The Natural (film)
The Natural is a 1984 American sports film based on Bernard Malamud's 1952 novel of the same name, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Robert Redford, Glenn Close, and Robert Duvall. Like the book, the film recounts the experiences of Roy Hobbs, an individual with great "natural" baseball talent, spanning the decades of Roy's career. It was the first film produced by TriStar Pictures.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Barry Levinson|
|Produced by||Mark Johnson|
|Based on||The Natural|
by Bernard Malamud
|Music by||Randy Newman|
|Edited by||Stu Linder|
|Distributed by||TriStar Pictures|
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress (Close), and it was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger). Many of the baseball scenes were filmed in 1983 at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, New York, built in 1937 and demolished in 1988. All-High Stadium, also in Buffalo, stood in for Chicago's Wrigley Field in a key scene.
As a young boy growing up on a Nebraska farm in the 1910s, Roy Hobbs learns to play baseball from his father, with whom he plays catch regularly. One afternoon, the elder Hobbs collapses underneath a mighty oak tree in front of their house and dies from a heart attack. Shortly thereafter, lightning strikes the oak tree during a thunderstorm and splits the trunk down the middle. Hobbs takes a piece of the tree and carves it down into a baseball bat, using a wood-burning kit to write the name “Wonderboy” into the barrel.
Several years later in 1923, a now 19-year-old Hobbs (Redford) shares with his girlfriend Iris (Close) that he has an opportunity to try out for the Chicago Cubs. He boards a train en route to the tryouts, and meets a legendary ballplayer nicknamed “Whammer” (Baker), the best hitter in the big leagues, as well as sportswriter Max Mercy (Duvall).
On a stopover along the journey, the passengers visit a carnival where Hobbs easily wins at a game requiring him to knock over a stack of bottles with a ball. As he and his scout walk through the carnival they are taunted by Whammer and Mercy. Hobbs’ friend bets Mercy that Hobbs could strike Whammer out on three pitches, which Mercy accepts. Hobbs proceeds to strike Whammer out on three pitches, to the surprise of Mercy. The feat catches the attention of Harriet Bird (Hershey), a mysterious woman who had previously been fawning over Whammer.
Hobbs and Bird board the train separately but she later approaches him and they talk. In Chicago, they each have a room and she phones Hobbs and invites him to her room. When Hobbs arrives at her room Bird is wearing a black outfit, including a veil. She questions whether Hobbs will be the “best there ever was” like he wishes to be. He confidently confirms that he will be, after which Bird immediately pulls a small handgun from her purse and shoots Hobbs in the abdomen. It is later discovered that Bird had previously targeted other top athletes such as an Olympian and a football star.
Sixteen years later in 1939, Hobbs is now 35 and is signed by a scout to the New York Knights, a struggling ball club sitting in last place. The team is managed by Pop Fisher (Brimley), who initially dislikes that Hobbs has joined the team, believing that at his age he would be more of a hindrance than a help.
After several games of sitting on the bench, Pop challenges Hobbs to be at practice the next day, though Hobbs reminds Fisher that he's always there. The following game, Fisher benches star outfielder Bump Bailey (Madsen) after a reckless play. Pop pinch hits with Hobbs, who literally knocks the cover off of the baseball. Shortly after this, Bailey tragically dies when he crashes through an outfield wall trying to make a play, resulting in Hobbs being made starting outfielder. Hobbs ends up becoming a sensation and begins to turn the Knights’ fortunes around. Mercy finds Hobbs to be a familiar character but is unable to recognize him as the pitcher who struck the Whammer out 16 years earlier.
One night Hobbs has dinner after a game with the team's bench coach, Red Blow (Farnsworth), where Red explains the ownership situation of the Knights. He tells Hobbs that if Pop loses the pennant this year, then his ownership share of the team will revert to the team's majority owner, The Judge (Prosky) and Pop will be out of the game for good.
Hobbs is asked to meet with The Judge, who remains in a darkened office high above the playing field at the Knights’ ballpark. The Judge compliments Hobbs success thus far but offers him a $5,000 bribe to throw the season, which he refuses.
At a formal dinner, Mercy introduces Hobbs to Gus Sands (McGavin), a bookie whom Hobbs learns enjoys placing large bets against him. He also meets Memo Paris (Basinger), who turns out to be Pop's niece. The two begin spending more time together with a growing romantic interest, and Hobbs’ gameplay concurrently begins slumping. One night while Pop is waiting in a hotel lobby, he sees Hobbs come in with Memo. He privately cautions Hobbs about Memo, but Hobbs disregards him.
Hobbs continues to slump until one day in a day game against the Cubs, Hobbs breaks out of his slump when a woman in white stands in the seats, catching Hobbs’ attention. He immediately proceeds to hit a home run to deep center field, shattering the clock on the scoreboard at Wrigley Field. After hitting the home run, he runs to the dugout to try and see the woman again, but the abundant flash photography blinds him. Nevertheless, he realizes it's his childhood sweetheart, Iris.
