DVD Reviews

DVD Review: The Natural (Director’s Cut)

By Adnan Tezer Apr 1, 2007, 17:32 GMT

DVD Review: The Natural (Director’s Cut)

An unknown middle-aged batter named Roy Hobbs with a mysterious past appears out of nowhere to take a losing 1930s baseball team to the top of the league in this magical sports fantasy. With the aid of a bat cut from a lightning struck tree, Hobbs lives the fame he should have had earlier when, as a rising pitcher, he is inexplicably shot by a young woman. ...more

CATEGORY : Movies, DVD

SECTION: Reviews

LOCATION: Dallas, Texas

 

spent the last 5 years in Los Angeles as an
> actor/screenwriter. I gradauted with a Bachelor's in journalism from The
> University of Texas at Austin in 1999

Many will debate that baseball is still the national pastime; others will say football. Regardless of what side you fall on, there is no doubt that baseball has always been Hollywood’s favorite sport as there have been countless classics portraying the game. Amongst those considered the best baseball films would be Bull Durham, The Bad News Bears (the 1976 original), Bang the Drum Slowly, Eight Men Out, Field of Dreams, Major League, Pride of the Yankees and The Natural. 

These films portray the mythology and grandness of the game complete with lasting characters and their passion for the game which speaks to the child in all of us that at one time or another have looked up to athletes as heroes and role models. 


 
Some do it comically (Bull Durham, Major League, Bad News Bears); some do it cynically and darkly (Eight Men Out, Cobb) while others do it downright sentimentally and nostalgically (Bang the Drum Slowly, Field of Dreams, Pride of the Yankees, 61*). The Natural, originally released in 1984, most definitely fits in the latter category, almost to a fault, but with a standout cast and inspirational score, the film has endured as not just one of the most popular baseball films of all time but one of the greatest sports films period. It’s not flawless but it works on a purely emotional and inspirational level. Sony has released a 2 Disc Director’s Cut Special Edition that any fan of the film must have.
 
Robert Redford stars as Roy Hobbs who quite simply wants to be the greatest baseball player that ever lived.  You see him as a child learning discipline and concentration from his father. One night a bolt of lightning strikes the tree outside his home. Roy takes a piece of wood from the tree and molds it into a bat. Years later in the early 20s, Roy is on a train and on his way for his first break in the major leagues as a pitcher.

Indeed, he is the best, evidenced by him striking out the Babe Ruthian-type character “Whammer” (Joe Don Baker a.k.a Buford Pusser) in three strikes at a layover at a carnival. Unfortunately, in addition to catching the eye of the cruel, opportunistic sportswriter Max Mercy (Robert Duvall) he also catches the eye of the black clad Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who is what you might call somewhat unstable. Roy, who is unwise to the ways of the world, is lured into a situation by Harriet, which ends tragically.
 
Sixteen years later, Roy is approaching middle age and making one last attempt at a baseball career after a mysterious absence. A scout for the worst team in baseball, the New York Knights, signs him. This does not sit will with the crusty manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley).

At first, he flat out refuses to play Roy and leaves him in the dugout.  But thanks to the kindly assistant manager Red (Richard Farnsworth) and the bizarre death of Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen in an brief early role), Roy gets his shot. Because of his tragic past, he can’t pitch anymore but he can literally knock the cover off the ball.  Roy becomes a hero to boys everywhere while frustrating sports writers like Max Mercy who does not remember seeing him years earlier and can’t find out anything about Hobbs’s past.

As Hobbs’s celebrity grows, so do the peripheral problems in his life.  They include another black clad beauty Memo Paris (a young and just ridiculously perfect looking Kim Basinger), the evil Judge (Robert Prosky) who owns a majority share of the Knights and wants them to lose so he can fire Pop, Gus Sands (an uncredited Darren McGavin) Memo’s “provider” and arrogant gambler meant to represent the infamous real-life bookie Arnold Rothstein who fixed the 1919 World Series and Duvall’s sportswriter Max Mercy who for some reason takes sadistic joy in trying to bring Hobbs down. 

