Eddie Waitkus, a handsome first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, had returned to his room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago on the night of June 14, 1949, after a game with the Cubs, when he received an "urgent" message to meet a young woman named Ruth Anne Burns in her room, 1297A, at the hotel. Waitkus, 29, had never met the woman, whose real name was Ruth Steinhagen, and who had been his ardent fan, but he succumbed to curiosity and decided to see what was up. He was received at the door of 1297A by a tall brunette who said to him, "I have a surprise for you." The woman withdrew to a closet and emerged holding a .22 rifle. She shot Waitkus in the chest.
This was certainly a singular moment in baseball history, but it would have even greater significance as a literary event. Three years after the shooting. Bernard Malamud's first novel, The Natural, was published. Taking at least one chapter from real life, Malamud had his ballplayer hero, Roy Hobbs, also respond to a message to meet a young woman in a Chicago hotel room—with similarly unfortunate results: "She pulled the trigger (thrum of bull fiddle).... He sought with his bare hands to catch [the bullet], but it eluded him and, to his horror, bounced into his gut. A twisted dagger of smoke drifted up from the gun barrel. Fallen on one knee he groped for the bullet, sickened as it moved, and fell over...she, making muted noises of triumph and despair, danced on her toes around the stricken hero."
Waitkus, who was hitting .306 at the time he was shot, didn't play again in 1949, but he recovered and was the Comeback Player of the Year in 1950, when he hit .284 for the National League champion Whiz Kid Phillies. He played for six seasons after the shooting, finishing with a career batting average of .285. Hobbs was a much better ballplayer than Waitkus, a much better player, for that matter, than Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb or Willie Mays. There's no telling what Roy might have accomplished had he not submitted to the blandishments of a lethal siren. He was perhaps 18 at the time of the shooting, the quintessential country bumpkin, so naive he was afraid to emerge from his Pullman berth for fear of having to figure out how much to tip the porter. But he had had his moment, striking out a Ruthian figure, Whammer Wambold, in the countryside while his train was halted. Alas, Hobbs didn't recover from his brush with death as quickly as Waitkus. It would be another 16 years or so before Hobbs would make it back to the big leagues. And then...ah, but that is Malamud's story.
The Natural is a haunting piece of fiction, confounding in its switches from mythology to realism, from sports-page jargon to lyricism. The critic Leslie Fiedler wrote of it, "Mr. Malamud has in The Natural found, not imposed, an archetype in the life we now live; in his book the modern instance and the remembered myth are equally felt, equally realized and equally appropriate to our predicament...he has not felt obliged to choose between the richness of imagined detail and that of symbolic relevance." Obviously, this isn't your average baseball book, which is probably why making it into a movie has taken so long, although the surface story alone—dedicated hero coming back from the worst imaginable luck—would seem to have made it, well, a natural. But its dreaminess, its overriding fatalism—in the book, Hobbs doesn't quite make it all the way back—seems to have daunted a generation of scriptwriters.
May 6, 1984
Hollywood hasn't had much luck with baseball, anyway. Joe E. Brown, a true fan and the father of retired baseball executive Joe Brown, used the game as a comedy vehicle in '30s films. Danny Kaye fiddled with it, and even Ray Milland starred in a baseball movie, It Happens Every Spring, about a professor who invents a substance that causes horsehide to dodge wood. And then there were the mostly soupy ballplayer biographies: The Pride of the Yankees (Lou Gehrig), The Babe Ruth Story, The Pride of St. Louis (Dizzy Dean), The Winning Team (Grover Cleveland Alexander) and The Stratton Story (Monty Stratton) all starring actors—Gary Cooper, William Bendix, Dan Dailey, Ronald Reagan and James Stewart, respectively—who, it became apparent, were no more familiar with bat and ball than they were with nuclear fission. Not until Bang the Drum Slowly (based on the Mark Harris book) of a few years ago did the game become the backdrop for a relatively serious movie—and even in Drum, the star, Robert De Niro, swung a bat as if he were beating rugs. No, the national pastime hasn't had a pretty history on film.
"The word is that baseball movies just don't sell," says Mark Johnson, who nevertheless decided to produce Roger Towne's script of The Natural. Towne is the younger brother of Robert Towne, a highly successful screenwriter (Chinatown, Shampoo) whose own venture as a writer-director into the sports world, Personal Best, wasn't notably successful. The Natural is, in fact, the younger Towne's first screenplay to be filmed, although he has worked for some years in the movie industry. He read the book five years ago and became, he says, "obsessed with seeing it as a motion picture."
