“Let’s play ball.” says Roy Hobbs. Watching Robert Redford going around the bases after he’s smashed the stadium lights with a game-winning homerun gives me goosebumps every time. I have grown to love Barry Levinson’s “The Natural.” I was too young and jaded when it first came out in 1984 to fully appreciate its sincerity which I misinterpreted as mawkishness and too on the nose. I loved watching it last night all over again – it’s such a beautifully made movie. Its transposition of the King Arthur tale into an all-American fable – about the loss of innocence, redemption and baseball makes it a perfect film to watch on the 4th of July holiday.
Since he was a kid, Roy Hobbs wanted to be a baseball player. Lightning strikes on the tree outside his window, and he uses the wood from it to make a baseball bat which he will call “Wonderboy.” He gets a chance for a tryout with the Chicago Cubs and says farewell to his sweetheart – Iris. On his way, he’s tempted by an unhinged admirer, and he’s shot. Sixteen years go by, and he’s still determined to make it in baseball and becomes a rookie for the last-place New York Knights in 1939. They start winning with Roy – but this upsets the owner, The Judge, who has been betting against the team. So he tries to bribe him, and when that fails, he sends a temptress, Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), to distract him. In summarizing the plot, you get the classic quality to this story. Not only is the King Arthur legend being used – but also Homer and the Odyssey. You have this bigger than life character who goes through a journey of reaching for his dreams – losing his way – and regaining his footing by holding on steadfast to his integrity. Roy Hobbs believes in the goodness of baseball – no matter what struggles and hardships it may bring him – he adores the sport. He’s not interested in the financial rewards – or dishonesty and politics behind the game. He just want to keep playing it. “Gotta reach for the best that’s in me,” he says early in the film.
Barry Levinson has had quite a remarkable streak at writing and directing – a lot of them period pieces – starting with “Diner” (1982), “Tin Men” (1987), “Good Morning Vietnam” (1987), “Rain Man” (1988) and “Bugsy” (1991). He won the best director Oscar for “Rain Man.” There’s a bit of nostalgia that tugs at his work – and genuine warmth. What I particularly love about his direction of “The Natural” is how he takes his time to create an atmosphere and the timbre of the film. It is a movie full of melancholia – and the best baseball stadium scenes in any movie. The way Levinson captures on film a cross between a recreation of a time gone by and the way things we wish things could be is remarkable – a cross between myth and history. There are beautiful motifs and symbols throughout. Lightning appears – at important moments – as divine intervention. The bat itself with a bolt engraved in it becomes Roy Hobbs’ Excalibur.
Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is a thing of beauty. The way he lights Glenn Close as she stands on the bleachers is gorgeous. Speaking of Ms. Close, she was deservedly nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Iris. She brings so much depth and layers to Hobbs’ childhood sweetheart – The Lady in White. The score by Randy Newman – obviously influenced by Aaron Copland – is one of the most iconic scores in cinema. Who else could have played this American golden hero? Robert Redford is just perfect as Roy Hobbs. He makes it look easy.
Roy Hobbs: “I guess some mistakes you never stop paying for.”
Happy Fourth everyone!
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and to rent on YouTube, iTunes, DirectTV and Google Play.
