The narrative begins with a brief montage showing the teen years tutelage of Midwest farmboy Roy Hobbs in every aspect of the diamond by his patient father. On the eve of the senior Hobbs' sudden death, a lightning bolt sunders the ancient oak on the family homestead, and Roy crafts a homemade bat from the remains that he dubs "Wonderboy." Flash forward to 1924, when the 20-year-old Hobbs (Redford) has earned a pitching tryout with the Cubs; he then has a rendezvous with his first love Iris, promising his return. As it turns out, the train to Chicago is also occupied by the majors' most feared slugger, a Babe Ruth manqué referred to only as "The Whammer" (Joe Don Baker), and his de facto publicist, the smarmy sports columnist Max Mercy (Robert Duvall). During a whistle stop, Roy rises to the all-star's taunts, striking him out on three pitches. Amongst the suitably impressed witnesses is the beautiful and somewhat spooky Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), who slips Hobbs an invitation to her hotel room upon reaching the Windy City. The young athlete accepts to his everlasting regret, as she greets him with gunfire upon his entrance. (As a factual aside, Malamud's work was inspired by a similar 1949 incident involving Philadelphia Phillies infielder Eddie Waitkus.)
Cut to 1939, in the midst of another lost season for the hapless New York Knights, where embittered manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) is glowering over the latest roster move that Judge Banner (Robert Prosky), the team's underhanded owner, has foisted upon him. A 35-year-old fifth outfielder, with no appreciable experience, signed out of nowhere? Pop has no intention of using this reticent, long-in-the tooth rookie for anything else than riding the pines. However, with the slump of the team's best player (Michael Madsen) showing no signs of abating, he has no choice but to let Roy step up to bat. Hobbs strides to the plate, "Wonderboy" in hand, and responds by literally tearing the cover off the ball. Over the following weeks, the shrouded slugger puts the team on his back, becoming a figure of fascination for Knights fans, as well as Pop's gorgeous, man-eating niece Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), and Max Mercy, struggling to recall where he's met this mystery man before.
As the Knights make an improbable surge in the standings, the corrupt Judge is willing to bet against his own team and sabotage their run, conspiring with big-time fixer Gus Sands (Darren McGavin, unbilled) to buy Roy off through a combination of cash and Memo's seductive charms. As these machinations fall into place, the angelic Iris re-enters Roy's life, letting him know that she's been raising a teenage son alone; further, his long-ago injury becomes aggravated with potentially disastrous results. Hobbs must weigh his choices in the course of the year's pennant-clinching game, and does so in the film's now-familiar crowd-pleasing climax.
The production of The Natural would become a windfall for the city of Buffalo, New York. Levinson's production team needed a baseball stadium with the desired period look and feel, and after surveying some four dozen large minor-league parks, only Buffalo's '30s-era War Memorial Stadium met all their requisites. "I went out of my mind," production designer Mel Bourne recalled after an on-site inspection. "It was so like what I thought the stadium should be. I called Barry and told him he had to see it--there was no question about it--this was our stadium." Although the original plan was to shoot the balance of the film on a back lot, the more the filmmakers saw of the city, the more they liked. "Buffalo was a city of great wealth in the '20s and early '30s, and much of its architecture is beautiful," production executive Bernard Markey recounted. "We kept finding places that were perfect for our script."
The Natural wound up with a gross of roughly $48 million domestically, a satisfactory return on its $28 million budget. Glenn Close received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar® nomination for her efforts, and the Academy also made room on the ballot for Bourne's art direction, Caleb Deschanel's cinematography, and Randy Newman's sweeping score, which has seemingly been endlessly recycled for preview trailers in the two decades since it was composed.
Producer: Mark Johnson
Director: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry; Bernard Malamud (novel)
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Art Direction: Mel Bourne and Angelo Graham (Production Design)
Music: Randy Newman
Film Editing: Stu Linder, Christopher Holmes (extended version)
Cast: Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), Iris Gaines (Glenn Close), Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), Red Blow (Richard Farnsworth).
by Jay S. Steinberg