Towne completed his screenplay in June of 1982 and showed it to an agent friend, Amy Grossman, who in turn showed it to the head of her agency, Michael Ovitz, who in turn had the prescience to show it to Robert Redford. As it happened, Redford, who played the game as a youngster in Southern California, had been interested for some time in doing a serious baseball movie. He would have liked to make Bang the Drum Slowly, and he had read Malamud's book with fascination. Towne's script interested him, and he passed on this intelligence to director Barry Levinson during the course of a conversation the two were having on baseball. Levinson is currently a hot property in Hollywood as a result of the success of Diner, a movie about hanging out in a Baltimore eatery that he both wrote and directed. Levinson urged his cinematic partner, Johnson, to read the new script, and after doing so Johnson, who had read two other Malamud novels, The Fixer and Pictures of Fidelman, was equally enthusiastic. After 31 years, The Natural was to become a movie. Produced by Tri-Star Pictures, of which HBO (a subsidiary of Time Inc.), Columbia Pictures and CBS are equal partners, it will open nationally on May 11.
Levinson, a droll man who once wrote screenplays with Mel Brooks, gives credibility to this, as they say in Hollywood, "daring venture," but Redford gives it clout. The star system in Hollywood may have died with the big studios, name players now tending to be overnight whizzes, or short, dark scenery ingesters, but Redford—along with his pal Paul Newman—is an anachronism, a star of the old magnitude, a criminally handsome leading man whose face and mannerisms are instantly identifiable the world over. Ask a visitor from Katmandu who his favorite movie actor is, and chances are Robert Redford will be the answer. Redford wins the fan polls. He gets the girl. He has commanded as much as $3 million for a single picture. And because he has remained steadfastly aloof from the screen community's social whirl and has fiercely guarded his privacy, he has achieved the aura of mystery that is essential to genuine stardom.
As with anyone of this stature, Redford has his detractors. To many critics, he's just another pretty face. One actor who co-starred with him in a well-publicized flop some years back claims that Redford is too concerned with his screen image. "He went so far as to tell me I'd never be a leading man if I took parts requiring me to cry on film," the actor says. Redford's forays into the environmental wars, his championing of solar energy and his backing of liberal political candidates have earned him both praise and ridicule. His private life had been unusually free of scandal—he's been married to the same woman for 25 years—until his elder daughter's boyfriend was murdered last year in what police say may have been a drug-related execution. And when that same daughter was involved this March in a near-fatal automobile accident, the previous incident, to Redford's sorrow, was revived.
There may, in fact, be a little of Roy Hobbs in the actor who plays him. Like Hobbs, Redford is a restless seeker, and, again like Hobbs, he was a drifter as a young man and didn't settle down to an acting career until he had bummed around Europe and tried his hand at painting. Redford is also an accomplished athlete, an avid skier, tennis player, mountain climber and, fleetingly, a ballplayer once more during the making of The Natural. The experience set him to thinking of sport's peculiar hold on the public, a subject he first explored on film 15 years ago in his critically acclaimed Downhill Racer, a movie about an arrogant yet insecure American skier who wins the Olympic downhill. If this character sounds suspiciously like the latest Olympic downhill champion, Bill Johnson, the coincidence isn't lost on Redford, who had fought in vain to make his skier in the movie a Californian, as both he and Johnson are. Redford's filmcraft is at its finest in that picture when, at the end, he, as the Olympic champion, is being carried off in triumph. In the giddiness of the moment, he espies a young challenger whose face is set with determination. Redford's own expression is transformed by this momentary contact. His face says it all—"My time is so short."
It is a bright April Southern California morning, the temperature rising lazily to the 80s, and Redford is having breakfast—a bowl of fruit and a glass of cranberry juice—on the patio of his beach house north of Malibu. His blond handsomeness is firmly in place. He is 46 but looks no older than 36, which is roughly the age of Hobbs in the second part of the movie. Redford plays the young Hobbs mostly in shadows, and he suggests his youth with mannerisms conveying callowness. He is of medium height—roughly 5'11"—and he has a trim athletic build, the result not of the latest athletic fads but of honest toil at the sports he enjoys, primarily tennis and skiing. He is wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a light blue T shirt, on which is emblazoned the logo of his Utah ski resort and cultural center, Sundance.
