The Case of The Natural

Hey Cassettes and welcome back to The Black Case Diaries! We are three old friends learning as much as we can about movies and TV and hopefully teaching others in the process.                 

                                                 

Happy July! Robin likes to refer to this month as the Saturday of summer! Summer means a lot of things: swimming, campfires, lightning bugs, and for some of us, baseball! Sure, baseball begins in the Spring, but by summer it’s in full swing. So today we are going to celebrate America’s Pastime by covering one of the most successful classic baseball films: The Natural. 

Before we launch into the movie, let’s talk a little about baseball and how it is represented in pop culture. In recent years, it is safe to say that Baseball is America’s Pastime in name alone, but it is not the financial juggernaut it used to be. Many people find baseball tedious and boring, as it lacks the physical action of contact sports. It also isn’t ruled by time, meaning that games can last much longer than crowds expect. 

Despite this, baseball seems to thrive in the American imagination. It’s a game tied up in history, realism, romance, and myth. According to Ron Fimrite in a 1984 Sports Illustrated article, there wasn’t a baseball film yet to capture this strange combination. Since The Natural pulled from real life stories and mythology, many hoped that it would be the film to truly represent baseball in all its glory. 

The First Baseball Movie

  • In 1898 Thomas Edison produced “The Game.” It is a silent short film that lasts about 28 seconds and was filmed behind the Home Plate. It showed an ongoing game between two new teams from Newark, New York. In it the pitcher has just let a player walk to first base. He gets ready to head to second as the next batter hits the first ball thrown to him for a double. The first baseman just misses getting him out. A man in the coaching area yells, the umpire runs to make a decision, and a young boy runs behind the catcher towards the stands where a commotion about the play has begun.

The Book

  • The movie is based on the 1952 novel of the same name by Bernard Malamud. 
    • His daughter said that he felt like an outsider in America, and loving baseball was his way of loving the country. 
    • For years, Malamud had difficulty getting published and found his first success with “The Natural.”
    • The story follows Roy Hobbs, a young man with an incredible natural talent for Baseball, and it is a perfect marriage of myth and realism. It draws from real life stories and several legends to create a story that encapsulates American baseball, a sport of: magic, wonder, tradition, and scandal.
    • When Roy is recruited as a young man to play for The Cubs, he shows off his talent by striking out a Babe Ruth-esque player known as “The Whammer.”
      • Roy is an anti-hero chosen by the Gods.
        • Like a classic myth, he’s been given a great gift (his ability and his bat.) 
      • He meets a mysterious woman on a train that tempts him to be unfaithful to his love, Iris. Later on, she lures him into a hotel room and shoots him.
      • His tragic flaw was that all he wanted to be was the best there ever was. 
        • In mythology, if you believed you yourself were better than your gifts, you were then punished. Roy voices that he wants to be the greatest there ever was, he therefore gets shot by the woman in black. 
        • The idea that Roy wants to be the greatest also comes from real life. Baseball player Ted Williams said something similar, that all he cared about was being the best hitter anyone had ever seen.
      • This story isn’t fiction in itself. It’s based off the story of Eddie Waitkus, a baseball player who was called into a hotel room by a strange woman in 1949. The woman, Ruth Burns, shot Waitkus. He recovered to become The Comeback Player of the Year in 1950. 
        • When Roy returns to baseball after a 16 year exile, his quest is similar to that of the Arthurian hero Percival. He joins the New York Knights, a team stuck in a literal drought as well as a figurative one. 
          • Hobbs immediately brings the team success, seemingly bringing with him a thunderstorm that solves the drought.  
        • Percival was meant to heal the Fisher King with the Holy Grail, and the coach of the New York Knights is no other than Pop Fisher. Are you seeing the connection yet? 
        • Roy’s Bat, the Wonderboy is meant to signify Excalibur! The term Wonderboy has been used a lot in the past to describe someone with lots of unexplained talent. Do you remember in Disney’s Hercules when they call him “Wonderboy”? That probably wasn’t an accident.
        • Wonderboy was also based on “Black Betsy” which was Shoeless Joe Jackson’s bat in real life. 
    • Hobb’s ultimate flaw at the end of the story is that he doesn’t learn from his mistakes, and therefore has suffered in vain. The story ends with Hobbs agreeing to throw the game to get a payoff from the judge. He strikes out, and is met by a young boy who calls out to him, begging Roy to tell him that it isn’t true, that he didn’t throw the game on purpose.
      • The 10k that the judge offers Roy is a direct reference to the money that was offered to Shoeless Joe Jackson during the black sox scandal of 1919.
      • A widely beloved baseball player, it was hard for fans to come to terms with the fact that Shoeless Joe threw the game, and one young boy reportedly cried out, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” 
  • It’s clear that Malamud paid close attention to baseball history, and he was able to weave together a lot of truths to create the tragic hero Roy Hobbs, an amalgamation of real and mythical men.

