few holes while they had a nice conversation, but it doesn’t make the film any less boisterous and ridiculous with way too many what I like to call “Video Game” moments. At some point, you can let up on the explosions and nonsense, and let a little humanity into the proceedings.

The point you brought up about the stupidity involved in the Chicago home-run make a good point for me as well. This is a crew being paid to make a film about baseball, and you would think they could actually understand how the game is played a little bit. It’s ridiculous to think that fabled strike out of Joe Don Baker would even make the papers; most likely Duvall would just be laughed at for even trying to get it in there. It’s this type of fantasy scenario bullshit that just doesn’t work for me.

The film is a fable about a man that should be on the downward part of his career stepping up to the plate for the first time and knocking the shit out of the ball for awhile. That’s all fine and dandy, but do we need this much symbolism forced down our throats? My answer would be no. The film can’t even make it’s own mind up as to what it really is about. Is this a baseball film? A love story? A crime thriller? Pick a subject and put all of your focus into that instead of giving me pointless sub-plots that bury whatever it is you’re trying to say.

I love the fantastical, the scary, the adventurous nature of film, but I think The Natural is a misguided attempt at all of these notions. I’ll give you Duvall and the other performances I mentioned. I enjoy the bickering between Red and Pops. I even somewhat like the dark nature the film takes early with the shooting incident; however, it annoys me to this day that it is never really explained. I realize some things are better left unsaid, but that is a plot point that should have been explained at some point.

I know I sound like one of those typical critics that just wants to pick at every little thing in a film, but it’s not true. I want to love The Natural like everyone else does, but in the end I always find it to be a mess that I can’t wrap my head around. Great sports movies like Rocky and Raging Bull are able to take this more fantastical approach and mix it with a gritty sense of realism that just makes the stories pop to life and become something more than their respected genre allows. The Natural, on the other hand gets buried in its own pile of over-excessive metaphors and macho-guided nonsense. Oh, and this is going to be a really long review. Good times.

So in conclusion, there’s no doubt in my mind that you are an idiot. You said it earlier, you’d rather watch Rookie of the fucking Year rather than watch The Natural. You commie. I bet if I went to your house right now, it wouldn’t take me long to find a red flag with a sickle, hammer, and a star on it. I bet you cry when you see Miracle on Ice highlights. You make me sick!

SL: I usually don’t get this petty, but in the great words of Pedro Cerrano: “Fuck You, JoBoo!” That was almost as cheesy as this stupid film that we’re talking about. And if I’m a commie, then what are you considered by worshipping a film where we have to witness Robert Redford as some version of Jesus Christ playing baseball? I don’t even want to know the answer to that one. So, join us for our next debate when the Projectionist defends his love for that futuristic Jason Patric starring 80’s classic, Solarbabies. The man has got incredible taste. Oh, and Go Cubs!!!


Comment from Mike
Time: March 30, 2008, 11:25 pm

You don’t deserve to be a sports fan, SL. That’s why I kicked your ass at poker! Jack-Six bitch! I hope you got a DUI on the way home.

Comment from Sam Loomis
Time: March 31, 2008, 12:17 am

Did not get the DUI, but thanks for the support and wishes. Glad you like the movie; always glad people enjoy any movie. I do not enjoy this one, and you know what they say opinons are like; I guess I have one.

Comment from Mike
Time: March 31, 2008, 2:16 am

Ah, you know I’m having fun. I still don’t get it, though; I’ve always loved this movie and likely always will. Yes they play it up a bit, but they do it so well it works. And I’ve always bought the love interests. I get something new out of it every time I watch it. Can’t defend the Bump Bailey death, though; horrible.

By the way, did I mention that the Reds are going to suck this year? I think I did.

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