He rubs some tanning lotion on his famous features—strong jaw, slightly beaked and bent nose, prominent cheekbones—and settles back to watch the Pacific Ocean. He seems to this manner born, as indeed he was. The son of an oil company accountant, he was born in Santa Monica and reared in nearby Van Nuys, a middle-class Southern Californian to the navel. But, as with so many things about Redford, his background is deceptive.
"It seems to me I spent most of my life wanting to be someplace else," he says of his early years. "I was miserable in high school. I hated it. I just wanted out. I didn't feel like I fit anywhere. I was big at cutting classes. Oh, I appreciated Southern California living, but I didn't appreciate it as much until I got away and realized what had happened to Los Angeles. When I grew up here, you could smell the jasmine at night and see beyond two miles in daytime. I was very adjusted as a little kid, but as I grew older, I wanted to find out for myself what was out there. I felt as if L.A., with all the freeways, skyscrapers and high-tech cookie monsters, was sliding down the manhole. It didn't feel right to me. In a way I may have felt too comfortable. I suspected that the rest of the world wasn't quite that way."
He takes a long draft of juice and shifts in his chair. Redford is an active man who seems uncomfortable in repose. His manner, though, is casual. He looks and sounds like the screen Redford, but he's far more voluble.
"I played every sport as a kid, baseball through American Legion ball," he says. "I'm lefthanded all the way, so I played first base. My dad taught me how to play. It was no big deal between us, though. We always got along. I had no problems with my parents. I was into all sports aggressively. Then somewhere in my teens, I just lost interest in team sports. I stopped caring. I believed from the beginning that you played by the rules and that it was how you played the game, not whether you won, that counted. My disillusionment came when I realized that that wasn't the way things were at all. It was winning that counted. I wanted to put some of that in Downhill Racer. That character I played wasn't exactly lovable, and I wanted to show that merely by winning, his behavior could be excused. I was playing a character that was a lot of guys I grew up with—and unquestionably there was a bit of myself in there. I wanted him to be a Californian because I wanted to bring my background into the character. I wanted some of that California arrogance in him. The writer, Jim Salter, wanted him to be more of a Billy Kidd type, a New Englander. We compromised on Colorado.
"So 15 years later, a Southern California kid, a brash guy who says he's gonna smoke the Austrians, wins the downhill. Bill Johnson epitomized the naked truth that you can be or say anything you want as long as you win. It was life imitating art. His character was very much like the one I played. The parallels were incredible. Why, he and I are from the same town—Van Nuys. Somehow, after all these years, I feel vindicated."
Redford rises to answer the phone. There are no maids or housekeepers on the premises, so Redford handles his own calls, and according to his associates, no entertainer since Georgie Jessel has spent more time on the telephone. Redford only leases this beach house. His permanent residence is in Utah, but he lives about half the year in New York where his wife, Lola, is doing graduate work in history. "I like the balance of the city and the mountains," says Redford. "I can't imagine one without the other." The Redfords have two daughters, Shauna, 23, and Amy, 14, and a son, Jamie, 21, who's a college junior.
"I probably could've had a career in college sports," Redford says, resuming his seat in the sun. "But I'd been playing one sport or another since I was six years old. I think I was burned out on team sports by the time I got to high school. I'd already begun climbing mountains at 14. I was shifting steadily toward individual sports. I suppose it's that I want to have the most direct communication possible with an audience. That's why I studied painting [at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn]. What can be more direct than the painter and his canvas? There's no one else involved." He laughs. "And yet here is the contradiction: Film is a collaborative medium, and there's nothing I enjoy more than working well with another actor who's giving you something. It's like music. It's as if you're playing a symphony. I am a contradictory character.
"Anyway, I played a lot of American Legion baseball—for Brown's Sporting Goods—and I intended to play in college, but I discovered drinking instead and flunked out. So I went off to Europe to climb mountains. I didn't really play ball again until we filmed this picture. Then, 27 years later, I discovered what it was I liked about baseball. Everybody in life wants his time at bat, after all. And there I was, standing up there and hitting one out. Yes, I did, before a crowd of thousands—all extras. Of course, the rightfield foul line was only 310 feet, but I did get one out of there. Like Ted Williams. Williams was my hero as a kid. This was really before television, you know. With contemporary baseball, there's just too much television. I feel as if I'm pummeled by analysts and instant replays. Now somebody breaks a leg and there's a mike in his face. It's an incredible invasion of the imagination. It just makes me want to spend more time on a mountain in Utah. I don't respond to the current assault on my senses. I prefer to know less and imagine more.
