The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close), and nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger). Many of the baseball scenes were filmed in Buffalo, New York's War Memorial Stadium, built in 1937 and demolished a few years after the film was produced. Buffalo's All-High Stadium stood in for Chicago's Wrigley Field in a key scene.
A young Roy Hobbs plays baseball with his father on the family farm. Roy's father dies suddenly under a tree. That tree is split in half by lightning, and Roy carves a baseball bat from it. He burns a lightning bolt on the barrel and calls it Wonderboy.
In 1923, Hobbs, now 19 years old, is trying out for the Chicago Cubs as a pitcher. At a carnival, Hobbs is challenged to strike out "The Whammer", the top hitter in the Majors. Sportswriter Max Mercy, traveling with Whammer, draws a picture of the event.
Hobbs also encounters Harriet Bird, an alluring woman, who becomes smitten with him after he strikes out Whammer. Bird lures Hobbs to her hotel room and shoots him before she commits suicide. It is revealed that Bird kills rising athletes, having already murdered two others.
Sixteen years later, the New York Knights sign the now 35-year-old Hobbs, frustrating the team's manager and co-owner, Pop Fisher. With the Knights mired in last place, Pop is angry over being saddled with a "middle-aged" rookie.
During the next game, "Bump" Bailey's careless playing results in Hobbs becoming a pinch hitter. Hobbs literally knocks the cover off the baseball, winning the game. When Bump later dies after crashing through an outfield fence, Hobbs becomes the league's sensation, turning the Knights' fortunes around.
Hobbs' success prompts Mercy to try to unearth Hobbs' background. Later, Hobbs is summoned to a meeting with the principal owner of the team, The Judge. The Judge has an agreement with Pop that if the Knights fail to win the pennant at the end of the season, Pop's share of the team reverts to the Judge. To ensure the team loses, the Judge had a scout stock the roster with unknown players like Hobbs.
When Hobbs refuses a bribe to throw the season, gambler Gus Sands and the Judge send Memo Paris, Pop's niece and Bump's former girlfriend, to trick Hobbs. Mercy finally remembers where he had seen Hobbs before. Later, Mercy introduces Hobbs to Gus and Memo. Pop warns Hobbs that Memo is "bad luck," but they begin a relationship and Hobbs soon falls into a playing slump.
At Wrigley Field in Chicago, Hobbs comes to bat. A woman dressed in white rises in the stands, and Hobbs, seeing her, promptly hits a game-winning home run. The woman is his childhood sweetheart, Iris. They meet later and Hobbs confides to her about the shooting and how he lost his way in life. Iris tells him she has a 16-year-old son and says the boy's father lives in New York.
With Hobbs hitting again, the Knights surge into first place, needing just one more win to clinch the pennant. Hobbs again refuses a payoff from Gus to throw the game. During a party at Memo's, Hobbs collapses and awakens in a hospital a few days later. Without Hobbs, the Knights have lost their last three games, setting up a one-game playoff against the Pittsburgh Pirates for the pennant. The doctor informs Hobbs that his stomach lining has been deteriorating due to his old gunshot injury. If he continues to play, the physical strain could kill him.
Memo encourages Hobbs to accept Gus' payoff, and The Judge later increases the amount. Hobbs refuses, but the Judge has a contingency plan, having bribed another key team member. Hobbs later tells Iris that he feels responsible for failing to achieve his full potential, but she insists he is a great player. Before the final game, Pop tells Hobbs that he is the best hitter he ever saw. Hobbs realizes during the game that the Knights' starting pitcher, Fowler, is the player the Judge bribed. Hobbs confronts him on the mound, warning him not to throw the game. Fowler replies he will start pitching when Hobbs starts hitting. Iris, in the stands with her son, asks an usher to deliver a message to Hobbs saying she and her son are at the game and that Hobbs is the boy's father. Shocked, Hobbs peers out from the dugout but cannot see them.
