Natural, The (1984): Barry Levinson’s Oscar Nominated Sports Drama, Starring Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, and Barbara Hershey

Barry Levinson proves to be the wrong director for turning Bernard Malamud’s first, wry, ironic novel, “The Natural,” into a faithful and satisfying big-screen entertainment.

Intentionally or nor, Levinson, working from a script by Robert Towne and Phil Dusenberry, transforms the tale into a soft fable-fantasy about dreams and disappointment of baseball.  If the film is mildly enjoyable, it’s due to the superlative cast and production values.

In Malamud’s novel, the vision of the national pastime as myth is mocked with astringent and tart humor, manifest in the mean taunts, punishing jokes, physical violence, and accidents.

Levinson claims to love this uniquely American game rooted in pastoral life, before it became professional and commercial by the mass media.

As written, “The Natural” follows the rise to fame and fortunes of Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford at his most handsome and iconic), from his late adolescence (around 19) to more sober maturity.

Glenn Close plays Iris, Roy’s former girlfriend, essentially an angel in white, who reappears in the midst of the tale and redeems him.

The other two women in his life are the alluring Memo Paris (played by Kim Basinger), who’s sent to seduce Roy so that he falls into slump, and Harriet Bird (played by Barbara Hershey).

As Roy’s manger, Pop Fisher, Wilford Brimley renders a standout performance, and Robert Duvall as Max Mercy is also good.

Levinson and the brilliant cinematographer Caleb Deschanel go for the picaresque qualities that make the elegiac tone all the more apparent.  The movie was shot in part in Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium, a minor league park built in the 1930s.

Also making an appearance is “Super” Joe Charboneau, who had a miracle season with the Cleveland Indians, before retiring from the big leagues.

Overall, “The Natural” is sentimental, lacking the novel’s complexity and subtlety in both plot and characterization.

Despite its many shortcoming, however, I have to admit that the film’s last image, of a boy playing catch with his father in golden wheat fields, is extremely touching, even if it violates the spirit of the novel.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Supporting Actress: Glenn Close

Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Angelo Graham, Mel Bourne, James J. Murakami, Speed Hopkins; Bruce Weintraub

Original Score: Randy Newman

Oscar Awards: None

 

Oscar Context:

Dame Peggy Ashcroft won the Supporting Actress Oscar for David Lean’s “A Passage to India,” which also won the Best Score for Maurice Jarre.  Chris Menges won the Cinematography award for “The Killing Fields.”  Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” won the Art Direction Oscar.

Cast

Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford)

Max Mercy (Robert Duvall)

Iris (Glenn Close)

Memo Paris (Kim Basinger)

Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley)

Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey)

The Judge (Robert Prosky)

Red Blow (Richard Farnsworth)

The Whammer (Joe Don Baker)

Sam Simpson (John Finnegan)

Credits

 

Produced by Mark Johnson

Directed by Barry Levinson

Screenplay: Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, based on the novel by Bernard Malamud

Camera: Caleb Deschanel

Editor: Stu Linder

Music: Randy Newman

Production design: Angelo Graham, Mel Bourne

Art design: James J. Murakami, Speed Hopkins

F/X: Roger Hensen

Costumes: Bernie Pollack, Bruce Weintraub

Running time: 134 Minutes

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