"Now Williams I could just see in my mind's eye in Fenway Park. I copied his stance the way I'd seen it in pictures. The first time I was ever in New York—must've been 1957—I was standing on top of the RCA Building asking the guide what all the buildings were, when off in the distance I saw this flash of light. 'What's that?' I asked. The guard said it was Yankee Stadium, and I realized the Red Sox were playing the Yankees that night. I got in a subway and rode out to the ball park and got a seat in the bleachers. Right, Williams wasn't in the lineup. Then he came up to pinch hit in the ninth. I said to myself, 'Bob, this is for you.' And I'll be damned if he didn't hit one right over my head for a home run. I remember it was a 3-1 count. I'd had some good days myself, but that was my biggest thrill in sports."
Redford smiles at the recollection. Suddenly, he's on his feet, an imaginary bat in his hands. He takes a nice lefthanded cut and squints out onto the sunny beach, as if his ball had landed somewhere in sand-dune bleachers. "You know, until we made this movie, I hadn't realized how much I liked coming up to bat. I'd forgotten how oddly peaceful it felt. Funny."
The Natural was filmed on location in Buffalo, primarily because that city's 47-year-old War Memorial Stadium looked the part of a '30s ball park, a proper stage for a film that has its principal action in 1939. Writer Brock Yates once said this stadium "looked as if whatever war it was a memorial to had been fought within its confines."
"One of the problems people have always had with The Natural," says producer Johnson, "is that it's a period piece. That means you've got to redecorate everything, pull down the street signs, dress up your extras and put in your old cars. That's expensive. And you need a ball park that's right."
War Memorial is. It was built on the site of an old reservoir as a federal relief project in the Depression and was not so affectionately known as "the old rock pile." The rock pile, unfortunately, had trouble finding tenants. Minor league teams came and went, and it wasn't until the '60s, when the American Football League Bills moved in, that a regular occupant was found. In 1973, the Bills moved to the new Rich Stadium, and the rock pile stayed more or less vacant for another six years until the Buffalo Bisons Double A Eastern League team settled there.
Last June The Natural crew took over. Production designer Mel Bourne was enthusiastic about the site. "It was like what I thought a stadium should be," he said. But Levinson is a stickler for authenticity, and his underlings spent months researching just how a '30s stadium should look, how the field should be marked and how the players should be dressed. Tri-Star spent $500,000 putting War Memorial Stadium even farther back in time. Richard Cerrone, the assistant director of information in commissioner Bowie Kuhn's office, worked as a consultant with the filmmakers. He wasn't merely impressed by their re-creation of the past, he was flabbergasted. "It was unbelievable," says Cerrone. "When I walked through that tunnel into the stadium and saw that scoreboard with all of the old National League teams on it, some, like the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Bees, that no longer exist, and the advertising on the wall and the different markings on the field—the foul lines met behind home plate and there was a path between the mound and the plate—and the players in the old uniforms with the 1939 Centennial patch on the sleeves and the fans, extras, all in 1930s clothes, why, I tell you, it was the closest I'll ever come to being in a time warp. They even have the players leaving their gloves on the field, as they did in those days. In terms of accuracy and attention to detail, they've gone far beyond my expectations. They've probably gone farther than any sports movie ever has. If accuracy makes for a good picture, this one can't miss."
Even without Redford, The Natural has something of an all-star cast. Robert Duvall, winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor last month, plays a mean-spirited sportswriter; Glenn Close, twice nominated for Best Supporting Actress, is Hobbs's first love; and Richard Farnsworth, a nominee for Best Supporting Actor for 1978, plays Red Blow, a coach on Hobbs's team, the New York Knights. For the ballplayers Levinson needed, try-outs were held in New York and Buffalo. "We were looking for actors who could play ball and for ballplayers who could read lines," says Johnson. "I think we were lucky to get mostly ex-ballplayers. There are a lot of actors out there who are real klutzes. And the odd thing is that most actors want to do a baseball movie. They see it as an action movie with everything coming down to a final duel, just as in a Western. There's an individual triumph built into this framework. I was raised in Europe [he went to school in Spain], so I'm new to baseball, but I do recognize that an American's visual identification with succeeding is hitting a home run. It's not scoring a touchdown or serving an ace. It's knocking the ball out of the park. Every middle-aged American sees himself doing that."