The Knights are trailing and Hobbs comes up to bat. The Pirates bring in a young, hard-throwing, left-handed pitcher who sees that Hobbs is affected by his old injury. Down to his last strike, Hobbs hits a foul ball so hard it splits "Wonderboy" in two, shaking his confidence. Bobby, the bat boy, brings Hobbs the "Savoy Special," the bat that Hobbs helped Bobby make. Hobbs hits the next pitch into the overhead lights, winning the pennant.
Some time later, Hobbs plays catch with his son on Iris' farm, as she looks on.Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs
Robert Duvall as Max Mercy
Glenn Close as Iris Gaines
Kim Basinger as Memo Paris
Wilford Brimley as Pop Fisher
Barbara Hershey as Harriet Bird
Robert Prosky as The Judge
Richard Farnsworth as Red Blow
Joe Don Baker as "The Whammer"
Darren McGavin as Gus Sands
Michael Madsen as Bartholomew "Bump" Bailey
John Finnegan as Sam Simpson
Alan Fudge as Ed Hobbs
Ken Grassano as Al Fowler
Mike Starr as Boone
Mickey Treanor as Doc Dizzy
Jon Van Ness as John Olsen
Anthony J. Ferrara as Coach Wilson
George Wilkosz as Bobby Savoy
Paul Sullivan Jr. as Young Roy
Rachel Hall as Young Iris
The film's producers stated in the DVD extras that the film was not intended to be a literal adaptation of the novel, but was merely "based on" the novel. Malamud's daughter said on one of the DVD extras that her father had seen the film, and his take on it was that it had "legitimized him as a writer".
Darren McGavin was cast late in the process as gambler Gus Sands and was uncredited in the film. Due to a disagreement, he chose not to be credited, though later Levinson wanted to credit him and McGavin said no. Levinson stated on the DVD extras for the 2007 edition that because there had been too little time during post-production to find a professional announcer willing and able to provide voice-over services, Levinson recorded that part of the audio track himself.
Two-thirds of the scenes were filmed in Buffalo, New York, mostly at War Memorial Stadium, built in 1937 and demolished a few years after the film was produced. Buffalo's All-High Stadium, with post-production alterations, stood in for Chicago's Wrigley Field in a key scene in the film. Additional filming took place at the New York and Lake Erie Railroad depot in South Dayton, New York.
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively compiled reviews from 36 critics to give a score of 81%, with an average rating of 7.1/10.
Variety called it an "impeccably made...fable about success and failure in America." James Berardinelli praised The Natural as "[a]rguably the best baseball movie ever made." ESPN's Page 2 selected it as the 6th best sports movie of all time, and sports writer Bill Simmons has argued, "Any 'Best Sports Movies' list that doesn't feature either Hoosiers or The Natural as the No. 1 pick shouldn't even count."
Director Barry Levinson said on MLB Network's "Costas at the Movies" in 2013 that while the movie is based in fantasy, "through the years, these things which are outlandish actually [happen]...like Kirk Gibson hitting the home run and limping around the bases...Curt Schilling with the blood on the sock in the World Series."
Leonard Maltin's annual Movie Guide in its 1985 edition called it "too long and inconsistent." Dan Craft, longtime critic for the Bloomington, Illinois paper, The Pantagraph, wrote, "The storybook ending is so preposterous you don't know whether to cheer or jeer." Frank Deford in Sports Illustrated, had faint praise for it: "The Natural almost manages to be a swell movie." John Simon of the National Review and Richard Schickel of Time were disappointed with the adaptation. Simon contrasted Malamud's story about the "failure of American innocence" with Levinson's "fable of success . . . [and] the ultimate triumph of semi-doltish purity," declaring "you have, not Malamud's novel, but a sorry illustration of its theme." Schickel lamented that "Malamud's intricate ending (it is a victory that looks like a defeat) is vulgarized (the victory is now an unambiguous triumph, fireworks included)," and that "watching this movie is all too often like reading about The Natural in the College Outline series."