Screenplay by Roger Towne, Phil Dusenberry
Based on the novel by Bernard Malamud
Directed by Barry Levinson
Starring: Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Barbara Hershey, Robert Prosky, Richard Farnsworth
Bringing “The Natural” to the Screen
“I loved Malamud’s book, I tried to get it made for 10 years. I was told that, from a studio point of view that baseball doesn’t fly commercially,” Redford explained to Yahoo Entertainment. So when he finally got the go-ahead, he knew they had to change the finale. “I thought, ‘…even though you’re probably going to disappoint a lot of Malamud fans because you can’t have the guy strike out at the end, you’ve got to go the other way completely.’ But I thought it would be a better film, it wouldn’t be a downer.” “We had a joke that when we showed the film to the studio that put a lot of money into this expecting big commercial thing, we going to have Roy strike out and just cut to black and say, ‘The End,’” said Producer Mark Johnson, with a laugh. “And then just watch a bunch of executives have coronaries.” Needless to say, that first studio screening proved mercifully heart attack free. But over the years, the filmmakers have been taken to task for radically changing Malamud’s novel, even if the author himself is said to have enjoyed the movie, happy ending included. “The movie is very different from the book,” Johnson stressed. “There are some narrative and thematic similarities, but it’s quite different.”(www.yahoo.com)
Casting Robert Redford
Before “The Natural,” he had directed one film, “Diner.” It had a small budget and a young, then-largely unknown cast. But as Levinson explained in a backstage interview…Redford was a fan of “Diner” and wanted to work with Levinson. One day in Los Angeles, the two met and Redford asked Levinson to read a script for “The Natural,” which is based on a novel by Bernard Malamud. Levinson liked it. “I called (Redford), obviously, right away,” he said. But Levinson wasn’t convinced Redford would do the movie with him as director. Redford, in his mid-40s, was already an Oscar winner. Would he be willing to work for a younger, less-celebrated director? He would. “Somehow, he committed,” said Levinson. So did stars Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Barbara Hershey, Wilford Brimley and Kim Basinger, among several others.For Buffalo, the presence of those stars provided a summer of excitement and a few decades of memories. For Levinson, it led to work with Robin Williams, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, among a long list of legends, as he directed films such as “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Bugsy” and “Rain Man,” for which he won an Oscar. “Now I can do something way bigger, with movie stars,” Levinson said, recalling his thinking at the time. “So suddenly you enter another place.”(buffalonews.com)
The Magic Behind the Home Run
“The home run was always in Roger Towne’s script, but not to the degree that Barry Levinson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel shot it, where it became this pyrotechnic celebration. We’d seen home runs in the movie, so it became, ‘How do you top that?’ So we’d say, ‘OK, it goes over the fence. No, it goes over the bleachers!’ ”
And then the crew visited the fictional New York Knights’ home stadium, which in real life was War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, which had a towering light stand behind the bleachers in right.
“It became clear that the ball should go into the lights,” Johnson said. “We used a cannon and aimed the ball at the lights. The special effects man had an electric board that connected a charge to different lights, so when the first one was hit, he set off a whole sequence of the others.”
It took two long nights to film the scene in near-freezing temperatures.
“The excitement wore off pretty quickly,” Johnson said. “Every hour, we would raffle something off to the extras in an effort to keep everybody in their seats as long as possible. At a certain point, people said, ‘Unless you’re raffling a small Italian sports car, I’m leaving.’” (www.yahoo.com)
About Director and Co-Writer Barry Levinson
“Barry Levinson was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Violet (Krichinsky) and Irvin Levinson, who worked in furniture and appliance. He is of Russian Jewish descent. Levinson graduated from high school in 1960, attended college at American University in Washington, DC. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he began acting as well as writing and performing comedy routines. Levinson’s first writing work was for variety shows such as “The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine,” “The Lohman and Barkley Show,” “The Tim Conway Show,” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” He found some success as a screenwriter – notably the Mel Brooks comedies “Silent Movie” (1976) and “High Anxiety” (1977) (in which he also played a bellboy), and the Oscar-nominated script for ”…And Justice for All” (1979).
He then began his career as a director with “Diner” (1982), for which he had also written the script and which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Levinson executive produced and directed the HBO Films “Paterno,” “The Wizard of Lies,” and “You Don’t Know Jack,” which received a combined 21 Emmy® nominations, including Outstanding Made for Television Movie and Best Director. Other iconic films include “The Natural,” “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Wag the Dog,” and “Sleepers.” In 1998 Levinson became one of Variety’s “Billion Dollar Directors,” as well as ShoWest’s “Director of the Year.” Levinson has used his hometown as the setting for four widely praised features: “Diner;” “Tin Men;” “Avalon;” and “Liberty Heights.” Levinson also returned to his home town to film the television series “Homicide: Life on the Street.” His work on this critically acclaimed drama earned him an Emmy® for Best Individual Director of a Drama Series, along with a Peabody Award. Levinson and frequent collaborator Tom Fontana, under the banner of The Levinson/Fontana Company, LLC, also executive produced the groundbreaking HBO television series, “Oz,” which aired for six seasons from 1998 through 2003. Levinson now directs and produces films through his production company Baltimore Pictures, including critically acclaimed releases such as “Quiz Show,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Bandits,” “What Just Happened,” “The Wizard of Lies,” and “Paterno.” In 1999, Levinson was honored with a Creative Achievement Award by the 13th Annual American Comedy Awards. Later that year, American University conferred upon Levinson the Doctor of Fine Arts, honoris causa, for his distinguished work in the field of Communications and his defining impact on the motion picture and television industry. In 2010, Levinson was the recipient of the WGA’s Laurel Award for Screen, honoring a lifetime achievement in outstanding writing for motion pictures.” (www.levinson.com)