Revisiting ‘The Natural’ 30 years after its release

Thirty years and some months ago, the cinematic version of Bernard Malamud’s novel "The Natural" was released by TriStar Pictures. Earlier this week, I tracked down Ben Mankiewicz for a discussion of this classic baseball movie . . .

Rob: First, I apologize to everyone for being a little late with this. I have to admit that I was blissfully unaware last May when the 30th anniversary in the release of "The Natural" passed. But a couple of months ago, Owen King suggested that we write something about the movie. I was too busy then; now I’m not, but Owen is. Fortunately, I’m blessed to know Ben Mankiewicz, whose baseball/cinema ratio is probably among the highest in the land.

To prepare for this discussion, I watched "The Natural" one more time. I’ve probably seen it a dozen times, start to finish. And bits and pieces many more times. This time, though, it was the director’s cut! Which really didn’t add much at all to the story (although it was fun watching Robert Duvall taking a whack at a baseball locked in a vise). For that reason, and also because the great majority of people reading this haven’t seen the director’s cut, I’ll largely ignore those extra bits.

I’m not exactly sure where to start, so I’ll begin with a couple of broad strokes . . . The first time I saw "The Natural", I absolutely loved it. Here were allusions to all these things I’d been reading about — Ted Williams, the Black Sox scandal, Eddie Waitkus, old ballparks — writ large on the big screen. Since then, through repeated viewings and maybe a slightly more sophisticated (or, if you prefer, jaded) perspective on the cinematic arts, I’ve certainly come to see any number of flaws in the movie, to the point where I can’t honestly say that I love it. But I do still admire many things about "The Natural", and it’s still one of my favorite baseball movies. I just dug up a list of my favorites from a few years ago, and was surprised to find "The Natural" all the way up in the No. 2 spot, behind only "Bull Durham". If making the list today, I believe I would drop "The Natural" a few slots, behind "Moneyball" and "The Bad News Bears" and maybe even "42". Without even getting into documentaries.

Overall, though? Thumbs-up from me, for sure. Ben, I’d love to know what you’ve thought about "The Natural" these last few decades, and then we can really dig into specifics.

Ben: Funny, Rob, I’m precisely at the opposite end of "The Natural" spectrum. Yes, we both hold it in high regard, but I was less impressed when I first saw it — in the late ’80s or early ’90s, not when it hit theaters — and now find myself quite moved by it.

I was much more of a unevolved realist when I was younger. The mythological components of the movie — which are really what make it memorable — exhausted me. "The Natural" felt supernatural and that just did not work in my world. I specifically remember rolling my eyes at the end — at the lights blowing out when Roy shatters a few bulbs with his pennant-winning home run. It was raining little, electric droplets of melodrama. To more cynical me, it felt like a typical sports movie — too much schmaltz and too little credibility.

I was also felt obligated to be in the “I can’t believe those crass Hollywood faux artists changed Malamud’s ending” camp, even though I’d never, you know, technically read the book (man, I spent a lot of time pretending I was smarter than I was). Now, I get changing the ending. It was an artistic choice in step with the time, with Ronald Reagan’s America. And even now, 30 years later, it still feels like the right decision. I did not want to see some kid look at Redford and ask, “Say it ain’t so, Roy.” Not a chance.

And by the way, Malamud didn’t care about any Hollywood changes to his book, telling Phil Dusenberry, who wrote the first draft, “I’m not going to this movie and I’m never going to read your screenplay.” He would, however, take the money. Good for him.

Rob: Well, yes . . . But according to Malamud’s daughter he did see the movie. Even better, upon exiting the theater he said, “Now I’m really an American.”

Because of course you’re right: It’s very much an American movie. I like the exploding lights at the end, and I love all the period details (especially the uniforms and the ballparks), and a European version of "The Natural" — that is, a version true to the darker aspects of the novel — just doesn’t get made in America with a big budget and big stars. I’m not saying a dark version with a bunch of no-name actors wouldn’t be good; it would just be a different movie. Granted, one I might well enjoy.

I’ll get back to some other things about "The Natural" that I appreciate, but there’s something that comes near to spoiling the whole affair for me, and that’s Redford’s age. If they’re making the movie today, they either hire a younger actor — as they did in "Sneakers", just a few years later — or they digitally alter Redford’s appearance. But for whatever reasons, early in The Natural you’ve got Redford sitting in the parlor car talking to Barbara Hershey, and he’s supposed to be maybe 18 or 19 years old and all I can see are the crow’s feet around his eyes.

