It is tough to make a sports movie feel real. This is a technical issue more than anything else. Most sports do not look right when they are filmed for a movie. They feel too choreographed, too wooden. Some of the organic energy is taken away through blocking and having the camera there to try and catch a very specific outburst of action. That’s why most films that focus on a game like football are unwatchable, and why there are very few memorable basketball or hockey films. But baseball, on the other hand, baseball is a sport which exists as much in the pantheon of cinema as it does in the history of our country. It is calmer, easier to film, and the deliberate pacing allows for so much more richness of narrative than any contact sport. Ron Shelton, the director of Bull Durham, understands baseball. He knows the way it works from the ground up because he spent some time in the minors himself. Bull Durham is the quintessential baseball picture, alive with colorful characters and centered by a precocious woman and a cagey veteran catcher who’s been around the block.
Susan Sarandon plays Annie Savoy, our narrator and a woman who loves baseball almost as an erotic experience. She vows to spend each summer with a different newcomer to the Durham Bulls, a minor league club that, of course, is not that great on the field. Where would the comedy come from if these movie ball clubs were any good? Annie has two choices for a mate: the first is a young, cocky fastballer named “Nuke” LaLoosh, played by a dopey and wide-eyed Tim Robbins. Robbins has all the raw talent in the world but his ego is holding him back. That is the very reason Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is brought in. Davis, a seasoned veteran who has spent a career in the minors with a cup of coffee in the majors, is brought to the Bulls to wrangle LaLoosh and help him learn his potential. But Davis isn’t just a babysitter; he still wants the glory of “the show.” Naturally the two men don’t see eye to eye, which is where much of the comedy comes from.
The story outside the diamond becomes a comedic love triangle where Annie falls for Nuke, then Crash (only in minor league baseball do you find these names!), and the two men jockey for position in her heart. It is clear Annie belongs with Crash, but judging by her criteria set forth early in the picture Nuke fits her strategy a little more. The back and forth between these three characters is the heart of the story. Nuke enjoys the love affair with the team groupie; Crash discovers that he shares many of the same sensibilities with Annie that go beyond the summer nights spent in the Bulls’ stadium. I could never see another person playing Annie with a perfect balance the way Sarandon does. We don’t see her as a floozy or a ditz, but a woman who understands what she wants and goes for it. And is there another actor in the world who belongs in the center of a baseball movie more than Kevin Costner? I don’t think so.
But of course there is the baseball in Bull Durham. The baseball feels real, looks real, and is loaded with vibrant characters that, no matter how quirky or goofy they may be, seem like they are representations of real characters from Shelton’s past spent in the sport. There is the grizzled manager and the spunky assistant coach and the superstitious Hispanic player. All of these characters fill the margins of Bull Durham and give it vibrancy and a life unlike most baseball movies. The scenes between LaLoosh and Davis on the mound are written brilliantly and executed even better. Nuke won’t change his pitch, Crash argues, they go back and forth. So Crash tells the batter where the pitch is going to be and the batter drills it over the fence. Lesson learned.
Bull Durham is a film about lessons learned in the sport, and it examines the age-old metaphor of baseball as life. Say what you will about the modern game and the modern athlete, but there is still something magical about this time of year, when the stadiums open and the smell of baseball is in the air. Bull Durham understands the way baseball works its threads through our lives, and that is what makes it something more than a sports movie.