Tony Ferrara, who was, and is, a batting-practice pitcher for both the Yankees and the Mets, helped Levinson put together his ball club—or clubs, since the Knights also needed National League opponents. "You know," Ferrara says, "I think we got some pretty good ballplayers. I think we could've put a pretty good club out there." Among those selected for Redford's team were Joe Charboneau, the Indians' much-publicized 1980 American League Rookie of the Year, who is now playing Class A ball for the Pirates' Carolina League team in Woodbridge, Va., and Phil Mankowski, who played 269 big league games with the Tigers and the Mets before retiring this past year at 30.
"My ballplaying days were over," says Mankowski. "I'd gone into the restaurant business with Rusty Staub. I was working one day when one of the waitresses, who's also an actress, told me they were casting a baseball picture. She said, 'Why don't you leave a couple of photos of yourself with the casting director?' I thought, 'Why not?' I slipped the pictures under the director's door, and then he called me. There must've been 300-400 guys trying out. I guess I hadn't lost much, so they took me. I had to work it out with Rusty to get the time off to work on the picture. I tell you, it's an experience that I'll never forget. Who would ever think that I'd be in a movie with Robert Redford?"
Redford hadn't made a movie himself in three years. He'd spent this slack time raising funds for his environmental and consumer groups; winning an Academy Award as Best Director for the film Ordinary People; climbing mountains in Nepal and tracking down fossils in Africa with his paleoanthropologist friend Dr. Richard Leakey. Levinson sent Redford to a private training camp in Connecticut with former Yankee and Senator pitcher Frank (Spec) Shea to work on his pitching motion. Hobbs the younger was potentially the world's greatest pitcher; Hobbs the elder was the world's greatest hitter. "Two hours is all we had," says Redford. "The throwing came back to me pretty quickly. I'd done so much of it as a kid. But I had to learn the double-pump windup that pitchers used in the Twenties [Hobbs is to try out with the Cubs in 1923]."
Redford is accustomed to doing things the old way. In The Way We Were he played a college decathlete, circa 1936. He had been a trackman in school, but he had to learn the old technique in the high jump and the javelin. "I had to learn everything from a point of view I never knew," he says. The same was true in The Natural. "When I first started playing ball, about 1946, I used a big Trapper mitt at first base. I'd snag everything one-handed. In 1939 they used those small gloves with the five stubby fingers and no webbing. In the movie we use the same kind. So just about the first ball hit to me in the outfield, I wave everybody off and yell, 'I got it.' It looked like an easy catch. The ball bounced off that little glove and hit me right in the head."
Redford was unnecessarily concerned about how the former college and minor league ballplayers in the cast would react to a 46-year-old movie star standing at the plate in a modified Ted Williams stance. "I figured those guys would think of me as pretty lame, that they'd be saying, 'Hey, who's this guy out here?' Instead they were really very helpful."
"He bats and throws lefty," says Mankowski, "and he did really well. He hit the ball hard and he had a good swing. Hey, the man's 46 years old. I was impressed."
"He looked like a ballplayer," says Cerrone. "He had that cocky walk. And one other way he looked like a ballplayer. Every time he'd come out of his trailer and walk into the ball park, all the extras would hit him for autographs. They had these vintage scorecards, and he'd sign as many as he could before he had to go to work. He looked just like Reggie Jackson in that way."
"He's a coordinated man," says Ferrara. "He's a well-built guy. You can tell he plays a lot of tennis. He hit one out off me in batting practice. He's a natural."
A movie isn't done even when it is done. There is the tedious business of editing, scoring and mixing sound with the action. There's also the matter of promotion, of preparing posters and newspaper and magazine advertisements, of filming trailers, the short previews shown in theaters and on television to entice customers. Redford is very much involved in all of these seemingly extraneous activities, and he's worried that the movie's complexity will be lost or misinterpreted in the promotional stuff. "Malamud got everything into one book," he says. "It's so richly allegorical. There's Babe Ruth in there, Shoeless Joe Jackson, the Miracle Braves of 1914 and Casey at the Bat. There's the Arthur legend with Hobbs's bat as Excalibur. And, of course, there's Eddie Waitkus. Remember him? It's extremely difficult to combine all of these elements into a picture, so, yes, we dared alter Malamud. Film is just not a literary medium, I'm afraid."
