Bull Durham (United States, 1988)July 25, 2009
If one was to make a list of the best baseball-themed movies of all time, Bull Durham would have to be in consideration. Alongside the likes of The Natural and Field of Dreams, it remains one of the best-loved hardball titles. Filmmakers like the diamond and its surroundings as a motion picture setting because of the game's mystique and flexibility. It can be used as an opportunity to plumb the depths of nostalgia, as in The Natural, or as a metaphor for ideas like redemption and renewal. The goal in Bull Durham is a little different: verisimilitude. This is about showing what it's like for athletes who play for the love of the game and not the expectation of multi-million dollar contracts. It's about the men who toil far from the spotlight and whose daily concern is not whether they will be promoted to The Show but whether their stats will allow them to bat another day.
The action focuses upon a season with the high-A Carolina (minor) League Durham Bulls. For the most part, the Bulls are comprised of more suspects than prospects - a motley crew of minor league lifers who would rather play for the meager paychecks the Bulls offer than work at Sears. There is an exception - young fireballer Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a star in the Bulls' major league affiliate's firmament. However, while LaLoosh can get his fastball up to about 100 mph, he rarely knows where it's going. In his Bulls debut, he strikes out 18 (a new league record) but also walks 18 (another new league record). In order to help LaLoosh along, the Bulls purchase the contract of veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) so Crash can act as an on-field mentor. The pitcher also gets some off-field lessons from Bulls fan Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who selects one player each season to be her "special" project. This year, it's LaLoosh, whom she nicknames "Nuke." When it comes to Annie, all Nuke is interested in is sex, but Annie has other plans. In addition to bedroom tactics, those involve broadening his mind. On one occasion, she ties him to the bed then reads to him from a volume of verse by Walt Whitman. Stormy seas occur, however, when it turns out that the chemistry between Crash and Annie is stronger than what exists between Nuke and Annie.
Crash and Annie are meant to have the kind of rich life experience that can rub off on an unrefined prospect like Nuke. Annie's life philosophy goes something like this: "I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones... I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring... which makes it like sex. There's never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn't have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just gotta relax and concentrate... You see, there's a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds... I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty." Crash also has a monologue in which he encapsulates in terms both profane and poetic the way he looks at the world: "I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days." (Irony note: Costner would go on to play Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone's JFK - a man who most definitely did not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.)
Although the movie is structured around the education of Nuke LaLoosh and the romantic triangle that develops featuring Crash, Nuke, and Annie, one of the pleasures associated with Bull Durham comes from how it reveals inside knowledge, such as what is said in a mound conference and how a catcher "motivates" a pitcher. Some of what's in the screenplay almost seems too offbeat to have a real-life analog, but writer/director Ron Shelton, who came up through the minors, has stated in numerous interviews that all of the seemingly unlikely incidents are recreations of actual events he witnessed during his baseball tenure, including the unorthodox method in which a "rainout" is engineered.
Bull Durham was the first step toward Shelton earning the unofficial moniker of "the sports movie guy." Between 1988, when Bull Durham was released, and 2003, when Shelton left feature films for television, he was involved in eight sports-related movies as a director and/or writer. And it wasn't just baseball - boxing, basketball, football, and golf were all represented. Bull Durham was Shelton's directorial debut and it earned him his only Oscar nomination to-date: Best Original Screenplay. He lost to Rain Man, which proved to have long coattails at the early 1989 ceremony.
None of the leads - Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins - were first choices, but all proved more than capable of handling their roles. For Costner, this represented the first of three baseball movies in which he would appear (the other two: Field of Dreams and For Love of the Game), plus he would also star in Shelton's golf movie, Tin Cup. At the time when Bull Durham came out, Costner was at the apex of his career, having skyrocketed from obscurity to fame with The Untouchables. Bull Durham gave Costner and opportunity to emote - something he was largely denied when playing the straight-arrow Elliot Ness, and the role of Crash showed that this actor could get down-and-dirty and cuss with the best of them.
Bull Durham brought together Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, and they have been an off-screen couple ever since. Sarandon is older than both her co-stars (at the time of filming, she was 41, Costner was 32, and Robbins was 29), and this is a rare instance in which an over-40 actress is allowed the opportunity to function as a sex symbol. Although chemistry is evident in the pairing of Sarandon and Robbins, it is perhaps surprising that more vivid sparks fly between her and Costner. It's a good triangle, though, with plenty of sexual tension to amp things up and not much melodrama to bring them down.
As sports movies go, this one is unconventional, dealing more with the minutia that provides the foundation of life in the minor leagues than with the actual games. The genre formula calls for the film to end with a big game, but that doesn't happen here. Instead, Nuke is promoted to the majors, Annie and Crash light the blue touch paper, and Crash (his job done) is released. There is no championship game, no-hitter, or similar contrivance. Those who complain that Bull Durham is anti-climactic are missing the point. The qualities that distinguish Bull Durham from so many other baseball movies are its low-key humor (in contrast to the overt jokiness of Major League and The Naked Gun), the smartness of the dialogue (see that above monologues), and its true-to-life depiction of what it's like to be an A-ball player. Bull Durham put the Durham Bulls on the map, but it also reminded baseball-loving movie-goers that not every film has to end with a home run to be a home run.
Bull Durham (United States, 1988)
Cast: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Jenny Robertson, Trey Wilson, Robert Wuhl
Screenplay: Ron Shelton
Cinematography: Bobby Byrne
Music: Michael Convertino
U.S. Distributor: Orion Pictures