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The Natural: hit or myth?

Whether you like this fantasy may depend on how well you know baseball


  Click for larger image As The Natural, Redford must face a parade of villains. Photofest

By Frank Deford

Issue date: May 21, 1984

Sports Illustrated Flashback The first half hour of The Natural is simply beautiful, not only in the richness of the film and the texture of the story, but also in all that it evokes of the pastoral Americana diamondiana of our fathers. One scene in particular, in which the title character, played by Robert Redford, engages in an impromptu baseball duel with a Ruthian rival, may be as fine an interlude as we've ever witnessed in any film about sport. The characters, whether broad or finely drawn, are all well within themselves, and the tale is spun out in the most engaging way. We are captivated.

And then, out of the blue, when Redford slugs one, the horsehide breaks open and the innards unravel. Get it? He literally knocks the cover off the ball. Pause, please, for stage guffaws. Not long afterward, one of Redford's teammates is killed going into the wall after a fly ball, and this, too, is treated as a belly laugh. The extraordinary surface tension, so lovingly created by director Barry Levinson, is shattered, and I felt used -- cheated to the degree that I never really trusted the movie again.

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As Ron Fimrite pointed out in his recent story on Redford and the film, Bernard Malamud's novel, whence cometh the movie, is "confounding in its switches from mythology to realism, from sports-page jargon to lyricism." What may work in print for a master novelist, however, won't necessarily succeed in a visual medium. The Natural's transmutations are too jarring, and, in the end, they turn the film's realism against it.

That's the constitutional failing of The Natural, and while all else may seem like nitpicking, the movie is otherwise blemished by an interminable last act that deteriorates into melodrama, as first one villain and then another struts across the screen. Redford, the only benign male character of any substance in the story, is beset by a surfeit of catalogue nasties, including an evil owner, a fixer, a blonde siren and a conniving sportswriter (a hackneyed part on which the Academy Award-winning talents of Robert Duvall are wasted). The team Redford stars for is the New York Knights; because of the film's grand excesses, the way The Natural was put together reminds me more of how the New York Yankees were assembled -- in the manner of more is less.

What separates The Natural from the Steinbrenners, however, is spirit and effort. The devotion that colors the project is everywhere in evidence, starting with an attention to detail that all but reincarnates the National Pastime of the '30s. The use of period newspaper headlines to move a story along is a hoary device, but it was never more artfully applied. The clothes, the language (when was the last time you heard someone say "swell"?), the trains, the poses and, above all, the lighting are exquisite. Special credit must also be given to Satan, for surely none but Beelzebub himself could preserve the 46-year-old Redford in a way that must make even Joan Collins green with envy. And, as we saw in The Sting, Redford can wear a fedora better than any other man alive.

He invests the mysterious Roy Hobbs with a proper enough mixture of humor and distance as he wends his way through a maze of allegories. Surely, it must not be easy being, in succession, Rapid Robert Feller, Sir Lancelot, Eddie Waitkus, Captain Marvel, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Casey of Mudville and General Hospital. Unfortunately, Redford exhibits a certain self-consciousness in part and never deigns to really play Hobbs -- reflecting, perhaps, his own superstar complex.

Glenn Close, as The First Love, is a most beguiling presence. When she rises in the crowd at Wrigley Field, an Ophelia in white, shimmering like the lady who holds up the flame at Columbia Pictures, I was perfectly at ease with that kind of mythology.

So perhaps one man's myth is another man's prison. For many, it might be quite possible to enjoy this film on both its levels, but my own devotion to baseball prohibits me from accepting what the non-fan can swallow with ease. As a romanticist, I can believe that love conquers all, the check's in the mail and girls just wanna have fun -- beam me up, Scotty -- but, damn it, baseballs can only be hit so far and ballplayers can only hit them just so often. Trick around with that and nothing else of mere human emotions and values can be accepted, either. Possibly this is one baseball film that will be appreciated more by people who don't know baseball than by those who do. We shall see. Still, though it overreaches and postures, The Natural almost manages to be a swell movie.

Issue date: May 21, 1984

 


 
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