Saturday, March 26, 2016

Favorite Films: "The Natural"

Halfway through The Natural, baseball player Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) sits down with his childhood sweetheart, Iris Gaines (Glenn Close).  They have not seen each other in 16 years, since the day Roy left their hometown, bound for Chicago, then disappeared.

What viewers know but Iris doesn't is that way back then, when Roy should have been focused only on two things -- his game and Iris -- he strayed.  He was seduced by Hannah Bird (Barbara Hershey), a black-clad, intensely sexual woman who shot him in the stomach, then killed herself.  The mental injury to Roy harmed him as much as the physical one.  He retreated from life, but never could get his mind off the game.

He has caught up with baseball again, after stints in minor-league teams that might have been humiliating if Roy hadn't been clear about what he wanted to achieve.  He wants only the glory, doesn't care at all about the fortune; he wants to have people look at him when they walk down the street and say, "There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was."

But Roy never achieved that, and if you (like me) were a little too young the last time you watched the movie to really make it all out, seeing The Natural in adulthood is a sort of existential revelation, because it's a complex and regret-tinged story about, as Roy puts it later, the "mistakes I guess we never stop paying for."

His near-fatal one-night dalliance not only nearly ruined his career, but kept him away from Iris.  Now, she lives in Chicago and goes to see him when Roy's New York Knights play the Cubs.  After the game, they meet up in an empty little Chicago diner to try to explain themselves, which of course can never be done.  Iris is everything Hannah was not -- bathed in a warm light, she has never fallen out of love with Roy, never stopped believing in him.

The Natural liberally and unabashedly mixes fantasy into its story, combining baseball with Homeric and Arthurian legend to create something rare: A sports-based allegory that works well as a baseball film but even better as a reverie on the harsh realities of aging, of regret, of lost opportunity.

If one of the other great fantasy-baseball movies of the 1980s, Field of Dreams, is about the importance of faith in a higher power, The Natural is about the importance of self-confidence, self-esteem, of faith in oneself.

That may make it sound maudlin and overly sentimental, but it never is, not with the assured direction of Barry Levinson and a screenplay by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry that wonderfully captures the thematic spirit of scenes and situations but refrains from punctuating them with more obvious emotion, which would have overpowered the fable-like qualities of the story.

Just consider that scene in the malt shop.  Iris imagines that in the 16 years since he left their home, he has never thought of her.  She gives the sensation that she has never stopped thinking of him every day -- but it's not a sloppy, romantic kind of sadness, rather a resignation she has come to wear with a certain pride, because she knew him when and believed in him then.  His success is something she shares in, not resents.

"I thought I saw you once in the train station," he tells her.

"Really?"  She smiles back, happy to hear of the effort.  "I used to look for you in crowds, thinking someday, maybe you'd be there.  Somewhere I stopped."

Roy tells her that his life didn't turn out the way he expected -- revealing the depth and roiling intensity that the characters Redford plays frequently hide so well.  Redford is a golden-haired hero, it is impossible to imagine anything wrong in his life, but as an actor, he finds some astonishing ways to play the hurt and sadness.

It may be true, as contemporary critics pointed out, that The Natural took a dark, cynical novel by Bernard Malamud and turned it into a sleek, happy-ended big-studio film.  But, you know, it's not entirely happy.  Roy's faced with despicable betrayals of those who want to see him fail, the same people in whom he put trust.  And he continues to be dogged by a years-ago mistake that he thought he had put behind him, and which, after all this time, might still kill him.

Roy plays his final game knowing it is his final game, unwilling to sell himself out, grimacing as the reopened wound seeps through his jersey.  He is playing this last game to the chagrin of the villainous ball club owners, not necessarily to prove them wrong but because he has dared to tell Iris everything that happened -- he has owned up to his life, and the truth is a powerful tonic.

And right there comes the beauty of The Natural. It's a film about baseball, sure, but it's a story that is decidedly adult: Its emotional power comes from its wisdom in knowing the power of regret, the way it can take down entire lives but -- carefully tended -- can feed and nurture them.  "The truth will set you free," the saying goes, and although The Natural doesn't see it quite as simply as that, it does get the audience to rally round a hero whose success is staked not on financial fortune, but on personal achievement, on trying to be "the best there ever was" (a line Roy repeats twice in a wonderful "mirroring" moment in the movie).

He is seeking a sense of hope he thought he lost, a life he let go of.  To get those things back, he will need to confront and accept his past.  Like all great heroes faced with the sudden awareness of the one thing they must do, Roy realizes that the truth, no matter how painful, is not a weakness, it is the very source of his power.  The past is not shameful.

Before watching The Natural for the first time in a couple of decades, I had remembered it as predominantly a movie about baseball.  Of course it is.  But like Field of Dreams, it's also not.  It goes so far beyond a simple sports story and presents a conflicted hero, one who is both far beyond mere mortals in appearance and ability, yet is as flawed, scared and pliable as anyone.

The Natural is a moving, patient, thoughtful movie, one that ends in a spectacular raining down of fireworks that can't fail to get the heart stirring -- the same heart that's already been affected, in far different ways, throughout this fine movie, which seems even better now, somehow more relevant, than it did when it was released 32 years ago.  Or maybe I'm just 32 years older.

No comments:

Post a Comment