Thursday, May 27, 2010

Short Cuts 5: A good part and a simple question

Michael Powell has said that there is no such thing as a small part in a film. There are good parts and bad. Never was there a better manifestation than Harriet Bird in The Natural: a special part about a woman who asks a simple question. “Will you be the best there ever was in the game?”

The Natural is a film about baseball as myth. It centers on Roy Hobbs, a baseball phenom destined to be the best there ever was. But Roy first has to undergo a series of forging fires. And Harriet Bird provides the first of those conflagrations.

Barbara Hershey plays Harriet with the stillness of Mrs. Danvers and the quiet destructive manner of Julie Kohler. Harriet is a modern day demented Morgan le Fay, perhaps. She brings down lords of lesser fiefdoms. (We learn offhandedly that she has, off camera, stalked the greatest in sports other than baseball and killed them with a silver bullet.)

Sexy temptress? One understands why Scorsese chose Barbara Hershey to play Mary Magdalene.

Harriet Bird is on a train stalking The Whammer, the essence of Babe Ruth, and currently believed to be the best there is. Roy Hobbs is also on the train. An old baseball hand introduces the reigning lord and the lowly aspirant. Later, while the train is at rest at a water stop, an argument ends in a test of manliness at a fairground. The age old baseball showdown takes place: pitcher vs. hitter (Sir Lancelot vs. Sir Turquine). Three pitches will decide all.

The superstar, The Whammer, strikes out on three pitches. Harriet Bird witnesses the sandlot strikeout and with a turn of a glance moves an unpublished death notice from major league superstar to promising phenom. Roy Hobbs becomes a hero, having taken the first symbolic step toward being the best there ever was.

Harriett watches as Roy does that little skip of joy not realizing he has half danced his way into sixteen years of ignominy. The chilling Miss Bird’s eye has shifted now from second best to first. To ensure her quest is on target, she later meets Roy on the train and asks him that question. “Will you be the best there ever was in the game?” Roy affirms.

Next -- a scene in a hotel. Roy is called to another room. Harriet, like some celestial messenger in a mourning dress and veil, asks the fateful question once more. Roy assures her – once more. A gunshot. Roy lays bleeding on the floor. A curtain rustles by an open window. The angel of death was without wings. Roy Hobbs is without a career.

The film in essence begins but its very best part is behind us.

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