Friday, September 18, 2015

Watch This: Bull Durham

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Bull Durham (1988)
Written and directed by Ron Shelton

It's mid-September, which for many Americans means the waning days of the baseball season have given way to the rush of excitement that marks the beginning of football season.  It's a fine time to be a sports fan, and it's a fine time to look back at one of the most beloved sports films ever made, the 1988 baseball comedy Bull Durham.

The film follows three central characters over the course of a single baseball season, and their relationships with one another form the basis of the film's narrative.  There is Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a devoted fan of the local Durham Bulls minor league baseball team, who chooses a single Bulls player each year with whom she will "hook up" for the length of the season.  More than just a physical relationship, this liaison also allows her to impart "life wisdom" and help the player improve his skills on the field.  This season, her two leading candidates are rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), whose sheer natural talent is offset by his stupidity and lack of control ("He's got a million-dollar arm, but a five-cent head," says the Bulls pitching coach), and veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), who has been sent down by the organization to help Nuke mature in preparation for a big-league career.  Crash is unhappy with the assignment, and takes every opportunity to disparage Nuke (who he refers to derogatorily as "Meat") because of his lack of respect for the game and for his incredible physical gifts.  Crash is also put off by the idea of having to "try out" for Annie, and so she is forced to choose Nuke, although it is clear from the beginning that she and Crash are attracted to one another.  As the season progresses, Crash's advice and Annie's unorthodox methods (a strange amalgam of sex, poetry, and Aztec folklore) begin to show results, and the combination of Nuke's dominant pitching and Crash's skill at the plate lead the team to a rare winning streak.  The team's success means that Nuke is eventually called up to the majors, and the remainder of the film is devoted to revealing the effects this sudden development has on both Crash's career and the relationship between Crash and Annie.

Much of the film's success can be attributed to Shelton's terrific, Oscar-nominated screenplay, which perfectly balances the love triangle storyline, Crash and Nuke's evolving mentor/mentee relationship, and the story of the Bulls team and their 142-game season.  Shelton's endlessly quotable script is both literate and vulgar, with strings of profanity fitting comfortably alongside Walt Whitman quotations and musings on metaphysics.  Many of the best lines belong to Crash, including his hilarious pitching advice to Nuke:

"Don't try to strike everybody out.  Strikeouts are boring.  Besides that, they're fascist.  Throw some ground balls, it's more democratic."

There is also a wonderful scene where Crash reminisces to his awestruck teammates about the three weeks he spent in the big leagues, where "other people carry your luggage," "the ballparks are like cathedrals," and "the women all have long legs and brains."

Credit should also be given to the three lead cast members for their pitch-perfect performances.  Robbins plays Nuke as a cocky doofus without ever veering into caricature, and Costner's easy charm and innate athletic ability make him ideal for the role of Crash.  It is Susan Sarandon, however, who is the real standout, bringing a natural vivacity and intelligence to Annie that makes you wonder how anyone else could ever have played the role.

One factor that makes Bull Durham such a revered sports film is its authenticity.  Ron Shelton spent several years in the Baltimore Orioles minor league organization in the late 60s and early 70s, so he knows the subject matter intimately.  His firsthand knowledge manifests itself onscreen in the sights and sounds of the local ballpark crowds, the cadence and profanity of the dugout chatter, the players' superstitious behaviors during the Bulls' winning streak, and the Costner voiceover that reveals Crash's thought process during each pitch of an early at-bat.  Shelton's focus on the relationships between the players and their everyday milieu, rather than a build-up toward a championship or game-winning play, sets the film apart from most other sports films, and lends the story greater credibility.  This authenticity is a likely reason for Bull Durham's placement at the very top of the 2003 Sports Illustrated list of the best sports movies of all time.  The list was compiled by the magazine's editors, a group that would be likely to recognize the accuracy of the film's depiction.

Shelton has always excelled in writing films about the relationships between men.  Nearly all of his films, including the criminally underrated White Men Can't Jump (1992), focus on a competitive relationship, friendship, or partnership between two men, and most of these characters are athletes or cops.  In Bull Durham, Crash and Nuke's antagonistic relationship is portrayed without triteness or cliché, and as they move gradually toward a mutual respect, that respect feels earned and sincere.

Given Shelton's career-long preoccupation with male characters and male-dominated settings, the character of Annie Savoy stands out even more clearly as the film's highlight.  Annie, especially as portrayed by Sarandon, is a fully fleshed-out character who exists on an equal footing with the two male protagonists, which is almost unheard of among films set in the world of professional sports.  She is smart, funny, sexy, and cultured, and she maintains the power in her relationships with men by choosing for herself which player she wants to be with, yet she also reveals a vulnerability in her need to be seen as "exotic" and "mysterious."  Although Bull Durham is about baseball, and the relationship between Crash and Nuke is central to the narrative, the film is really told from Annie's point of view, and it is Annie's relationships with Nuke and Crash that provide the film's overarching story.  It would be easy to credit Bull Durham's general popularity, especially among female viewers, to the film's romantic plot elements.  Certainly, the film works well as a romantic comedy, and there is chemistry to spare between both Sarandon and Costner and Sarandon and Robbins.  However, it is the subtly progressive character of Annie that really lends the film its enduring appeal.

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