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Why 'The Natural' still connects

Its explosive ending abandoned its Bernard Malamud-authored source material. Its missed opportunities in character development have been panned by the likes of the late Roger Ebert; and obvious plot holes can be noted by even the most novice viewer.

And is it really believable that an accomplished sportswriter would forget about the shooting of a top baseball prospect—one whom he personally pitted against the sport’s greatest hitter, then chronicled the ensuing strikeout in sketch?

But none of these points have prevented Barry Levinson’s “The Natural” from being one of the most beloved sports films of all time. From its hero in Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs to its soaring film score by Randy Newman, the iconic 1984 feature—set for a Turner Classic Movies-sponsored screening Oct. 21 inside North Park Theatre—still connects with big screen and baseball fans alike. And with a backdrop featuring the Ellicott Square Building, Parkside Candy and War Memorial Stadium, it’s still particularly special to generations of Buffalonians.

Here are five other reasons the film continues to endure both nationally and locally as an all-time favorite:

America’s pastime

Whether the mystery of the pitch, anticipation of the swing or the nail-biting patience necessary to follow it all, baseball is resplendent with its own drama—which has always made it ideally suited to be interwoven through literature and film. But with the game’s inherent thrills merged with memorable characters, "The Natural" combines cherished sport with riveting story to deliver a timeless concoction.

The tragedy of judgment

Bad decisions alter the trajectory of lives. In “The Natural,” such choices set the entire story in motion. What if Redford’s Hobbs never pitched to Joe Don Baker’s Whammer? What if Wilford Brimley’s Pop Fisher had become a farmer, and what if Glenn Close’s Iris Gaines let Hobbs out of the barn with just a goodbye kiss? It’s the possibility of an alternate path, just dangling for viewer reflection.

Fathers and sons

A game of catch between father and son not only exemplifies baseball’s familial bond. It embodies its link between generations that have tossed the same ball into the same leather mitts. This hasn’t changed, nor has the ability of “The Natural”—whose lead character’s baseball dreams start with encouragement from his father, and end with a toss to his son—to honor this patriarchal dynamic.

Romance of the Rockpile

To the uninitiated, Buffalo’s unevenly constructed War Memorial Stadium was a crumbling dump. But to locals familiar with the home of two AFL championship Bills teams and seasons of Bisons baseball, the place was special. Levinson’s film made it downright romantic. Hobbs’ fedora-clad arrival in the stadium dugout. His cover-stripping triple and dramatic blast into the lights. It was movie magic, and it all happened at the now-deceased Rockpile.

Never too late for a new ending

The allure of second chances speaks to anyone’s hope for redemption, in any stage of their life. In “The Natural,” Roy Hobbs’s second chance—pursued by a character that, by his own admission, “sort of got sidetracked”—is realized at a stage when the character is inching toward the point of no return. Yet despite past mistakes literally bleeding through to his present, he endures to his dramatic, Hollywood-appropriate destiny.

TCM host Ben Mankiewicz loves Buffalo – and wants more movies set here

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