The Making Of: 

  • Phil Dusenberry was the first person to try to write The Natural screenplay. He visited Malamud and spoke about writing a screenplay for his book, Malamud told him he would not go to see the movie or read the screenplay. 
    • Malamud’s daughter said that her father understood that Hollywood would change the story, that books never really make it to the screen the same way they are written, and he was mostly fine with that. 
  • After 6 months, Roger Towne joined the team and eventually re-wrote the script.
    • He was the younger brother of Robert Towne who wrote Chinatown.
  • Roger Towne contacted Amy Grossman, who’s agency had just landed a big client looking for a new role. That client was Robert Redford, one of the biggest names of his time, a classic movie star in a post-classic era. Grossman passed the script to him and he was on board.
    • Redford had wanted to do a baseball movie for a while, and was excited about the project. The issue, however, was that studios weren’t very interested in the idea. Baseball movies were like the kiss of death, they didn’t make a lot of money and audiences just weren’t excited to see them. 
  • They found a director in Barry Levinson, who had just made his first film, Diner. He agreed to the job, though no one was shy about the fact that it was a risk for his career. He read the script and thought it was brave. 
    • Glenn Close felt he was good for the film because he had a sense of Americana, evident in Diner, that was necessary for a baseball film. 
    • He was a young director, and his style worked for the seasoned actors because he would direct by asking questions.
  • Instead of finding an existing studio to distribute the film, they signed on to be the very first film from TriStar studios! This added pressure and urgency to the production, and the team felt the heat in terms of delivering a timely film that would make or break the new studio. 

Filmmaking

  • The filming started in the summer of 1983. 
  • They looked all over the country for the perfect stadium to film in, and they settled on War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, NY because it was untouched from the time period that the film takes place. They brought in billboards and ads from the time period. The cast and crew felt like they were walking back in time when they stepped on the field.
  • A lot of research had to be done for the uniforms and equipment, and the playing that we see in the film was actually happening. So, it was somewhat dangerous, without helmets and with old-school gloves instead of the newer equipment from the 1980’s that Redford and the cast were used to.
    • For example the gloves did not use to have webbing and Redford said you learn quickly not to catch the ball in front of your face.
  • Sometimes things work in practice much better than theory, and Redford and Levinson discovered while filming one particular scene, that they didn’t like the dialog. So they asked Roger Towne to write up new lines on the spot! Towne didn’t have his notebook, so someone threw him a roll of toilet paper and he quickly jotted down lines for the scene. The pen bled through and it was hard to read, but it was all they had at the moment. Towne said Redford gave him a funny look when he handed it over, but they did the scene and it worked out well! 
  • The scene of the last ballgame was somewhat of a logistical nightmare.
    • To make sure the play of the game looked right, they had to piece together plays and they had a lot of continuity issues. There was no sense of a scene happening because of the way it had to be shot.
    • The 6,000 extras for the scene were getting antsy, it was cold out, and they started to sneak out of the stadium. 
    • People started booing, the crew said it felt like prison because everyone was held captive. At one point they had to bribe people to stay with free beer.
  • The lights in the final scene were a giant rig that took days to build. In the scene where the ball smashes the lights, there’s a shot of The Judge played by Robert Prosky, with a reflection of the lights in his glasses. The first time the scene was shot, he forgot to put them on, and they had to shoot it again!
  • There was a lot of down time on the film with the players going through the scenes, so Levinson had to stand in as the announcer to have that constant sound of a ballpark, when someone is always talking over the crowd.