The two later meet at a diner where they catch up. After some conversation, Iris asks, "What happened to you Roy?" Roy responds, "My life didn't turn out the way I expected." Only after the next day's game does Hobbs tell her how he had been shot 16 years before and had lost his way as a result. Iris shares with Hobbs that she now has a son whose father lives in New York.
The encounter breathes life into Hobbs’ game again, restoring his elite hitting. The boost causes the Knights to surge into first place. One day as the team is coming off the field after practice, some of his teammates ask him to throw a pitch in because they want to hit a few more. Hobbs obliges and throws a strike so hard the ball wedges into the netting behind home plate to the awe of his teammates. Mercy, having been evaluating their practice, immediately remembers who Hobbs is after seeing him pitch.
One night at a team party thrown by Memo, she slips something into a pastry that she feeds Hobbs, and he collapses soon after. He awakens in the maternity ward of a hospital and is shown a silver bullet that had been lodged in his stomach for years. He learns the Knights have lost three games in a row, which sets up a one-game playoff against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
At his bedside, Memo encourages Hobbs to accept the bribe, which has been quadrupled by the Judge. Hobbs refuses, and the Judge informs him he should reconsider since the Judge is also bribing someone else on the team.
Iris visits Hobbs later, at which point he confides that he feels like he's failed to live up to his potential, though she insists he is a great player. Hobbs returns to the clubhouse where he prepares for the game and is told by Pop that Hobbs is the best hitter he's ever seen.
As the game progresses, Hobbs realizes the bribed player is pitcher Al Fowler (Grassano). Hobbs calls time and comes in from right field to tell Fowler not to throw the game. Fowler smartly replies that he'll start pitching when Hobbs starts hitting. Fowler starts pitching more competitively and the Knights manage to stay in the game.
Watching the game from the stands with her son, Iris begs an usher to deliver a written note to Hobbs in the dugout telling him that she has brought his son to watch him play.
In the ninth inning, the Knights trail the Pirates when the latter brings in a young, hard-throwing pitcher reminiscent of Hobbs when he was younger. Lightning bolts appear in the distance. Both the pitcher and catcher see that Hobbs is hampered by his old wound, and throw inside in an attempt to harm him. Hobbs connects on an inside pitch which runs foul down the right field line; the ball was struck so hard that it splits Wonderboy in half.
Hobbs charges the bat boy Bobby to pick a good replacement bat for him and he returns with his own bat, the “Savoy Special”, that Hobbs had helped him make as a sister bat to Wonderboy. Hobbs steps into the batter's box, down to his last strike, bleeding through his jersey where his wound is and hits the ball nearly out of the park, striking the stadium lights and sending a flurry of sparks onto the field as he rounds the bases, hitting a walk-off home run to win the game and the National League pennant. The Knights advance to the World Series, the outcome of which is not revealed.
The victory secures Pop's share of the team and his place on it. Later, Hobbs plays catch with his son in the same field that he had with his father many years earlier while Iris looks on.
- Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs
- Robert Duvall as Max Mercy
- Glenn Close as Iris Gaines
- Kim Basinger as Memo Paris
- Wilford Brimley as Pop Fisher
- Barbara Hershey as Harriet Bird
- Robert Prosky as The Judge
- Richard Farnsworth as Red Blow
- Joe Don Baker as "The Whammer"
- Darren McGavin as Gus Sands
- Michael Madsen as Bartholomew "Bump" Bailey
- John Finnegan as Sam Simpson
- Alan Fudge as Ed Hobbs
- Ken Grassano as Al Fowler
- Mike Starr as Boone
- Mickey Treanor as Doc Dizzy
- Jon Van Ness as John Olsen
- Anthony J. Ferrara as Coach Wilson
- George Wilkosz as Bobby Savoy
- Paul Sullivan Jr. as Young Roy
- Rachel Hall as Young Iris
- Sibby Sisti as Pirates manager
The film's producers stated in the DVD extras that the film was not intended to be a literal adaptation of the novel, but was merely "based on" the novel. Malamud's daughter said on one of the DVD extras that her father had seen the film, and his take on it was that it had "legitimized him as a writer".
Darren McGavin was cast late in the process as gambler Gus Sands and was uncredited in the film. Due to a disagreement, he chose not to be credited, though later Levinson wanted to credit him and McGavin said no. Levinson stated on the DVD extras for the 2007 edition that because there had been too little time during post-production to find a professional announcer willing and able to provide voice-over services, Levinson recorded that part of the audio track himself.
Two-thirds of the scenes were filmed in Buffalo, New York, mostly at War Memorial Stadium, built in 1937 and demolished a few years after the film was produced. Buffalo's All-High Stadium, with post-production alterations, stood in for Chicago's Wrigley Field in a key scene in the film. Additional filming took place at the New York and Lake Erie Railroad depot in South Dayton, New York.
Variety called it an "impeccably made ... fable about success and failure in America." James Berardinelli praised The Natural as "[a]rguably the best baseball movie ever made". ESPN's Page 2 selected it as the 6th best sports movie of all time. Sports writer Bill Simmons has argued, "Any 'Best Sports Movies' list that doesn't feature either Hoosiers or The Natural as the No. 1 pick shouldn't even count."