Actually, today they might not have to do anything. I don’t know if it’s plastic surgery or Botox or whatever, but today’s actors just look a hell of a lot younger. Matt Damon’s 44, and could probably pass for 30. Brad Pitt just turned 51, and looked like he was 28 in "Burn After Reading". But dammit, Redford was 47 when they were making "The Natural" and he looked 47. Which works well enough when he’s coming back with the Knights, but not so well when he and Glenn Close are supposed to first be discovering many-splendored Sappho.

And yes, I suppose an apologist might explain this away by suggesting all the early scenes — which are actually flashbacks in the director’s cut — are seen through the haze of Roy Hobbs’ memory, so it’s appropriate that he looks so worn in those scenes. I can almost buy that . . . except very few people have actually seen the director’s cut, and it’s certainly not the one we grew up with.

Ben: Yes, count me among the many who haven’t seen the director’s cut. And of course, you’re right about his age. It lingers in your mind throughout the movie. But I’m relatively unfazed by it. And barring a scene or two — including the exchange you reference with Hershey in the parlor car — I think Caleb Deschanel does some serious work here (he’s a PRO-FESSIONAL — you can look it up in the book). He lights Redford in such a way that I ‘m impressed I didn’t see more of those crow’s feat. However, what I took to be clever cinematography, Roger Ebert saw as hokum. In a review that reads more like a zero-star dismissal rather than the passing two-star grade he gave itEbert writes that “Redford is consistently backlit to turn his golden hair into a saintly halo.” The great thing is I looked up the Ebert review because I thought it might support me on Redford’s lighting. Oops. Ebert . . . whatever.

I didn’t know Malamud saw the movie — or delivered the great line about really being an American. Because you’re only truly an American when a major Hollywood star turns your novel into a movie. If Malamud was nauseated by the ending — and I’m going to presume he was — he must have admired the detail that went into everything else — the uniforms, the Ruth, Williams and Waitkus hat tips, the play-by-play guy (he was really more of an announcer/narrator for the baseball stuff, but it was clearly written by someone who knows the game) and of course, the stadium. War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo is exactly how I imagine mid-century ballparks looked.

Much of the movie was shot in Buffalo, too. Production executive Bernard Markey said “Buffalo was a city of great wealth in the ’20s and early ’30s, and much of the city’s architecture is beautiful. We kept finding places that were perfect for our script.” I include this only because I really like Buffalo. Or at least the idea of Buffalo. I’ve always thought of it as our most American city, making it a perfect backdrop for this particularly American movie. When I was a kid, my second favorite basketball team — after my hometown Bullets — was the Buffalo Braves. Randy Smith, Bob McAdoo, Jim McMillan. Those were easy guys to root for. Jack Ramsey was the coach. Then they moved to San Diego in 1978 and a few years later were purchased by a man named Donald Sterling. They were never heard from again.

Being from D.C., Dan Snyder has made it impossible for me to remain a fan of the football team. With Sterling gone, Snyder has become the undisputed worst owner in sports. And that’s a richly competitive club. With no NFL team to love since my break-up with the Skins, only one city has piqued my interest — Buffalo. I’m not saying the Bills have my heart, yet. But we’re dating.

Back to "The Natural". I caught one small, missed opportunity — probably a symptom of an era when movies weren’t made with the idea of a customer pausing a Blu-ray and nitpicking. At one point we see a Chicago newspaper with the headline, “Knights at Wrigley Today.” But the actual story below it is about polo. Not water polo. Actual polo.

I want to talk about Redford, who I believe is the finest actor of his generation, and I know that’s a tough sell to some . . . but I have the Eddie Waitkus story on my mind. Unbelievable. The Barbara Hershey character — a 19-year-old typist named Ruth Ann Steinhagen — shot Waitkus in the chest at the team hotel, nearly killed him, then was committed to a psychiatric hospital. The judge simply declared her insane three weeks after the shooting. No trial. Now that’s insane.

Waitkus was in the middle of his best season in 1949. His OPS was .829, 65 points higher than it ever had been or would be again.

Rob: Right, and Steinhagen spent less than three years in a mental hospital before her release, two days into the 1952 baseball season. She did have to face the charge of intent to kill, but the state declined to prosecute. Steinhagen lived a quiet, withdrawn life afterward. She died, reportedly alone, in 2012 after suffering a fall. One does wonder if she ever saw "The Natural".

