Wednesday, September 9, 2009

It's a "Natural" as best sports movie ...

The seeds for “The Natural” were Bernard Malamud's, planted in his 1952 novel of the same name. The essence of Barry Levinson's film version is, however, pure Robert Redford.

Levinson's version of “The Natural” turns 25 this year, but it seems like, oh, maybe a decade ago when the movie made its premier at theaters everywhere. The film has been a timeless tale of baseball, the sort of warm, bucolic story that reminds us of how tied to our emotions the sport is.

But “The Natural” is more than a baseball tale, much in the way that “Field of Dreams,” a 1989 film littered with literary illusions to real characters, is more than a baseball tale. If any two movies can be said to define sports movies, these do.

Both have a mystical aura about them. Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Ray Kinsella, a down-on-his-luck farmer who chased and caught his dream, might have a richer, more textured storyline, but Kinsella never measures up to Redford’s Roy Hobbs as a story about the game itself.

For Hobbs, "the best there ever was," allows us to dream the possible, particularly those of us – I am an Indians fan; I know about dreams, if anybody cares -- who have followed teams that, when they win anything, it is an impossible dream.

Cut to its core, “The Natural” celebrates baseball; the film is a child-like sports fantasy in a different way than “Field of Dreams” is. For in the latter, there are no ballgames to win for Kinsella in his vast cornfields:

"Is this heaven?" Shoeless Joe Jackson asked.

"No," Kinsella told him, "it's Iowa."

Kinsella never concerns himself with winning; his concern is saving the past, ensuring that baseball and its greats lived on in people's minds, unfettered by the changing world he found around him.

The world Hobbs finds is less idealistic. He has no “Moonlight Graham” or “Terrance Mann” to surround him. Hobbs’ world is one of users: men and women who want more than he can give them.

His world is corrupt, which seems more real today than not. For isn’t the game of baseball corrupted now?

Corruption or not, Hobbs plays through it. Though temptation comes wrapped in a blonde, petite package, he never lets a dame’s allure compromise him. He will not throw a ballgame, not for her and not for all the bribe money “The Judge” and his mob of gangsters offer.

“The Natural” is a case study in moralality woven into a narrative about baseball. Unlike the dark ending Malamud crafted in his ’52 novel, the film ends as great fantasies tend to: on an upbeat chord.

Hurting, his magical bat “Wonder Boy” shattered like kindling and the son he had never met in the box seats cheering, Hobbs stands at home plate with a title for the Knights at stake. He swings the new bat a clubhouse boy has handed him and … well, it’s a fantasy like "The Wizard of Oz"; who can’t figure out how it ends?

Twenty-five years later, the ending to the greatest sports movie ever remains as majestical now as then. “The Natural” has aged well. As sports movies go, “Field of Dreams” is a no-hitter. So does that make “The Natural” a perfect game?



Douglas Clawson said...

That's a great write, Justice.
You're a natural.


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