Director Barry Levinson said on MLB Network's "Costas at the Movies" in 2013 that while the film is based in fantasy, "through the years, these things which are outlandish actually [happen] ... like Kirk Gibson hitting the home run and limping around the bases ... Curt Schilling with the blood on the sock in the World Series."
Leonard Maltin's 18th annual Movie Guide edition called it "too long and inconsistent." Dan Craft, longtime critic for the Bloomington, Illinois paper, The Pantagraph, wrote, "The storybook ending is so preposterous you don't know whether to cheer or jeer." In Sports Illustrated, Frank Deford had faint praise for it: "The Natural almost manages to be a swell movie." John Simon of National Review and Richard Schickel of Time were disappointed with the adaptation. Simon contrasted Malamud's story about the "failure of American innocence" with Levinson's "fable of success ... [and] the ultimate triumph of semi-doltish purity," declaring "you have, not Malamud's novel, but a sorry illustration of its theme". Schickel lamented that "Malamud's intricate ending (it is a victory that looks like a defeat) is vulgarized (the victory is now an unambiguous triumph, fireworks included)," and that "watching this movie is all too often like reading about The Natural in the College Outline series."
Roger Ebert called it "idolatry on behalf of Robert Redford." Ebert's television collaborator Gene Siskel praised it, giving it four stars, also putting down other critics that he suggested might have just recently read the novel for the first time.
In a lengthy article on baseball movies in The New Yorker, Roger Angell pointed out that Malamud had intentionally treated Hobbs' story as a baseball version of the King Arthur legend, which came across in the film as a bit heavy-handed, "portentous and stuffy," and that the book's ending should have been kept. He also cited a number of excellent visuals and funny bits, and noted that Robert Redford had prepared so carefully for the role, modeling his swing on that of Ted Williams, that "you want to sign him up."
At the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, retrospectively compiled reviews from 38 critics give the film a score of 82%, with an average rating of 7.1/10. The website's consensus reads: "Though heavy with sentiment, The Natural is an irresistible classic, and a sincere testament to America's national pastime."
Awards and honors
The Natural was nominated for four Academy Awards: Actress in a Supporting Role (Glenn Close), Cinematography (Caleb Deschanel), Art Direction (Mel Bourne, Angelo P. Graham, Bruce Weintraub), and Music (Randy Newman). Kim Basinger was also nominated for Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress.
The initial DVD edition, with copyright year on the box reading "2001", contained the theatrical version of the film, along with a few specials and commentaries.
The "director's cut" was released on April 3, 2007. A two-disc edition, it contains the featurette "The Heart of the Natural," a 44-minute documentary featuring comments from Cal Ripken, Jr. and Levinson; it is the only extra released originally with the 2001 DVD. Sony added a number of other extras, however, including: "When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural," a 50-minute documentary discussing the origins of the original novel and the production of the film; "Knights in Shining Armor," which addresses the mythological parallels between The Natural, King Arthur and the Odyssey; and "A Natural Gunned Down" which tells the story of Eddie Waitkus, a baseball player who was shot by Ruth Ann Steinhagen, a female stalker, in an incident which inspired the fictionalized shooting of Roy Hobbs. The film itself has been re-edited, restoring deleted footage to the early chapters of the story. These scenes expand on the sadness of Hobbs, focusing on his visits to his childhood home as an adult and his childhood memories. The "gift set" version of the release also included some souvenirs: a baseball "signed" by Roy Hobbs; some baseball cards of Roy Hobbs and teammates; and a New York Knights cap.
The film score of The Natural was composed and conducted by Randy Newman. The score has often been compared to the style of Aaron Copland and sometimes Elmer Bernstein. Scott Montgomery, writing for Goldmine music magazine, referenced the influence, and David Ansen, reviewing the film for Newsweek, called the score "Coplandesque." The score also has certain Wagnerian features of orchestration and use of Leitmotif. Adnan Tezer of Monsters and Critics noted the theme is often played for film and television previews and in "baseball stadiums when introducing home teams and players."
Levinson also described to Bob Costas in MLB Network's "Costas at the Movies" how he heard Newman develop the movie's iconic theme: "We were racing to try to get this movie out in time and we were in one room and then there was a wall and Randy's in the other room. One of the great thrilling moments is I heard him figuring out that theme...You could hear it through the wall as he was working out that theme and I'll never forget that."
The soundtrack album was released May 11 on the Warner Bros. label, with the logo for Tri-Star Pictures also appearing on the label to commemorate this as their first production.
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- Janna Malamud Smith (daughter of Bernard Malamud) (April 3, 2007). When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural (Documentary). Sony Pictures Entertainment.
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- (May 19, 1984)
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The Natural, a 1984 Robert Redford vehicle based on the classic Bernard Malamud novel about a baseball player, features some of Newman's most inspiring movie music — his first score to feature synthesizers prominently in string arrangements. Leaning gently on Copland, Berlin and his uncle Al, the dramatic title theme (which has been heard in virtually every baseball-related film trailer since the movie's release) earned Newman both an Academy Award nomination for best soundtrack and a 1985 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental.Cite journal requires
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