Friday, April 6, 2012

Baseball Week Countdown: #1 - The Natural

Continuing on the track of baseball as a magical history of America, within the game there are players bigger than the game.  Think of DiMaggio on the arm of Marilyn Monroe when you think about the heights of baseball celebrity, especially in the mid-centuries and before.  Think of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and you have not only baseball superstars, but cultural icons and important figures in our history.  This final film borrows from these ideas yet creates something fictional, something mystical, and something unforgettable.

#1 - The Natural

Roy Hobbs is certain he will be the best baseball player to ever set foot on the diamond.  He knew it from an early age, playing catch in the yard with his father.  And after his father's sudden death, a lightning bolt splits a tree in his yard in half.  From this oak tree, a young Roy Hobbs fashions a baseball bat.  It is "Wonderboy," one of the most iconic film props of all time.  Roy takes the bat with him wherever he goes.  And he knows his talent is something which transcends the sport itself.  He will be "the best there ever was."  That's what he tells his girlfriend (Glenn Close) the night before he takes off on a cross country train ride with a scout and a sports writer, Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), to try out for the majors.  Along the way, he strikes out The Whammer, a fictional version of Babe Ruth, at a carnival.  This unthinkable feat draws the attention of a mysterious woman in black who will seduce him, draw him to her room on the train, and change the trajectory of his life forever.  The woman (Barbara Hershey) shoots Roy in the stomach, and he never makes it to the tryouts.

Fast forward some twenty years, and a middle-aged Roy Hobbs walks up the tunnel to meet the New York Knights, a floundering major league team.  Despite the objections of the red-assed manager, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), Roy takes a seat on the bench and watches the Knights lose game after game.  Only a simple twist of fate gives Roy the opportunity to play, and he never looks back.  Roy's natural talent shines through, as if touched by the gods of baseball.  Roy smashes the cover off the ball, busts clocks in centerfield, and single-handedly lifts the spirits and the record of the Knights, who all follow his lead and begin playing better.

The Natural is a film loaded with archetypal characters and situations, some of which stand in the way of Roy's stardom. Of course the woman in black curtailed his career early on, and once he becomes a celebrated member of the organization he butts heads with the team owner and is seduced, yet again, by the wrong woman, this time played by Kim Basinger.  It takes the reappearance of the woman he left behind, Iris (Close), to straighten his game out and help him realize his full potential as the savior of the Knights.  This is a beautiful, inspiring film, anchored by a calm and measured performance by Robert Redford as Hobbs.  If The Natural doesn't inspire you, I am not sure you are capable fo finding inspiration.