Friday, September 28, 2012



Yesterday, as I was preparing for my day, I saw a segment on NBC's Today Show about a 31-year-old former ball player named Adam Greenberg. I’m not a sports buff, but Adam’s story caught my attention. Back in 2005, on his very first day in the majors, the Chicago Cubs’ outfielder was hit in the back of his head by a 92-mph fastball, literally ending his career. To hear Greenberg tell it, it was much like the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities going from the best of times to the worst of times in one, life-altering moment.

Filmmaker Matt Liston couldn’t get Adam’s story out of his mind, and though he literally didn’t know Adam from Adam, he set out to help the ballplayer get one official major league at-bat. Undeterred by the Cub’s dismissal of the idea, Liston posted an on-line petition asking for support, with the hope of getting one of the majors to give Adam a chance. At the time of this writing, over 25,000 people had signed on.

In the seven years between that ill-fated day and Thursday’s interview, a determined Adam Greenberg was hard at work, getting his body in shape, while knowing that at thirty-one, his chances of getting a second chance at bat were slim.

The morning show’s segment began with an explanatory video followed by a brief interview with host, Matt Lauer. Moments before the segment was set to end, there was, as they say, the great reveal, by remote broadcast, David Samson, General Manager of the Marlins (the very team the Cubs were playing on what was to be his first and last game) stepped up to the virtual plate. In a mighty mix of good will and great PR, Samson offered Goldberg a one-day contract. Both Goldberg and Liston were understandably overwhelmed.

While Greenberg’s story reminded Liston of Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones’ cantankerous recluse in 1989’s Field of Dreams, I was reminded of Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), the central character in The Natural, the film that breathed new life to an aging and discarded genre. Like Hobbs, Greenberg's story is about baseball, a thirty-something rookie, and a chance at a second chance. Any similarity ends there.

Now, I don’t usually write about big pictures, and this film, with its four-star company and equal number of Academy Award nominations, certainly falls into that category. But it’s a picture worth seeing again, especially since a few years back a DVD Anniversary Edition provided us with the Director’s cut, featuring twenty minutes of never-before-seen footage and a totally reworked first act.

By tightening some sequences and expanding others, the production team was able to add only six minutes to the film's total running time, while producing a piece that, we are told, a great deal closer to the original intent of the script. Director Barry Levinson offers it as an alternative rather than a substitute for the original. With more time to establish why Hobbs is the way he is, it is a darker, more intimate view of the ballplayer’s life and mindset.

Based on the 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud, The Natural begins somewhere in the Midwest. It’s 1923, and, spotted by Sam Simpson, and older but wiser scout/agent, the 19-year-old minor league player is given the opportunity to try out for the Chicago Cubs. And so it is that Hobbs leaves his boyhood home and sweetheart (Iris Gaines - a fetchingly warm, Glenn Close)behind, promising to bring her to Chicago as soon as he is able.

Fresh from an eight-game streak of no hitters, the young ballplayer’s confidence is shaken when, shortly after boarding the train to Chicago, he is introduced to Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), a hard-nosed syndicated sportswriter/cartoonist and his Babe-Ruth-like pal, known to baseball fans as “The Whammer.” Mercy obviously enjoys his relationship with the idol, a bigheaded bully who likes nothing better than to belittle anyone who might possibly threaten his standing. Moments after the obligatory handshake, The mean-spirited duo set about undermining Roy's confidence, raising doubts in his mind as to his readiness for the majors.

A short time later the train makes a 30-minute water stop, where a carnival is in progress. While the Whammer parades his batting skills before a captive crowd, Hobbs seeks out one of the carnival's games of skill, hurling balls at bottles with an uncanny rate of accuracy. When one ball fails to connect, The Whammer and his pal show no mercy, taunting the player with a series of cruel and demeaning barbs. Having had enough, Simpson lays his money down and places his bet: Hobbs vs. the Whammer: three throws/three strikes.

The far-from-humble icon is both unfazed by the challenge. "You old boozer," he retorts, "your brain must be full of mush. This sh-t-kicker couldn't strike me out with 100 pitches."

But strike him out he does: a feat that does not go unnoticed by Mercy, who, while shrugging it off as pure luck, is impressed enough to draw a quick sketch of the match, underscored by the words, "Three balls - three strikes". His relationship with Whammer in jeopardy should he print it, there is little doubt that the cartoon will ever make the morning paper.

Back on the train, a mysterious woman in black by the name of Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) takes Hobbs’ win seriously. Making her way to his seat, she turns on the charm, showering him with compliments. Flattered, his confidence boosted by the day's triumph, Hobbs confides, “Someday I’ll break every record in the book. I know I got it in me.”

“What do you hope to accomplish?” she prods.

“When I walk down the street, people will say, ‘There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.'"

“Is that all?” she asks.

“Well,” he replies, quizzically, "what else is there?”

It is the answer to that question that drives the story and turns the tide, as, in short order, a life-altering event insures that Hobbs never makes it to first base.

When he resurfaces some sixteen years later, seemingly out of nowhere, any connection to his triumph by the train has been all but forgotten. He is a man with no past, and a very imposing present, almost single-handedly digging the flailing New York Knights out of last place. Hell bent on finding out who this mystery man is, Mercy (whose is vaguely aware that he’s seen the ball payer before) pokes and prods and pokes some more. But Hobbs isn’t talking.

