Written & Directed by Ron Shelton
A few reviews back, I referred to The Natural as the quintessential Baseball movie, and while I stand by that statement, I also argue that Bull Durham is an essential entry into the baseball movie canon, but for completely different reasons. Perhaps that is the beauty of the baseball movie: the ability to have sub-genres within the framework of baseball. I understand that Baseball is not a genre unto itself, but certainly a topic which attracts a certain crowd who might have varying tastes when it comes to movie genres. With The Natural, we get a great dramatic love story; love between a man and a woman and the game itself. With Bull Durham we get a sprinkling of the dramatic elements, but instead are treated to a film that is not only romantic, but also extremely funny.
The Bad News Bears from earlier in the marathon presented us the comedic aspect of the baseball movie, but with Bull Durham, the recipe is slightly different, but delicious all the same. Written and directed by Ron Shelton, a former minor league baseball player, Bull Durham follows a season of the minor league Durham Bulls, their star pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), and a super fan, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) who chooses one player a year to have a season long affair with off the field in order to help their game on the field. After choosing Nuke as her lucky guy at the beginning of the season, Annie begins to realize that she may have met her match in Crash, who helps groom Nuke into a Major League ready pitcher throughout the course of the season, all the while chasing the ignominious record of most career minor league home runs.
The success of Bull Durham starts with its script. Ron Shelton’s experience in the minor leagues shines through in the script, creating fun, authentic characters. Nuke may seem like comedic relief, as zany and airheaded as he is, but Robbins’ performance in the role is near perfect. Nuke is inexperienced, cocky, talented, and has no idea how to use his talent to his advantage. Counterpart to Nuke is Crash, who feels like the most authentic player in the cast. Costner gives a great performance, allowing the audience into his love of the game, but great pain and disdain for how he has spent his whole career in the minors, hoping for a break with the big league club. He truly is the “player to be named later”, as he describes himself at the beginning of the film to his new manager. The relationship between Nuke and Crash is played perfectly, Crash tasked with reigning in the maverick young pitcher to take his raw talent and teach him how to actually pitch.
Opposite these two hothead players is Annie Savoy, who worships at the church of baseball, and beds her players for their benefit each season. Susan Sarandon, who I’ve never considered sexy, is sexy in this film, inhabiting the character of Annie like no other role I have seen the actress in. Even in the scene when Crash and Annie take a trip to the batting cage, Annie comes off as feminine even while knocking the cover off the ball. The dynamic created between the three main characters is a chemistry which is rarely seen in movies, and a credit to not only the actors, but the sharp script written by Shelton. Each exists as essential to the other, creating the perfect love triangle.
But the film is much more than a love triangle, as it successfully explores many aspects of the game, often for laughs. The manager of the club (Trey Wilson) and his assistant (Robert Wuhl) inhabit a space where comedy flows down from the top, most notably the “lollygaggers” scene and Wuhl’s pow-wow on the mound to discuss wedding gifts, et al. Shelton really does a good job of bringing in the psychology of the game with Crash’s POV at bats, the unexplained passion baseball players have for superstitions, and the head games between Crash and Nuke on the field. A very quotable movie, Bull Durham is a rare baseball film because it is equal parts comedy, insight, and love of the game.