There have, indeed, been some alterations. Hobbs had no childhood to speak of in the book and no close feeling toward his father, as he has in the film. Quite the opposite in fact. "My father?" says Malamud's Hobbs. "Well, maybe I did want to skull him sometimes. After my grandma died, the old man dumped me in one orphan home after the other, wherever he happened to be working—when he did—though he did used to take me out of there summers and teach me how to toss a ball." In the book, Hobbs had no childhood sweetie. He carried his bat, Wonderboy, in a bassoon case. Once again, in the interests of authenticity, Johnson and Levinson tried to be faithful to the book, but they couldn't find a bassoon case big enough to hold a bat. Redford carries his Wonderboy in a trombone case. None of the filmmakers will reveal the ending, but Redford allows that "this picture will have less to do with the darker side of life." Malamud's ending—"Say it ain't true, Roy"—wasn't designed to send a movie-theater audience home in high good humor.
The ads and the trailers are reviewed in Johnson's office in the shabby little Coast town of Venice. Johnson is 37, but with tousled hair and a high-school-chic wardrobe, he looks maybe 25. He and Redford are joined this night by Howard Deutch, a nervous, dark-haired, thirtyish man who has carved out a successful career as a trailermaker, a genius of sorts who creates previews lasting from 30 to 90 seconds out of film clips, background music and a teasing narrative. Deutch is on the phone, as Redford, still in jeans but wearing a dress shirt and sweater now, bustles into the office. Perhaps because he has a phone to his own ear so often, he blithely begins a conversation with the trailer man. Realizing that he's interrupting, he turns to Johnson and, nodding toward Deutch, says, "Now there's a man who has the knack of appearing to talk to you when he isn't. That's real talent." Redford snaps the gum he's chewing. Deutch quickly hangs up the phone and joins the others.
Posters are strewed throughout Johnson's office, looking like discarded paintings. Redford eyes them professionally. "This one," he says, hefting an ad, "is just my face. It's a boring face, and it's not doing anything." He looks at another. "This one at least has a mystical element. I like the corrugated clouds.... Now here's another one with just me out there. All that says to me is, 'Let's show Redford out in public.'...I look like Indiana Jones here.... This one's too delicate. It doesn't show what Roy Hobbs has been through.... This one is slightly incongruous. There's a hobo there, but what's he doing with a bat?...Too busy. I have a built-in resistance to ads that try to do more than one thing...." He's chewing gum ferociously now, looking as if the ad campaign has suddenly gone down the tubes. "My problem with all of these," he tells the others, "is that they're too literal. We're missing the contrasting qualities—the light and the dark—that is this film." He shrugs, trudging off with the others to a screening room. "The truth is," he says, laughing, "print ads don't have that much to do with a movie's success, anyway. I hated the ad for The Sting. There Paul and I were, hugging each other, and Paul's lighting a cigar with a ten-dollar bill. Ugh!"
Redford reviews nine commercials for the movie in the screening room, scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad in the darkness. Deutch watches his stuff with true pride of authorship. There are snatches of dialogue—"I'm gonna break every record there is"—and flashing images. In the longest commercial, 90 seconds, Kate Smith is heard amid the bursts of talk and action singing the national anthem. When the lights go on, Redford pops up and sits on the back of the seat in front of him. "I really like three and five," he says. "But the 90 I have reservations about. It's too busy."
"People crave information," says Deutch. "They have to ask themselves, 'Why should I pay money to see this?' "
"Yes, I respect that," says Redford, "but I'm getting less out of more. It has something to do with the juxtaposition of images." Deutch looks hurt. "And we should bag The Star-Spangled Banner."
"It's unconventional," says Deutch, pointing up the irony of the anthem accompanying such a picture.
Redford gets up and begins pacing before the screen. "Nobody goes away humming The Star-Spangled Banner. It's a lousy song, for one thing. Definitely not Top 10. But beyond that, this movie has a schizophrenic quality that's better suited to the contrapuntal stuff. That's where we get the contrast. People don't expect that kind of music over a baseball story. The Star-Spangled Banner chops up the spot too much. The spot seems to be competing with itself. We need more of a solid impact."
"That's a real good argument," says Deutch. The Banner is bagged.