As a result of all the aforementioned, Roy goes into a hitting slump only to be revived by the sight of the angelic Iris (Glenn Close), his childhood love, at a game in Chicago.  All of this, along with a life-threatening ailment that Hobbs discovers, culminates in an overly sentimental “Hollywood” climactic game as the Knights play for the pennant. 
 
If there were one lesson I learned from this movie as a boy that still rings true as a man it would be to STAY AWAY FROM HOT WOMEN WHO DRESS IN BLACK. Both Hershey and Basinger are constantly photographed in black dresses and veils and dimly lit which is obviously meant to metaphorically imply that they are evil and bad luck to Roy, which, of course, they both are.

Meanwhile Glenn Close is constantly backlit in angelic tones and white dresses implying of course that she is the angel in Roy’s life. The points about these women are so beaten into the ground that you already are tired of the symbolism way before the grand finale. Hershey nearly ends Hobbs’s life; Basinger causes him to fall into a slump while just the sight of Close gives him the inspiration to hit a home run.
 
The only character given any kind of real multi-dimensionality is of course Roy Hobbs. With the star wattage of Redford in the title role, that is to be expected. The other characters in the film exist to further his character. To his credit, he gives one of his more understated performances of his career with enough confidence to suggest someone who knows he was born with a gift while also registering a remarkably quiet pain and regret that comes from not having your life turn out the way you thought it would. I have always considered Redford, much like Warren Beatty, to be severely underrated as an actor.

He has always made his work onscreen seem effortless but appealing, always important star traits. He does appear to be way too old for the part though particularly in the early scenes where he’s supposed to be in his 20s, but like many other aspects of the film, you go with it.  However, and this is not a knock on Redford, but much like the lighting with the women, one grows very tired of Hobbs constantly being shot with golden tones that scream out “He’s a God.” Okay, we get it. 

Obviously, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel had a good time filming this but the overly poetic lightning of the film and characters can be redundant at times and with a 144 minute running time, some viewers’ patience might be tested. Make no mistake though, the movie, which is essentially an American fairy tail, is glorious to look at.  Deschanel knows a thing or two about how to lens a beautiful film.

His real triumph behind the lens, however, had already come a year earlier with the sweeping space epic The Right Stuff. The other top-notch actors all add what they can to their limited parts but you really don’t get to know much about them. Duvall’s Max Mercy is a cruel sportswriter but you never know why, Hershey and Basinger are temptresses to be feared, Close (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work here) is luminous but you want to know more about her as well besides the obvious fact that she bore Hobbs’s child years ago, which is made plainly obvious the moment the son is mentioned yet it takes a note sent from Iris to Hobbs during the climactic game before Hobbs figures it out. 

The only characters that even come close to fleshing out their parts are Brimley’s Pop and Farnsworth’s Red. Both men bring a remarkable grace and wisdom to their roles of baseball lifers looking for one last shot at a pennant.  Their scenes and banter together are priceless. There were times where I cared more about those two then Hobbs.
 
Those familiar with Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel of the same name will not be particularly pleased with the film as it takes several liberties with the original story including changing the original downbeat ending into an overblown Hollywood happy ending complete with fireworks.

The book was the first narrative novel about baseball and includes numerous parallels to Arthurian legend, while the plot structure involving Roy’s journey loosely follows The Odyssey in the form of a long, sidetracked journey involving sexual encounters and finally the arrival home to his family. If one watches the film purely on that level, and is familiar with both stories, it can be quite fascinating to recognize all the allusions even if the movie is too sappy for you.

Director Barry Levinson takes most of the dark complexities of the novel out and opts for a more conventional audience-friendly theme of redemption by way of a reenergized spirit. That’s not a bad thing, mind you; most sports films are blatantly sentimental and aim straight for the heart.  Maybe if the film were 20 minutes shorter, it wouldn’t test one’s patience so much.