Speaking of which, I think I’ve always responded to the movie on a gut level because . . . well, yes: Because of all the blatant, filmmaking tricks. The halos over Roy Hobbs and Iris Gaines. The goosepimples-raising, tingle-down-your spine music. All those melodramatic droplets. But just as much, there is Roy’s love for the game. Now, I’ll grant you, this is told more than shown. But oh, how it’s told! When Roy’s in the hospital and says, almost as a non sequitur, “God, I love baseball” . . . Well hell, I love baseball too. And it’s good to hear somebody just say that aloud, so simply.

Watching the movie again last week, I was surprised by how much I still connect with "The Natural". Even though I still knew exactly what Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth were going to say to each other in the dugout, I was still tickled. Even though I knew exactly what would happen every time Roy Hobbs batted, I still had to watch every at-bat. And the ending . . . I don’t think of the climactic home run as the ending. For me, it’s Hobbs playing catch in the field with his son. It’s the Magic Hour in the Midwest, probably late summer or early fall, and in all my years and my travels I’ve never found a place more magical.

So there you have it. I’ve never responded for more than a few seconds to the sentimental claptrap in "Field of Dreams". But the sentimental claptrap in "The Natural"? Still gets me every time. I just wish teams like the Rangers wouldn’t cheapen the affair every time some no-name hits a solo homer in an 8-3 game.

Ben: Man, am I glad you brought up the “God, I love baseball” line. Two nights ago as I was watching in preparation for writing about "The Natural" with you, I heard that line, paused the Blu-ray and pumped my fist. Swear to God. I was alone, by the way. I mean, I love football and basketball but I’d never say, “God, I love basketball.” I mean, come on — no one would.

Now here’s where you’re dead wrong. In four years, you and I will have to discuss the 30th anniversary of "Field of Dreams"because that is “sentimental claptrap” at its finest. That is the Ken Griffey, Jr. of sentimental claptrap. When I saw "Field of Dreams" in ‘89, I was 22 and cried the way college kids at SEC schools weep like helpless children when Auburn loses. Or Tennessee. Or whatever dumb team they paint their faces to “honor.” Anyway, I saw it in San Francisco and immediately called my dad back in DC, with whom I shared an extremely close relationship, a bond largely forged by our shared love of baseball.

I remember the conversation word for word.

“Pop,” I say, “I just saw "Field of Dreams" and I just want to say . . .”

“Jesus,” he cuts me off. “What a load of crap, right? ‘If you build it, he will come.’ Who will come? And who cared if he came?”

“Uh, I . . .”

“I wanted to walk out, but unfortunately, I didn’t.”

“Right,” I said, obviously stunned. “Totally.”

Years later, my dad would claim he loved the movie and that conversation never happened. My dad, God bless him, was full of s–t on that point.

Speaking of my dad and of home runs, one of the myriad stops he made in his career was to anchor the news for WTOP-TV in Washington in like 1969 or 1970. He occasionally did sports and he always thought sportscasters missed the game when they showed almost nothing but home runs in highlight packages. He was right. ESPN has fallen into this trap now, too. They should tell the story of the game, which might well have been defined — not on a home run — but when the no-name Ranger second baseman failed to turn a double play in the fifth. Though we all have to admit, no one will ever call Ranger second baseman Rougned Odor a no-name second baseman.

Now let me defend myself on the Redford “finest actor of his generation” line, even though you haven’t technically challenged me on it. I don’t think any of his contemporaries — DeNiro, Pacino, Poitier, Newman, Duvall, McQueen — are as honest as he is. I look at "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", "The Sting", "The Candidate" and mostly "All the President’s Men" and I see a subtlety in him, a way of conveying — only with his eyes — fear, lust, rage and frustration. Those other guys are endlessly watchable, but I’ve long believed Redford doesn’t get the recognition he deserves as an actor. Maybe because he’s too good looking.

And to conclude on crying — "Field of Dreams" makes me cry. So does "The Natural". But neither of them wells me up like "All the President’s Men".

Rob: Man, I don’t even know what to say. "Field of Dreams" . . . well, I can excuse you for that, just as I can excuse Roger Ebert for giving three stars to "Home Alone 3". But how on earth could you just ignore Gene Hackman like that?

Ben: Your Hackman point is undeniable. And he might actually say, “God, I love basketball.”

Ben Mankiewicz is a host on Turner Classic Movies. He also co-hosts WhatTheFlick?! on the TYT Network. Since 1977, he’s been a fan of the Oakland A’s, who are now 1-13 in potential playoff clinching games this century.