"The truth is, I don't like seeing myself on the screen at all," Redford says, eating a tuna fish sandwich in Johnson's small office. "I don't really have a feel for how I translate to an audience. I just do what I have to do. And when my work is finished, I don't spend any time here. Hollywood is a legitimate place to be; I just prefer to live elsewhere. I don't think of myself as a loner. I just don't belong to any social strata here. I have all kinds of friends: Tom Brokaw is one, the novelist Tom McGuane is another, and so are Senator Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere—I was a big Knicks fan—and Dr. Leakey. That's variety. But I do believe in spending a certain amount of time alone. It's particularly important for keeping perspective. If you're in my business and you're committed to raising a family, as I have been, it's not easy. In this sort of high-volume, high-altitude life, you're constantly searching for balance and for sanity.
"Things get misunderstood. I'm intensely interested in the political process, for example, but I have no interest in being a part of it. My interest makes it appear otherwise. It's all the attention people get now. Gary Hart is a friend of mine. When he started this campaign, he was considered to be some kind of issues-oriented intellectual. Then as soon as he started winning, he became a shallow man with no issues at all. Just a pretty face. Now that's amusing to me. I can relate to that personally.
"I don't see myself as a screen hero. I like to play characters who discover something about themselves, who start off in one direction, learn something and then end up in an entirely different direction. I like endings that ask a question. In The Candidate, you'll remember, the candidate gets elected on cosmetics and then asks at the end, 'What do we do now?' And in Downhill Racer, where does the skier go from there? The Natural is about a man trying to regain a dream. But things just aren't what they seem to be. The picture's got seduction, corruption, good, evil, and beyond that I don't know. All of that's interesting to me."
Redford, Levinson and Johnson are watching the first reel of their film in a Todd-AO screening room. Redford and Levinson are in their 40s and Johnson is getting there, but in their shirts and jeans, these three, sprawled on seats in the back of the little theater, could easily be a bunch of high school kids watching another Friday night movie. Both Johnson and Levinson, who began their partnership with Diner, admit to having been a trifle awestruck at the prospect of working with Redford. "You do get jaded in this business," says Johnson, "but it's tough to forget who he is. Every so often in the middle of a conversation, you'd find yourself saying to yourself, 'Oh my God, this is Robert Redford.' There's just a handful of people in this world you can look up to. Bob's one of them. He's never disappointed me. He's exceptionally bright and very giving."
"Working with him was rather simple, really," says Levinson. "I guess I was a little nervous the first day. I'd go up to him and say something like, 'Hey, what do you think if we do this?' But after that it was easy. I really expected bigger differences. But we both like baseball and this movie. The scope of this picture is rather large, you know. It's like making a large intimate movie."
The scenes they are watching—time and again—are of young Hobbs saying goodby to girl friend Glenn Close before his tryout with the Cubs, of his encounter with the Whammer on the train, his meeting him again in a carnival during the train delay and of his accepting the challenge to pitch to the Whammer, as the mystery lady, Harriet Bird, watches with sweet menace. Waitkus might have been mature enough to recognize danger here, had he been given the chance; Hobbs is too innocent. The dialogue in the Whammer scenes is taken almost word for word from Malamud's book, and Joe Don Baker as the Whammer looks and talks strikingly like the Babe himself: "Pitch it here, busher, and I will knock it into the moon...."
Sam Simpson, Hobbs's discoverer (played by John Finnegan), challenges Max Mercy, the cynical sportswriter: "I got ten dollars that says he can strike Wambold out with three pitched balls...."
"Oh, I love contests of skill," says mankiller Harriet.
"How about you, Huckleberry, you scared?" asks the Whammer.
"Not of you," says Roy.
It's a scene that might have been lifted from a boys' serial, but it has enormous significance to the story because it simultaneously unveils Hobbs's miraculous powers and presages his doom. Redford wears no makeup to disguise his age, but he expresses the self-consciousness of a young man, and the expression on his shadowy face is both confident and embarrassed. It's the look he had in The Way We Were when the English professor revealed that Redford, the athlete, not Barbra Streisand, the grind, had written the best short story. It's craftsmanship approaching art.
The scenes with Close, who is in her 30s, are shot mostly in a moonlit barn. Although their maturity is successfully shrouded, both reach too breathlessly for an adolescent tone. ("Oh God, I've never ridden on a train before....") But the tenderness shows. At the end of this scene, Close buries her head in Redford's shoulder, and his own head inclines toward hers. The lights flash on in the little theater. Levinson, blinking, stretches. Johnson scribbles something on a notepad. Redford continues staring at the suddenly blank screen as the sound men turn to him. "My God," he says finally, "that sounded as if I was crying."