Levinson has always been fond of nostalgic moments from the past that can change a person’s life forever. In his best work, Diner, Tin Men, Rain Man, Bugsy and Sleepers, Levinson has shown to have a good knack of balancing out the nostalgic and painful moments of an era long gone while still presenting mostly decent but flawed characters that are anything but heroic.

Technically, Rain Man is set in the current time but the road trip between Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman can be seen metaphorically as going back in time and rediscovering and confronting Cruise’s character and painful childhood. With The Natural, however, Levinson seemed to have let his sentimental side have the edge.

 

Roy Hobbs is presented as a larger than life god who’s one weakness is women. That’s the weakness of EVERY MAN. If women are his only vice but he can magically knock the cover off a baseball and shatter lights with dramatic home runs while bleeding from the chest, how else are you supposed to look at him?<!--page-->

Quite possibly, the real star here is score composer Randy Newman. His classic, inspirational, majestic score will give you chills in certain moments and is THE defining factor of the film. Without his score, the film would not work. It is still to this day one of the most popular film scores ever and is continually played for film/T.V. previews and in baseball stadiums when introducing home teams and players. Unquestionably, it is the best aspect of the film and allows one to go with the sentimentality and emotion of the film by bringing out the curiosity and wonderment of one’s inner child. 

Sony, as is becoming their custom, has provided a treasure chest worth of wonderful extras on the second disk that die-hard fans of the film will covet.  The only holdover from the previous DVD is “The Heart of the Natural,” a 44 minute documentary that features comments made by Cal Ripken Jr. and Levinson about the film.

There is a brief intro to the film where Levinson discusses the footage that has been added back and, to his credit, much of the new footage comes in the first half hour of the film and fleshes out the sadness of Redford’s Hobbs as the film intercuts between him visiting his abandoned childhood home as an adult and memories of when he was a child. 

The main featurette here is “When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural” and is a three-part 50 minute documentary that details the origins of the original novel and the production of the film through the eyes of many of the cast and crew members including Redford, Levinson and Glenn Close.

The other featurettes include “Extra Innings,” which is essentially four brief segments all lasting about a minute or two that should have been added to the “When Lightning Strikes” featurette that feature interesting connections between the film and baseball player Ryne Sandberg and former President Ronald Reagan; the 15 minute “Clubhouse Conversations” which features several current and former baseball players as well as baseball historians like Bob Costas and George Will commenting on the game,  the 17 minute “A Natural Gunned Down” which tells the story of Eddie Waitkus, a former baseball player who was shot by a female stalker and how it parallels the Roy Hobbs character; and the 9 minute “Knights in Shining Armor” which goes into some depth regarding the mythological parallels mentioned earlier between The Natural, King Arthur and The Odyssey.  The only thing missing that would have really knocked this set out of the park, no pun intended, would have been a commentary with Redford and Levinson.

If you think I’ve been tough on the film, just check out how brutal the critics were back in 1984. Despite the critical beating it took, it was a huge financial success. This is one of those Hollywood crowd pleasers where you check your reality off and check your heart on. On that basis, The Natural is an emotional, highly enjoyable film that anyone who’s had a dream of greatness can relate to. There is a magical appeal that the film has and it still endures to this day.

The Natural (Director’s Cut) is now available at Amazon. As of yet, this version of the DVD is not available in the UK. Visit the DVD database for more information.



FROM THE WEB

Further Reading on M&C

Barbara Hershey Biography - - Barbara Hershey Movies -
Kim Basinger Biography - - Kim Basinger Movies -
Michael Madsen Biography - - Michael Madsen Movies -
Robert Redford Biography - - Robert Redford Movies -

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The Natural (Director's Cut)

An unknown middle-aged batter named Roy Hobbs with a mysterious past appears out of nowhere to take a losing 1930s baseball team to the top of the league in this ...more

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