Program Notes: Bull Durham (1988)
“I believe in the soul...in the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curveball, 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 for days.”
No baseball player in a movie – or in real life, for that matter – has ever talked like “Crash” Davis, the aging minor-league catcher played by Kevin Costner in Bull Durham. In fact, many of the characters in this wonderful romantic comedy are prone to make big, grandiloquent speeches.
But while they’re talking, the smile rarely leaves our faces. Next to All About Eve, Bull Durham may have the best dialogue in Hollywood history.
And even if the dialogue here doesn’t feel particularly realistic, it always feels right.
Plus, as baseball movies go, this one has a pedigree. Writer/director Ron Shelton is a romantic who knows something about baseball, having played second base in the late ‘60s for the Baltimore Orioles farm system. That explains why his film is crammed with delightful torn-from-life moments.
Ever wonder what the manager, pitcher, and catcher talk about when they gather on the mound in the middle of an inning with the bases loaded? Would you believe picking the appropriate wedding present for a fellow player’s upcoming nuptials?
Here’s the windup: The Durham Bulls are a perennially losing franchise, but as a new season begins they have a glimmer of hope. New to the team is pitcher Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a young fellow described as having a lightning-bolt arm and a 10-cent brain.
Veteran catcher Crash Davis (who once played in the majors for a month) is assigned to work with the physically gifted, mentally slow, and wildly inconsistent pitcher. Ebby can help the Bulls win a few games, and when the time is right he’ll move up to the big leagues.
The kid learns a lot from Crash on the field. He might learn even more in his off hours from Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a baseball fan (the word groupie is so tacky) who every year adopts one promising Bulls player to take under her wing.
Through sex, mysticism, Walt Whitman, and pop psychology, Annie molds young minds and bodies into something worthy of an All Star game.
“There’s no guilt in baseball,” she observes. “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.
“Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250...not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle.”
As you can tell from the way they talk, Annie and Crash are made for each other. If only they can find a way to acknowledge their attraction and nudge aside the monosyllabic Ebby without ruining the kid’s confidence.
Costner biographer Adrian Wright writes that:
“What emerges so strongly from Shelton’s screenplay is the utter inevitability of baseball to the American ethos, and we see it as a thing of the utmost beauty, symmetry, importance, and relevance.
“To the unseeing, it may be that when this movie isn’t about baseball, it’s about sex, but nothing could be further from the facts. What the film seems to be saying for most of its length is that sex is fun but baseball is crucial. The maturity of Ebby, Crash, and Annie that grows during the movie proves that this balance can be altered. Shelton and his marvelous players show us that the changes can only come after a deal of pain, transforming what begins as a sporty, smart-edged comedy into a deeply moving experience.”
The critics agreed. Not just any critic, but the critic, The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael:
“Named for the chewing tobacco, the romantic comedy Bull Durham has the kind of dizzying off-center literacy that Preston Sturges’ pictures had. It’s a satirical celebration of our native jauntiness and wit; it takes us into subculture that’s like a bawdy adjunct of childhood – minor-league baseball.
“Everybody in it is a comic character, and uses a pop lingo that you tune into without any trouble, though you can’t quite believe the turns of phrase you’re hearing. You’re thrown just enough to do a double take, and recover in time to do another...”
At the end of Bull Durham, Costner’s Crash and Sarandon’s Annie fall into each other’s arms. In real life the outcome was a bit different. It was Robbins who ended up in a long-term relationship with Sarandon (who is 12 years his senior), one that ended only a couple of years ago. As Hollywood “marriages” go (they never wed), that’s an eternity.
Though his output has slowed in recent years, writer/director Shelton was busy in the decade following Bull Durham, often making movies with a heavy emphasis on sports: White Men Can’t Jump (1992), Cobb (1994), Tin Cup (1996), and Play It to the Bone (1999).
Other films in the series “Hollywood Homers”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- June 2: Field of Dreams (1989) Rated PG
- June 9: Eight Men Out (1988) Rated PG
- June 16: Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) Rated PG
- June 23: A League of Their Own (1992) Rated PG
- June 30: The Rookie (2002) Rated PG
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- June 4: Major League (1989) Rated R
- June 11: Damn Yankees! (1958) Not Rated
- June 18: Bull Durham (1988) Rated R
- June 25: The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.