The roster of baseball movies made since the 1899 one-reeler entitled Casey at the Bat numbers about 120, and although there are a few standouts—most notably, Pride of the Yankees and Bang the Drum Slowly—the genre as a whole has been about as successful as the Seattle Pilots. The Natural, the last baseball movie worth talking about, was lovingly crafted and wonderfully acted, but as a friend of mine said, "It's a baseball movie for girls."
Now comes Bull Durham, a baseball movie for girls and boys and even curmudgeons who think that you can't put cowhide on celluloid. Here's the basic difference between The Natural and Bull Durham: One of the big moments in The Natural comes when the batboy hands his very own bat, the Savoy Special, to Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), and Hobbs says thanks with a telling look, and then hits the climactic homer; in Bull Durham, one of the great moments comes after the batboy hands Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) the pine-tar rag and says imploringly, "Get a hit, Crash," interrupting Crash's reverie about what the next pitch will be. Crash looks at the batboy as if he were a bug and says, "Shut up." Then he strikes out.
Bull Durham captures the reality, the language and the humor of the game as no baseball film ever has. It also has a witty and knowing screenplay, with allusions ranging from Susan Sontag to the sweet spot. The movie was written and directed by Ron Shelton, whose credits include the screenplay for the 1986 film The Best of Times and five years as a second baseman in the Baltimore Orioles chain. Shelton obviously learned something from playing in the minors with Don Baylor and Bobby Grich, because almost every one of his ballpark scenes is a winner. The problem is, there aren't enough. Baseball has to platoon with love (or sex) in the movie for box office considerations, and given the won-lost record of past baseball pictures, that's understandable. Regrettable, but understandable.
Bull Durham is about a triangle of sorts: Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a lanky, airheaded righthander who throws some serious stuff; the aforementioned Crash, a 12-year minor league veteran catcher sent down to Durham, N.C., to polish LaLoosh; and the narrator, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), an English teacher and worshiper of baseball who each season sacrifices herself for one player on the Durham Bulls. Annie chooses Nuke at the beginning of the film, and when Crash asks her why, she says, "It's my job to give him my life wisdom and help him get on to the major leagues." Says Crash, "That's my job, too." When their job is complete, then and only then do we get the producers' dream mating of Sarandon and Costner.
July 3, 1988
Costner is terrific, whether he's showing off the two best actor's swings of all time (he's a switch-hitter), arguing with an umpire or teaching Nuke the finer points of the interview. In one scene, Crash punishes Nuke for shaking him off by telling the hitter that a fastball is coming, but after the hitter clobbers the ball and stands at the plate admiring his handiwork, Crash flips off his mask, yelling, "I gave you a gift, and you stand there and show up my pitcher?" Then he goes to the mound and says to Nuke, "Well, he really hit the——out of that one, didn't he?"
Robbins isn't nearly as natural on the field as Costner, but he does a passable imitation of Fernando Valenzuela "breathing through his eyelids" and a very funny rendition of Try a Little Tenderness. He also pulls off the difficult trick of maturing before our eyes. He actually looks ready for the bigs after Annie and Crash get through with him.
Annie must have seemed like a wonderful conceit on paper, a siren sharp enough to point out that there are 108 beads in a rosary and 108 stitches in a baseball. But despite Sarandon's bravura performance, Annie tends to get in the way of credibility. No way this woman would be in Class A ball.
The secondary characters are winning, particularly Robert Wuhl as a coach who chatters incoherently and dispenses advice on wedding gifts; Jenny Robertson as the girl-about-the-team who ends up marrying the evangelical pitcher; Carey (Garland) Bunting as the radio announcer; and Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball, as himself. Shelton has also scattered some lovely minor league details through the movie: a P.A. announcement for a lost little girl, a late-night mud slide in the middle of a losing streak, a fake tantrum by the Bulls manager.
That's what's so good about Bull Durham. What's not so good, though, is the title, which has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. For another thing, a few too many characters are left on base. Last but not least of the quibbles, the plot runs out of steam along about the seventh inning.
But as I would for a pitcher who walks off the mound after a gutty, if incomplete, performance, I'll stand and applaud Bull Durham. It's a good movie and a damn good baseball movie.