Bull Durham
First screened and reviewed in 1998 / Screened most recently in November 2010
Director: Ron Shelton. Cast: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Trey Wilson, Robert Wuhl, Jenny Robertson, William O'Leary, Rick Marzan. Screenplay: Ron Shelton.
Twitter Capsule: A miracle of hilarious, extravagant, idiomatic writing, sirloin acting, and a story both commercial and subversive.

Photo © 1988 Orion Pictures/The Mount Company
A comic delight with real sophistication and thoroughbred sportiness, it's hard to imagine this film disappointing anyone, unless you don't like your baseball, your sexuality, and your comedy to come in the same package. As it happens, that kinds of compartmentalized approach to life is precisely the kind this film lampoons. Meet, for example, stadium-queen Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who tries to refine her chosen players' diamond skills through a series of analogies—and, ahem, more than analogies—to physical seduction. Writer-director Ron Shelton knows that it's no coincidence that our whole country is quite literally in love with baseball, and he has a field day surveying all the erotic possibilities between his colorful characters and the sport they have in common.

On the more overt end of things, we have Sarandon in one of her career-defining roles, scrappy and sexy as all get-out, but at enough loose ends that she's something rangier, funnier, and more engaging than a simple siren. The role of Annie Savoy doesn't always make sense, but it's always a lot of fun, and Sarandon holds her together beautifully with her brassy approach, as comfortable swinging through batting practice as she is reading William Cullen Bryant or vamping around in backless blouses.

Even better, perhaps, is Costner, who for the first time in his career—and, woe is us, seemingly the last—waylays his tendencies toward over-seriousness and self-love to create a crackerjack character. Bull Durham bowed in the year of Rain Man, and that year's Academy Awards—in which Dustin Hoffman took the Oscar and Costner, wonderfully balanced througout this picture, wasn't even nominated—were a perfect example of how delicate comic performances are perenially overlooked in favor of narrower dramatics.

Crash Davis, aware of his own dubious distinction as a record-breaker in a minor-league career, walks with quite a swagger, but how confident and consistent is he, really? He "quits" baseball regularly. He leaves early-morning notes on women's pillows. He is openly scornful of Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins), a star-is-born pitcher with Dwight Gooden's arm and Goldie Hawn's brain, and he obviously feels himself to be far superior to his appointment as Nuke's tutor and mentor; still, he is mighty jealous of his dizzy protégé when the latter cuts a quicker beeline into Annie's sexual graces. What, Crash asks, does he really want: to be sex-objectified by a women with dubious standards, or to assert moral superiority at the expense of romantic fulfillment?

While that debate runs its course, and all three lead performances keep the film buoyant and involving, Shelton indulges in more covert, subversive conversations with the audiences. The very possibility that Crash could become Annie's sex object is far beyond the usual terrain of sports films, which more typically dote on the hero's athletic/amorous abilities while Glenn Close (or whoever the producers could come up with) literally beams from the stands with all the power of back-lit cinematography and wardrobes of white.

Bull Durham not only explodes all that hokum with Sarandon's commanding role and Shelton's genuinely even-handed rounds of tense repartée; the film spends considerable energy exposing the homoerotic vectors that sold-out stadiums of fans rarely want to think about. Baseball, after all, is a game about who best wields his bat, and Annie's snipe in the first half-hour that Nuke and Crash's rivalry is "really just some redirected homoeroticism" becomes a real thematic undergirding of the picture, complete with Walt Whitman references, cross-dressings, and carefully-positioned shots of bats and balls. You don't have to watch out for this stuff, but Shelton's whole joke is how insistently baseball's most attentive fans refuse to see this side of their beloved sport.

The baseball in Bull Durham, though, does on many occasions get to be a theme-free, riproaring entertainment of its own. Shelton's casting of truly athletic actors gives the whole film a consistent vitality, though the ending gets bungled a bit, especially when virtually identical scenes appear at the very end and about ten minutes beforehand—it's as if Shelton knows that scene was a perfectly adequate conclusion the first time it rolled around. As they stand, those ten minutes feel like extra innings on a movie that didn't need them.

Neither are we spared the seemingly-inevitable staples of all late-80s' baseball films, which, if taken as a survey, would suggest to an uninformed observer that all professional ball-clubs require one voodoo practicioner and one devout Christian who "surprisingly" gets hitched to the also-compulsory dugout floozy. The Costner and Sarandon characters are written and played so freshly and smartly that these concessions to stereotype are even more depressing than they always are.

Nonetheless, Bull Durham has the gift almost no modern movies possess: the ability to entertain virtually all audiences on its own uncondescending terms. Sarandon and Robbins emerged from the making of this picture as one of Hollywood's real-life power-couples, but it's her relationship with Costner in this film that comprises one of the most rewardingly charged star-pairings of the era. Bull Durham doesn't quite hit a grand slam, but its sparkling stars and shrewd writer-director make for quite a line-up. Grade: A–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Original Screenplay: Ron Shelton

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Susan Sarandon
Best Original Song: "When a Woman Loves a Man"

Other Awards:
Writers Guild of America: Best Original Screenplay
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Screenplay
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Screenplay
National Society of Film Critics: Best Screenplay
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Picture; Best Screenplay

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