Roger Ebert called it "idolatry on behalf of Robert Redford." Ebert's television collaborator Gene Siskel praised it, giving it four stars, also putting down other critics that he suggested might have just recently read the novel for the first time.
In a lengthy New Yorker article on baseball movies, Roger Angell pointed out that Malamud had intentionally treated Hobbs' story as a baseball version of the King Arthur legend, which came across in the film as a bit heavy-handed, "portentous and stuffy," and that the book's ending should have been kept. He also cited a number of excellent visuals and funny bits, and noted that Robert Redford had prepared so carefully for the role, modeling his swing on that of Ted Williams, that "you want to sign him up".
The Natural was nominated for four Academy Awards: Actress in a Supporting Role (Glenn Close), Cinematography (Caleb Deschanel), Art Direction (Mel Bourne, Angelo P. Graham, Bruce Weintraub), and Music (Randy Newman). Kim Basinger was also nominated for Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
Roy Hobbs – Nominated Hero
2005: AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Sports Film
The initial DVD edition, with copyright year on the box reading "2001", contained the theatrical version of the film, along with a few specials and commentaries.
The "director's cut" was released on April 3, 2007. A two-disc edition, it contains the featurette "The Heart of the Natural," a 44-minute documentary featuring comments from Cal Ripken, Jr. and Levinson; it is the only extra released originally with the 2001 DVD. Sony added a number of other extras, however, including: "When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural," a 50-minute documentary discussing the origins of the original novel and the production of the film; "Knights in Shining Armor," which addresses the mythological parallels between The Natural, King Arthur and the Odyssey; and "A Natural Gunned Down" which tells the story of Eddie Waitkus, a baseball player who was shot by Ruth Ann Steinhagen, a female stalker, in an incident which inspired the fictionalized shooting of Roy Hobbs. The film itself has been re-edited, restoring deleted footage to the early chapters of the story. These scenes expand on the sadness of Hobbs, focusing on his visits to his childhood home as an adult and his childhood memories. The "gift set" version of the release also included some souvenirs: a baseball "signed" by Roy Hobbs; some baseball cards of Roy Hobbs and teammates; and a New York Knights cap.
The Natural was released on Blu-ray format on April 6, 2010. The special features from the two-disc DVD are included, but the film is the original theatrical cut, not the director's cut.
The film score of The Natural was composed and conducted by Randy Newman. The score has often been compared to the style of Aaron Copland and sometimes Elmer Bernstein. Scott Montgomery, writing for Goldmine music magazine, referenced the influence, and David Ansen, reviewing the film for Newsweek, called the score "Coplandesque." The score also has certain Wagnerian features of orchestration and use of Leitmotif. Adnan Tezer of Monsters and Critics noted the theme is often played for film and television previews and in "baseball stadiums when introducing home teams and players."
Levinson also described to Bob Costas in MLB Network's "Costas at the Movies" how he heard Randy Newman develop the movie’s iconic theme: "We were racing to try to get this movie out in time and we were in one room and then there was a wall and Randy's in the other room. One of the great thrilling moments is I heard him figuring out that theme...You could hear it through the wall as he was working out that theme and I'll never forget that."
The soundtrack album was released May 11, 1984 on the Warner Bros. label, with the logo for Tri-Star Pictures also appearing on the label to commemorate this as their first production. All music was composed by Randy Newman.
- "Prologue 1915-1923" – 5:20
- "The Whammer Strikes Out" – 1:56
- "The Old Farm 1939" – 1:07
- "The Majors: The Mind Is a Strange Thing" – 2:14
- "'Knock the Cover Off the Ball'" – 2:17
- "Memo" – 2:02
- "The Natural" – 3:33 (track not used in the film)
- "Wrigley Field" – 2:13 (two separate tracks spliced)
- "Iris and Roy" – 0:58
- "Winning" – 1:00
- "A Father Makes a Difference" – 1:53
- "Penthouse Party" – 1:10
- "The Final Game / Take Me Out to the Ball Game" – 4:37 (three separate tracks spliced)
- "The End Title" – 3:22