This is a film I hadn’t seen since 1990, and I remembered really enjoying it way back when. Actually, when Bull Durham (25th August 1989 in the UK- although weirdly it seems to have been released in a different country every month from its Premiere in 1988 in the USA) came up, I was really pleased, as I remember it so fondly. Before I go on, I honestly think that Baseball must be the sport that most gifts itself to cinema: the innings structure, that almost every essential moment of drama can be distilled down to the man on the mound v the man with the bat, the aesthetics of it and so forth.
Watching Bull Durham now, I kind of felt a bit sad, almost a touch nostalgic for a past I certainly never knew and a system that vanished within my lifetime. Seriously, when was the last time that a “star” player in US Sport came up through the minor leagues into the Majors? I was under the impression that it’s all about the draft nowadays, and unlikely that kids with a “million dollar arm” could play their way up through the Class A Carolina League before getting a shot at “the show”(bypassing the other tiers in the minor league). Other major sports that I can think of, with the all-devouring monster that is football paramount, seem to be strangling this route at birth- you’re signed to a big club at 14 or you’re a journeyman for life. I wonder if the world on minor league baseball shown here, with rusting iron bleachers and a cheesy “hit the bull and get a free steak” target in the stadium still actually exist? Surely the rise of more and more instant gratification via the media and the internet has put paid to these little clubs that exist because of the generosity of local sponsors and the occasional piece of talent. I hope not, because some of my fondest memories are trundling down with my old man to watch Yorkshire play cricket in Abbeydale, a ground that wouldn’t look out of place in the world of Bull Durham and a place that Yorkshire no longer grace with a visit.
Nostalgia aside, this is still a fine film. Following one season with the Durham Bulls, and more importantly three characters, Bull Durham tells the story of Nuke (Tim Robbins), a kid with an arm of gold and the brain of a dung beetle, Crash (Kevin Costner) a wily old veteran finishing his career and chasing the dubious distinction of hitting more home runs in the minor league than anyone else, and Annie (Susan Sarandon), a baseball groupie with delusions of intellectualism. Nuke is red hot but erratic, in his first game he pitches 18 strike outs (a record) and 18 walks (also a record), and the management decide to draft in Crash to put a steady hand on his tiller. Annie, in the meantime, is a serial monogamist. Each baseball season she picks the most likely candidate and then spends the summer shagging his brains out to improve his game, before he then leaves at the end. Why the one season? Because Annie wants the best, and if a player has the kind of season that Annie promises, then he’s only there for a year.
Essentially playing out against the backdrop of the Bulls best ever season, this is really about the love triangle between Nuke, Annie and Crash. There’s clearly more chemistry between the older Crash and Annie than between her and the young fiery rookie, as it’s only a matter of time before he’s on his way. In the meantime, Crash and Annie have to mentor him, in their own various ways, through the season. They both twig, for entirely different reasons, that he’s frankly stupid, and the reason for his lack of control is that when he starts to think he can’t do it. Annie brainwashes him with all sorts of nonsense about Chakras and breathing through your eyes, while Crash just tries to guide him in the right direction while teaching him a few on-field lessons about listening to authority.
A nice touch here is that how the Bulls are actually doing doesn’t really matter in the film. We don’t ever see Nuke close out a game. Sure we see some pitching, and we watch Crash hit some home runs, but that’s not really what the film is about. Ron Shelton, who did actually play in the minors for a while, conjures up a story full of little touches of verisimilitude (such as the speech the manager gives when releasing a player) that reek of authenticity, while using the season as the backdrop for the drama. We’re actually more interested in how the love triangle plays out, and whether Nuke will make it to the big time, or will Crash break the record than we are in the individual performance of the Bulls themselves. Possibly because, and I don’t know about this, there’s no actual kudos to coming top of the Carolina league, but more, I like to think, because this is a snapshot into life in the bottom echelon of baseball and the characters that populate it.
Warmly played by all the leads (with great support from Robert Wuhl) it’s nevertheless Tim Robbins that stands out. With his bizarre pitching style, he’s an absolute treat to watch, and his look of goofy amusement when he pins the mascot with a fastball is an absolute treat. Sarandon was in her 40′s when this was made, and doesn’t look a day under 9 million, however, once I got over how bloody unattractive she is, puts in a fine performance as the terminally deluded Annie. Costner can play this in his sleep, and still puts in one of his better efforts. He actually plays Crash as being wearily likeable while openly jealous of Nuke’s natural talent. It’s a good turn, and I think vastly better than his other baseball performances.
All of the leads have decent comic timing, which is great because this is actually a very funny movie. Individual moments, such as Robbins internal monologue “Am I queer” when he’s wearing Annie’s garter belt on the mound, or the aforementioned nailing of the mascot are great fun, but I think my favourite bit in the movie is the impromptu gathering of players on the mound:
Larry: Excuse me, but what the hell’s going on out here?
Crash Davis: Well, Nuke’s scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man’s here. We need a live… is it a live rooster?
Crash Davis: We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose’s glove and nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present. [to the players] Is that about right?
[the players nod]
Crash Davis: We’re dealing with a lot of shit.
Larry: Okay, well, uh… candlesticks always make a nice gift, and uh, maybe you could find out where she’s registered and maybe a place-setting or maybe a silverware pattern. Okay, let’s get two! Go get ‘em.
Although the majority of the comedy here is on the field, there are plenty of off-field comic moments as well, with Nuke’s dismal attempt at undoing Annie’s suspenders, and the superlative exchange about Nuke having to “learn his clichés” standing out.
Bull Durham is a wonderful film, frankly, and it’s one that I’m more than pleased to get reacquainted with. Shelton has written a truthful, warm and affectionate portrayal of the minor leagues that comes complete with sparkling dialogue and properly realised characters. It would have been very easy to reduce Annie to dreadful slag and harridan, but she’s a likeable kook, while Crash could, in less assured hands, have turned into a bitter and detestable lead. That neither do is credit to the writing, direction and performances contained here.
Finally, I love the end of this film. For those that don’t know, the film ends with Nuke at a crossroads as he makes it to the Show, Crash hitting his record-breaking homer and returning to Annie while the rain pours down around them and she swears off “boys”. It’s so poignant and perfectly filmed that you can’t but hope for success for the kid and peace for Annie and Crash, even outside of the game somewhere.
Overall, Bull Durham is a great film, and almost perfect Sunday afternoon watching. It’s not challenging in the slightest, but it is warm and pleasant, filled with likeable characters and more than a little touch of truth. I heartily recommend this one, and am going to go astronomically high with 3.5 perplexed bulls out of a possible 4. This is a lovely throwback to films that you just don’t see nowadays, and I’m more than happy to rediscover it.
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