The table is so full of starpower it fairly trembles. There sits America’s star, Robert Redford, looking superb in a film that shrouds his character within the cloak of the Great American Myth; a cloak that inevitably surrounds the actor himself. Across from Redford is Robert Duvall, the actor’s actor who is riding a crest of respect (including the Oscar, of course) and a surge of activity. It is well within Duvall’s powers to command any scene in which he appears, especially with a juicy role like sportswriter Max Mercy, but his performance in The Natural is typically considerate of his fellow actors. Between the two heavyweights sits Kim Basinger, a hot starlet who shot from being a James Bond girl (Never Say Never Again) to being the funniest thing in a Blake Edwards movie (The Man Who Loved Women) to this key role in the company of legends and near-legends.
They’re sitting at this table in a posh nightclub, where Duvall has brought Redford to meet the local gambling kingpin. This is the fourth person at the table. It’s Darren McGavin.
Now, here’s a guy, a journeyman actor, been in movies off and on for years—actually, done mostly TV for the last decade or more. And it’s an interesting thing, because he’s got to sit amidst the cream of the Hollywood crop, and he’s got to run the scene. Actually, the Redford character controls the scene, in a subtle way, but McGavin’s character has to orchestrate it. Not only that, but McGavin is playing a bigshot, an important man surrounded by underlings—in the exact opposite of his real-life position vis-à-vis the other actors at the table.
I’m thinking about this scene, and about McGavin’s good performance in general, because it’s one of the few things in The Natural that strikes me as being truly intriguing, or weird, or out-of-place. The film is a series of perfect dream images, the effect of which becomes sort of numbing after a while. At first, the interlocking elements of the plot promise something majestic: a boy’s father succumbs under a tree in the backyard; lighting hits the tree; the boy carves a baseball bat out of the cleaved wood, a bat with a lightning bolt carved on it.
The stuff of myths and legends (as Barbara Hershey points out to us, in case we hadn’t noticed); and the sunset scene in which the boy, now grown and on his way to a big-league tryout, whiffs a baseball legend named the Whammer (played with Ruthian magnitude by Joe Don Baker), is a wonderful slice of history-in-the-making. (Is there any doubt the little boy to whom Redford’s Roy Hobbs gives the strikeout ball is the same Nebraska farmboy who steps up to face Hobbs for the last out of the last game of the pennant race sixteen years later?) And I, for one, will always cherish Hobbs’ first at-bat, when he takes his manager’s idle bit of baseball chatter—”Awright Hobbs, tear the cover off the ball”—quite literally.
But the movie starts to have a clockwork feel to it. And there’s very little genuine baseball funkiness here; the closest it gets to that kind of thing is the scene in which the manager (Wilford Brimley) and the coach (Richard Farnsworth) play a laid-back game of “Name That Tune” in the dugout. You would guess that Barry (Diner) Levinson would be a perfect choice to make a baseball movie, but The Natural exists in a carefully-composed ozone layer where the sweat and dirt and grease of Diner are not allowed. Clearly, this is what the filmmakers wanted, and there are many beautifully-realized bits of action (like the business with Brimley and the dugout water fountain). But you wonder if the film might have been more satisfying if it wasn’t trying so hard to be a Great Film.
It’s tempting to envision Levinson as a slave to the awesome talents of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, whose film this seems to be as much of Levinson’s. But remember that the movie was initiated by the producers, who also wrote the screenplay and cooked up the alterations of Bernard Malamud’s novel. And there is the possible influence of Redford, whose Ordinary People featured similarly fastidious production design. The submersion of directorial personality in The Natural, due (perhaps) to the collaboration of many very talented people, is reminiscent of a couple of other big films this year that hark back to the “Tradition of Quality” school of filmmaking. I like Greystoke and The Bounty as well as The Natural, and was variously enchanted and riveted by all of them, but had a similar feeling as the lights came up after each: Is that all? Somehow the emphasis on story and production value seemed to eclipse the men who made the movies. Official classics have a tendency to become—well, official, and the lifeblood can drain out of them quickly. A number of people who have seen The Natural have pointed out the irony of its title. For all of its loveliness, grace, and good intentions, it’s just not natural.
First published in The Informer, May/June 1984
As the late great “Voice of the Mariners” Dave Niehaus used to say, it’s corn-growin’ weather, so the warmth of early September seemed like a good time to print a baseball review. I watched this movie two nights in a row, for a variety of quirky reasons that we need not go into now (but one of them involved the opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival that year). As a person who loves baseball and the Malamud novel, I want it to be a great movie, but I can’t get past the over-dressed myth-making or the serious selling-out of Malamud’s final act. There’s still quite a bit to love, don’t get me wrong, including the locked, ominous close-up of Barbara Hershey as she shifts her gaze from west to east, her focus changing from established star to newcomer as Hobbs strikes out the Whammer by the railroad tracks on a late afternoon. The thing that amazes me is that I didn’t mention Randy Newman’s score in this review, a modern classic later re-purposed to exultant end in Chuck Workman’s montage Precious Images.