Casting

  • Ellen Chenoweth casted the film
  • Starring
    • Levinson wanted it to be like a classic film with a full cast of big names
      • Robert Redford/ Roy Hobbs
      • Kim Basinger/ Memo Paris
        • Kim Bassinger was a newcomer but suited her role. 
      • Barbara Hershey/ Harriet Bird
      • Glenn Close/ Iris Gaines
        • Glenn Close was originally not available for her part, but she changed her mind when Robert Redford told her that he really wanted her. Close was then fired from her first starring role and was free to play the part.
        • Glenn Close’s first scene was in the hospital and she didn’t have the right wig. She was so nervous to do a scene with Robert Redford that she had broken out on her face, which she said was hidden by the lighting and the hat she wore.
      • Wilfhard Brimley/Pop Fisher  and Richard Farnsworth/ Red Blow
        • Wolfhard Brimley and Richard Farnsworth “played themselves.” 
      • Robert Duvall/ Max Mercy
        • Robert Duvall had just won an oscar and was a major movie star. No one else was thought of for his role.
      • Robert Prosky/ The Judge
        • Robert Prosky was a great character actor for the stage and that was how he was found for the role of the judge.
      • Darren McGavin(not billed)
        • Gus, the bookie, was the last major part to be cast and Darren McGavin, who ultimately chose not to be billed in the film rather than to have less billing than the other actors.
    • When it came to the players, they first looked for actors that could play baseball first and act second.
    • Ron Fimrite talked about how Robert DeNiro didn’t play baseball well in Bang the Drum Slowly.
    • Redford is a natural athlete and was able to play the game without practice.
      • Redford studied Ted Williams’ stance and style of hitting, and his character even wears the number 9 to honor Williams. He also bats left-handed just as Ted Williams did in real life.

Director of Photography

  • One of the most notable aspects of The Natural is the beautiful cinematography. 
  • A young man named Caleb Deschanel was hired as the Director of Photography, chosen by Redford and Levinson for his understanding of light–natural light especially.
    • Most of the film was shot in “magic hour” or “golden hour” and he would drive the crew crazy taking his time to get the shot when the light was fleeting.
      • Golden hour isn’t just beautiful, it’s symbolic. It exists for only a brief period, and is followed quickly by a long night, just like Roy’s initial career. 
      • The movie begins and ends in golden hour, signifying the magical moments of Roy’s time as a child playing catch with his father, and coming back to the time he has with his own son. 
      • The imagery and the light brings home the full-circle nature of the storytelling. For the final scene, the crew had to chase the light. They ran all over the hillside making Redford throw the ball again and again until they got an image that was just right. 
      • There is a scene where Redford is leaving on a train. They had missed the train that day when filming, so they had to go to Traintown and have Redford stand on a stationary train. The shot then tracks backward, to make the train appear as if it is moving. 
      • Another notable moment that uses natural light is when Glenn Close returns as Iris and stands to show her support for Roy.
        • Costume designers created a special hat to have light go through it (You’ll notice that it doesn’t have a top) and so when she’s backlight, she appears like an angel; this symbolism is meant to foil Kim Basinger’s character who causes Roy to lose games, while Iris reminds him of who he once was and gives him the push he needs to succeed.
        • In order to use the light the way they needed, Deschanel had extras walk in and out of the scene to light Glenn Close at specific moments.

The Score

  • Barry Levinson chose Randy Newman for the composer, which was a hard sell. He hadn’t scored a lot of movies at that point and Levinson knew that Newman was a good storyteller with his songs. He was intimidated by the film and he had to be convinced.
    • They were so under the gun to finish the music, they had him compose while they were editing.
    • Levinson talked about hearing the theme through the wall, and how cool it was to witness the birth of something so iconic.
    • The music was atypical of Newman, a big thundering, hardy score; he even wrote a lyric for the main theme because that’s what Randy Newman does.
    • Many believe that the film would not have been as successful without Newman’s score, and Newman has said that the film was much easier to score because it was shot so beautifully.
  • Levinson went to see it opening weekend, and he found people demanding their money back so he thought the movie was a dud.
    • It turns out that the reason people were leaving that particular theatre is that the film kept breaking.
  • The movie did well, but critics didn’t like it. They attributed this to the fact that it was so different from the book
    • Rob Edelman says in the documentary: This is not a critics film, this is not a film for lovers of the original novel, but what this film is, is a great audience film. 
  • Would the movie have been as successful with a sad ending?
  • It ushered in the new era of baseball films that likely would not have been made if not for this movie.
    • Examples are Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, etc.
  • In Frank Deford’s review of the film in Sports Illustrated, he lauded the first 30 minutes: “The first half hour of The Natural is simply beautiful, not only in the richness of the film and the texture of the story, but also in all that it evokes of the pastoral Americana diamondiana of our fathers.” He went on to say that he was disappointed in the film and considered that maybe non-fans would enjoy the film. To Robin the film represents the tradition of baseball and how it’s been passed down. The final ballgame with the falling lights is a magical and unbelievable moment, but one that we get lost in because we want to believe in it. The Natural is pure movie magic, and Robin says that as a long-time fan of baseball. 

Sources:

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