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Barry Levinson’s “The Natural” is the movie that made me love baseball, not because of the sport itself, but because of what it represents. Before “The Natural,” I considered baseball nothing more than a slow, laborious sport that was akin to watching paint dry. Post-“The Natural,” a film about a young baseball player who returns to the game long after his prime, I started to see the sport as something more — something bigger.
“The Natural” is a period film set in the early 20th century. The uniforms are baggy, there’s not a black face to be found on the field or in the dugout, and players still travel between stadiums by train. The movie centers on Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), a young natural baseball player (the “natural” of the title) with a gift for the game. Hobbs is an up-and-coming pitcher, capable of striking out anyone and everyone, until a tragic event sidelines him from the game. Now in his ’40s (an age where, as one character remarks, players should be thinking about retirement), Hobbs returns to the game as a rookie fresh out of the minor leagues — and becomes a star.
No longer able to pitch, Hobbs has become a natural hitter, launching balls into the stands at will. Robert Redford plays Hobbs as a teen and as an adult, and it is to the movie’s credit that it never tries to put Redford and co-star Glenn Close in “youth” or “aging” makeup, but instead relies on the audience’s ability to see through the lack of deception. Yes, that is 40-something Redford playing a teen. He and Close are so natural (forgive the pun) and are so sold to their roles that it’s hard to get petty about it. (Today, one wonders if a director and his star would even bother trying to pull off such a choice.)
The movie is based on a novel by Bernard Malamud, and like the game that it pays homage to, the movie moves at a slow, languid pace. It’s in no hurry to rush through its 3 hours and instead seems content to lie out in the sunny fields and throw balls around for the sheer enjoyment of it. The film also offers some of the most beautiful cinematography of its era. Levinson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s use of black and white, in combination with shadows and sunlight, and even clothes of individual characters, swamps the film in layers and lyrical quality. The movie moves with measured pace, and every single second of it is cherished.
There is, of course, more to the story than just Hobbs’ rise from obscurity to the big leagues. Wilford Brimley plays Pop Fisher, the coach of Hobbs’ team, who is fighting with the team’s co-owner, the Judge (Robert Prosky) for sole ownership. The Pop and Judge characters are revealed as more than just a personal grudge or even a corporate power play, but something akin to good versus evil. This dichotomy between the two figureheads is further enhanced by Pop’s fatherly feelings toward Hobbs and the team, and the Judge’s propensity to hide in the shadows of his dark office room, only gazing out into the light when he absolutely must.
There is also a prominent love story between Hobbs and Glenn Close’s Iris, as two young lovers who meets up again later in life and discovers that nothing about their feelings for each other has changed, even if everything around them has. A young Kim Basinger has a juicy role as the loose woman trying to manipulate Hobbs because she belongs to a bookie who needs to control Hobbs’ exploits on the field. Basinger is sympathetic mostly because her character is so innocent and naÃ¯ve, and even as she tries to ruin Hobbs for her master, we don’t really hate her. She’s just another victim, unable to conquer her vices. It’s a dangerous hole she’s in, we realize, one that Hobbs is on the precipice of falling into if he’s not careful.
It’s no surprise then that the game of baseball is relegated to the background. The real story exists in-between the innings, in the struggles between good and evil, true love and lust, and loyalty and ambition.
“The Natural” is beautiful to look at, wonderfully acted, and Caleb Deschanel (“The Patriot”) is brilliant in his camerawork. Don’t look at “The Natural” as a movie about baseball, but a movie about life. As the saying goes, it’s not rather you win or lose that matters, but how you play the game. Life works that way, too.
Barry Levinson (director) / Bernard Malamud (novel), Roger Towne, Phil Dusenberry (screenplay)
CAST: Robert Redford …. Roy Hobbs
Robert Duvall …. Max Mercy
Glenn Close …. Iris Gaines
Kim Basinger …. Memo Paris
Wilford Brimley …. Pop Fisher
Barbara Hershey …. Harriet Bird
Robert Prosky …. The Judge