John Tunis wrote these great epic baseball novels for kids starring Roy Tucker as The Kid From Tomkinsville about a young country boy who was destined to be the greatest pitcher of all time. When he hurts his arm, he is forced to learn how to hit and become a corn-fed Babe Ruth. Bernard Malamud probably dug those books, but he wasn’t writing for kids or romantics. He was concerned with sin, gamblers, sex, and betrayal. He created Roy Hobbs and promptly shot him in the gut. I wonder what the 69-year-old Malamud thought of the Disney movie Barry Levinson turned his novel into — maybe it contributed to his death a couple years later. It’s not a bad Disney movie per se, it’s just not what Malamud had in mind. He was one of those glass is half empty sort of guys.
Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) is a country boy headed for the big leagues. He has a dream that someday “people would see me walking down the street and say, ‘There goes Roy Hobbs. The best there ever was.'” Ted Williams had the same dream. If this was Tunis, he would meet a bunch of swell guys, characters each and every one, and win a pennant. Instead he meets this warped chick named Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey before she had her lips done), who has this thing about killing star athletes with silver bullets. When Roy steps off of his train and strikes out The Whammer, the best Babe Ruth portrayal ever by Joe Don Baker, outside of a carnival, Harriet decides to gun down the kid instead of the superstar. Somehow it takes Roy sixteen years to make the big leagues, but the wound never heals enough to let him pitch again so he grabs his homemade bat, “Wonderboy,” and slowly, as in really slowly, climbs his way to the big leagues, searching for redemption. To tell you the truth, I never really understood why Roy deserved sixteen years of purgatory just for being attracted to a hot nutty bird with a gun, but Malamud was probably the one guy who thought it was cool when the 1919 Chicago White Sox threw the World Series.
Levinson doesn’t seem to care about redemption, guilt, or any of that other nonsense. He wants to make “the great American baseball hero movie.” He wants to say something about old neighborhoods and fathers and sons playing catch in the late summer evening. The cinematography is lush, the Randy Newman score is so epic that Hollywood uses it for practically every movie trailer that isn’t a Chris Tucker comedy or a “Shaft” remake, and the period detail, and baseball scenes, are top notch.
Actually, on its face, the movie is pretty faithful to the book, until the ending. The gamblers are still here, the sportswriter is a bit of a cynic, and the owner of the team gets off on sitting in the dark, but Malamud’s novel ends with a sob, whereas Levinson’s movie tosses in thunderbolts, the blood of old wounds, angelic mothers with their fair haired sons, a broken magic bat, an overweight cherubic bat boy and a busted lamp standard imitation of the fourth of July. It’s all quite beautifully done; it might even manipulate a shiver down your spine and a few tears of joy and redemption, but can you really celebrate a hero if he never really faces true temptation? Robert Redford is as likely to let the side down as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were to out shoot the Bolivian Militia.
There’re some nice performances by Robert Duval, as the requisite sportswriter who also draws caricatures (they all do in baseball movies), and the all-time greatest portrayal of a frustrated, grumpy, never say die manager by Wilford Brimley. Even the old guy coach played by Richard Farnsworth seems eerily authentic. There’s some weirdness about women going on though. The good one wears white and the bad ones dress like Darth Vader. When Roy is attracted to Harriet he gets shot, when he hangs out with Kim Basinger his batting average slumps, when Glenn Close spiritually stands up to heal him … well you know.
It’s not that it’s horrible. Actually it’s pretty good. It’s just that when Quentin Tarantino remakes it (Michæl Madsen is already here as the headstrong and arrogant Bump Bailey), I’ll be the first one in line. Docked one star for rife sentimentality.