What Mercy finds, and how it impacts the thirty-six year old rookie and baseball in general, are just two of the components in this darkly shaded, finely tuned tale.

The Natural is of the few films of substance that has something for just about everyone. Funny, romantic, serious and sensuous, troubled and triumphant, it is a story about a boy and his bat, a man and his woman, a player and his dream, and the uplifting and underbelly sides of the great American pastime.

Some of the generations’ most formidable actors serve up first-rate performances, with Redford, Close and Duvall leading the way. They are backed up by one of the best supporting casts ever assembled in one film, including Wilford Brimley and one of my all-time favorite character actors, the late Richard Farnsworth. The chemistry between the two men is palpable, and makes for some of the film’s most natural and amusing exchanges. Kim Bassinger, as a woman with split alliances and motivations, won a Golden Globe for her role as femme fatalle, Memo Paris. Like a heavy-hitter at the top of his game, this wildly talented ensemble knocks it out of the park.

Some years ago I was wandering through an open-air, Nashville flea market when I came upon a booth filled with movie memorabilia. Among the offerings, a series of waist-up, life-size, particle board-backed, black and white photographs of men in vintage clothing, posed as if they were seated in a baseball stadium. There must have been twenty-to-thirty different groups of two, all of which were used to fill out large expanses of empty seats in sequences calling for a backdrop of people-filled bleachers.

A thick elastic band on the backside of each photo enabled the film’s crew to attach the boards to large sections of umanned seats, supplementing the six thousand extras that moved about the rows, booing, cheering and going wild with excitement on cue. Choosing one of the more colorful duos, I dubbed them “Vinny and Guido”. On the ride home, I felt safe and sound, my rear-view mirror filled with what appeared to be two men of dubious character guarding me from any and all intruders.

Such ingenuity on the part of the production team made for a smartly propped and dressed, divinely photographed film, with a soft focus and color palate reminiscent of Edward Hopper's work punctuating the dusty railroad stations and Chicago neighborhoods of that era. So perfectly designed is the lighting and cinematography, that nearly every frame is a work of art. Lovers, silhouetted against a summer moon, Redford waiting for a train, the lovely Iris, seated behind an ice cream parlor window. A baseball thrown from a train at sunset, each and every one of them, exquisite.

While music can often upstage or overwhelm a film, Randy Newman’s score is pitch-perfect: a complex mix of humor and wall-to-wall, bigger-than-life, Americana that makes you want to raise a barn, stand up and cheer, or drive along a wide expanse of lush country road, as I have, to the sound of this big, bold, sumptuous score.

Amazingly enough, The Natural was only Newman’s second film, and he was more than a bit nervous about pulling it off. Once filming began the entire project was put on fast-forward, with everyone racing to complete the feature by the studio's mandatory release date. As a result, while the film was being edited in one room, the music to whatever sequence had been completed last, was being written in the next. So thin were the walls, that the director could hear the piano, as Newman went about his work.

In one of the DVD's featurettes, the director recalls the day he heard the movie's haunting theme for the very first time.

“I’m hearing this fiddling on the piano, and all of a sudden I hear [he sings] ‘Da da da da, da da da. Da da da da, da da da’, and I think, 'I wonder if that’s going to be the main theme?' You can imagine how thrilling that is: to be hearing through the wall the moment of the birth of a piece of theme.”

Newman concedes that in a very real way, necessity was the mother of invention, as, had he not been forced to write to the edited footage, the ‘heroic horns’ that are so identifiable, would have never come to mind, as they were, he says, against his natural inclination.

Such tidbits make the Anniversary DVD a treasure trove of information. Aside from the all-new, high-definition digital transfer, the Director's Cut is enhanced by a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, and comes complete with a diverse collection of featurettes that address everything from the differences between Malamud’s much-loved novel and the film, to how it came to be written, cast, produced, scored. The hours it took to film and edit the picture's key baseball sequences, particularly the final game, which called for over six hundred separate shots and edits.

You’ll also learn which events, characters and quotes were drawn from real life, and share a laugh with the director, as he tells of an opening day visit to a local movie theater, where he was met by a group of disgruntled ticket holders, who wanted their money back. The whys and wherefores of it all make for hours of interesting viewing. Fascinating stuff, all.

Much of the credit for the on-going popularity of this film goes to Barry Levinson, who job it was to take the script from conception to completion. The fact that Redford saw in Levinson the ability to carry it off, despite the fact that he had only one small, though highly successful film (Diner), is to his credit. And carry it off, he did.

Close to fifty movies later, Barry Levinson’s filmography is filled with instant classics like Rain Man, Avalon, Good Morning, Viet Nam, High Anxiety, and Wag the Dog, But it was The Natural that paved the way for other great baseball movies, including Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, A League of Their Own, Eight Men Out, The Rookie, and more recently, 2011’s Moneyball and Trouble with the Curve, which is currently showing at your local movieplex.

Suffice to say, The Natural was a natural: a wonderful tale, told well. It, like Roy Hobbs and Adam Greenberg, deserves another turn at bat.

A final note: Adam Greenberg signed the afore-mentioned one-day contract yesterday. Unless you hear differently, he'll be in the batter’s box next Tuesday (October 2nd), when the Marlins go head-to-head with the New York Mets.