Mickey Mantle Vs. The Waste Land

The Natural: adapted from the Bernard Malamud novel by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry; directed by Barry Levinson; starring Robert Redford (Roy Hobbs), Robert Duvall (Max Mercy), Glenn Close (Iris Gaines), Kim Basinger (Memo Paris), Wilford Brimley (Pop Fisher), Barbara Hershey (Harriet Bird), Robert Prosky (The Judge), and Darren McGavin (Gus Sands) (1984): 

Bernard Malamud’s much more downbeat bit of American Arthuriana becomes instead a whimsical myth of a movie, filled with out-sized moments, signs, portents, lightning, and destiny. I like it a lot. If you’re looking for a realistic baseball movie, look elsewhere. The cast is terrific throughout, including the curiously unbilled Darren McGavin as gambler Gus Sands, who probably fixed the World Series in the universe of The Natural

Set in 1939, The Natural follows one miraculous season in the life of 36-year-old rookie Roy Hobbs, a phenom who vanished for 16 years after being shot by a woman who went around shooting great athletes, usually fatally. Hobbs gets signed by the New York Knights, whose crusty old manager/part-owner Wilford Brimley is reluctant to play him despite the fact that the Knights are super-terrible. But eventually Hobbs will play. Birds will sing. Lightning will strike.

Malamud loaded up the original novella with a mash-up of mythic elements. The movie also plays with the stories of King Arthur, the legend of the Fisher King, and the journeys of Odysseus. Or in other words, that dug-out water fountain that Pops Fisher complains about early on has mythic significance. His name is Fisher, he’s the king of a baseball team named the Knights, and he’s having trouble getting decent water. Oh, go look it up. 

Is there a never-healed wound in someone’s side? Is there a temptress whose name keeps getting pronounced so as to rhyme with ‘Nimue’? Will someone at last set his lands in order? Oh, watch it. It’s great, and Barry Levinson keeps things just light enough and goofy enough at times that the viewer doesn’t choke on all the allusions and portents. 

Robert Redford was perfectly cast as Roy Hobbs, who is in many ways the Light Side of Jay Gatsby, whom Redford also played. And it’s bracing to see Robert Duvall play a complete jerk as reporter/cartoonist Max Mercy — it makes you realize that he seems to have spent the 30 years since The Natural playing lovable curmudgeons. Highly recommended.

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