Sunday, May 11, 2014

Not Necessarily the Best There Ever Was ... But Close

"I guess some mistakes you never stop paying for."

Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford)

I don't know if "The Natural" was particularly inspirational. Its subject matter, after all, was probably the kind of thing that most kids have been fantasizing about forever — being the best at something.

Sometimes those dreams come true. More often, they do not.

I thought of my own boyhood dreams when I saw "The Natural" not long after it premiered 30 years ago today. I wasn't very athletic when I was younger, but I fantasized about it. Who wouldn't? When you're an awkward teenager, any scenario in which your buddies hoist you on their shoulders and parade you around in triumph — and all the girls want to be with you — is as valuable as one of Walter Mitty's daydreams.

(Come to think of it, Mitty's heroic fantasies usually ended unhappily, just short of achieving his goals.)

When I see "The Natural" now, I am more inclined to think of Roy Hobbs' perseverance, his dedication to his dream, his desire to follow that rainbow wherever it led — even though he had been, to use his own word, "sidetracked."

I guess he summed up his heart's desire when he was talking about how differently his life had been than he had expected. If he had begun his major–league career when most players do, in their 20s, he speculated that he could have rewritten the record book. "And then when I walked down the street people would've looked and they would've said, 'There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.' "

It's corny, I know, but sometimes you need some corn. What happened to Roy Hobbs is the kind of thing that can happen to people in any walk of life, especially when they get blindsided by something beyond their control. It's worse for an athlete, I suppose, because an athlete's window of opportunity is so brief. People in non–athletic walks of life can afford to be more patient; the clock ticks loudly for a sidetracked athlete.

Roy wasn't bitter. He was a little wistful at times, but it just made him more determined to make the most of the time he had left.

Apparently, movie critic Roger Ebert wasn't impressed.

"Why didn't they make a baseball picture?" Ebert wanted to know. "Why did 'The Natural' have to be turned into idolatry on behalf of Robert Redford?"

That wasn't the way I saw it then, nor is it the way I see it now.

But Ebert felt that audiences knew too much about Hobbs' character and not enough about the other people on screen. "I'd love to get to know Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), the cynical, old team manager," Ebert wrote. "Robert Duvall, as the evil sportswriter, Max Mercy, has had his part cut so badly that we only know he's evil because he practically tells us. Richard Farnsworth, as a kindly coach, has a smile that's more genuine than anything else in the movie. But you have to look quick."

There were some things about Hobbs that we didn't know — like where he had been for 16 or 17 years

OK, it's a Robert Redford movie. I didn't have a problem with that. His was the bankable name in 1984, even though his star was falling while Glenn Close's was rising. (In case you never saw the movie before, Close was Redford's childhood sweetheart in the movie.)

Redford was the reason why people paid to see that movie. And pay they did. "The Natural," which was made for $28 million, took in nearly $48 million at the box office.

I've seen many movies that were focused on a single character — seemingly to the exclusion of everything else. I thought "The Natural" handled that better than most. It had a pretty good story. Most such movies do not. And, unlike Ebert, I had no quarrel over the amount of screen time everyone else got.

The young Roy Hobbs ran into problems with a mysterious woman (played by Barbara Hershey) he met on a train. In a sense, isn't that every man's story? Well, not every man, I suppose, but many a young man has fallen from grace because of a pretty face.

And Roy Hobbs fell hard. He dropped out of sight for years, finally resurfacing as an older man trying to break in with a struggling baseball team.

He didn't know all the intrigue behind the scenes. He didn't know that Pop Fisher, minority team owner in addition to being its manager, had made a deal with the principal owner. If the team won the pennant, Pop got the team. If the team didn't win the pennant, the principal owner got all of Pop's shares. Winner take all.

Hobbs' arrival complicated things. The team was well on its way to losing the pennant, but Hobbs turned things around to the point where the principal owner had to bribe him to play badly. He wouldn't do it, promising to "hit away."

I think this is where Ebert really objected. Redford, apparently bleeding and in pain from his stomach injury, hit the dramatic home run that won the pennant — and ran around the bases amid a shower of sparks from the stadium light fixture he blasted with his mighty shot. OK, it was a little over the top.

It was "cheap and phony," Ebert wrote.

"Either he hits the homer and then dies, or his bleeding was just a false alarm," Ebert explained. "If the bleeding was a false alarm, then everything else in the movie was false, too."

Yes, except that this is the movies, not real life. A lot of things happen in the movies that are implausible in real life.

I admit, Ebert had a point when he observed that Close was "the childhood sweetheart who doesn't hear from Roy after an accident changes the course of his life. Then she turns up years later, and when she stands up in the bleachers she is surrounded by blinding light ... In the few moments she's allowed alone with Roy, she strikes us as complicated, tender, and forgiving. But even the crucial fact of her life — that she has borne this man's son — is used as a plot gimmick."

OK, Close did have a kind of beatific look on her face when she was around Redford later in the movie. I didn't really notice it when they played young lovers, but it was noticeable when they were reunited roughly 20 years later.

See, I was a child of the Nixon years. Pat Nixon always had that kind of look on her face.

Are there things about the movie that I would have done differently? Sure, but it was what it was. And, for what it was, I thought it was good. Maybe better than good.

It belonged on a list of the best sports movies. There are sports movies that I like more — the ones that deal with actual events and people (like "Eight Men Out" and "Miracle") are my favorites — but the fictional ones can be pretty good, too, and "The Natural" told a pretty good story.