Pick me out a winner, Bobby.
There is no reasonable argument claiming that The Natural isn’t one of the two or three most significant baseball movies of all time. The face of Roy Hobbs is definitively enshrined on the Mount Rushmore of baseball heroes in film. You can dislike The Natural — and make a number of solid arguments as to why — but there is simply no denying its place in baseball cinema.
I’d go further and argue there is no more definitive moment in baseball movie history than Hobbs’s game-winning home run at the climax of the film. It’s silly, and amazing, and over the top, and laid on oh, so thick:
The son he didn’t know he had watches from the stands, with the woman who represents the part of himself he’s lost, but might still be able to return to. Wonderboy breaks, to illustrate that the idea of himself that he’d clung to since he was a child has shattered. The batboy brings him the Savoy Special, the bat they made together, reminding us that when baseball is gone, the true soul of Roy Hobbs is generous and kind. It’s the way forward into his new life, and it gives us a glimpse of the sort of father he will be. He’s bleeding through his uniform, because his old wounds won’t heal. They’ve reopened as he makes the same old mistakes; he’s refused to see what truly lies behind the seduction of fame and glory, and it’s killing him. He finally sees clearly. And then Roy Hobbs grits his teeth, swings through the pain, and crushes an epic home run that doesn’t just hit one set of lights, but somehow causes a chain reaction; every light in the ballpark erupts in a glorious explosion of sparks. His legend is solidified with one more remarkable moment that quite literally turns off the lights on his career. [[Seriously, though, that ballpark definitely needs to find a better electrician!]]
The scene is ridiculous, melodramatic, and way too on the nose. It’s also absolutely wonderful. It’s par for the course in The Natural, which is basically all the over-the-top, rose-colored, romantic ideals about the game projected onto the silver screen. Without any nuance, it makes clear its belief that baseball is a beautiful thing that must be defended from the greed and obsession with power that threatens to corrupt and destroy the game.
The film wasn’t made by idiots who didn’t know what they were doing. To personify for moment, the movie knows what it is and leans all the way in. This is evidenced in the comic timing of the reveal that Bump Bailey has died — which is fucking amazing, by the way. The guy ran through a wall after a fly ball — smash cut to a headline that he’s dead. A ten second memorial at the start of a game, and that’s it. No fanfare or no narrative timeout. The players and coaching staff collectively shrugs their shoulders. Our most talented player just died, Roy, you’re in right field!
I’m telling you, there’s a reason so many fans have seen this movie two dozen times.
Also, can we please talk about a 48-year-old Robert Redford playing an 18-year-old baseball phenom early in the film?! Classic.
Crazy fact I learned while writing this: the original novel was inspired by a real event, in which a deranged fan who believed she was in love with a ballplayer — she set a place for him at the dinner table every night and made her bedroom a shrine — invited him up to her hotel room and shot him in the chest with a rifle! He survived, and instead of leaving baseball for fifteen years like Roy Hobbs, he was back the next season. [via NPR]
Next up: The Linklater gem that far too few people have heard of, Everybody Wants Some!!