Bull Durham


Nothing Bush League About This One

Main Cast: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Trey Wilson

Director: Ron Shelton

Of all Ron Shelton’s sports movies, and there have been many, perhaps he peaked with 1988’s Bull Durham at the start of his career. As with all successful sports movie, Bull Durham captures the essence of the sport while developing a successful off-field conflict. In this film, that conflict is the complicated love triangle between Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

Batter Up

Former minor leaguer Shelton has returned time and again to the field or court or course to create his art. His other baseball movie, Cobb, based on the well-known baseball biography, didn’t fare as well as Bull Durham, but Shelton has shown that any sport is fair game for his pen and lens.

He has tackled basketball (White Men Can’t Jump and Blue Chips , boxing (The Great White Hype and Play It To The Bone) and even golf (working again with Costner on Tin Cup. He has worked with a veritable who’s who among popular stars including Woody Harrelson, Antonio Banderas, Tommie Lee Jones, Nick Nolte and Robert Wuhl. He even repaid Wuhl by later appearing on the actor’s HBO series, Arliss.

Abandoning sports may have been a bad career move for Shelton. In less than twenty years he moved from Bull Durham’s Academy Award-nominated script to working on Bad Boys II.

Here’s The Pitch

Bull Durham’s strong leading cast carry enough of the dramatic load so that writer-director Shelton can get extra mileage from the ensemble cast.

Robert Wuhl as the pitching coach and Trey Wilson as the manager are perfect in their roles as baseball men — perhaps ex-players who can’t abandon their game. Wilson died a short time after the film was released, and it was by far the best movie he appeared in.

Meanwhile, Costner, Robbins and Sarandon all play their characters with a hint of greatness. Costner is the great baseball player, destined forever to play in obscurity while Robbins is the young upstart whose great talent will eventually bring him to the major leagues. Sarandon is a great thinker, one who says she “knows things” and gives a delightful soliloquy that begins, “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan”

It is Sarandon’s sultry and mysterious ways that capture Robbin’s youthful exuberance and Costner’s world-weary desire to be a part of something new. And Sarandon’s Annie Savoy is always new; from her quoting great works of poetry to her sexual escapades, Annie is an authentic original American character.

There are baseball cliches, of course. No sports movie is complete without them, and they include the obligatory baseball players in familiar roles, as well as the long-suffering, but finally rewarded fans.

But there are also great moments of improv that lend a chaotic, truthful aura to the dialogue. IMdb reports that “In the scene where the batboy tells Crash Davis “Get a hit, Crash”, Kevin Costner ad-libbed the response of “Shut up.” Since the kid actor playing the batboy obviously didn’t know this response was coming, he started crying.”

The actors also recount a pitcher’s mound conference during a game that covered multiple, non-baseball topics. Wuhl is credited with turning the scene into a gem with a line that viewers won’t forget, “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.”

It’s A Home Run!

Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Crash Davis is as real as baseball gets. His later work that covered baseball included Field of Dreams, which may have been a better movie although less about baseball and 1999’s For Love of the Game, which was more about baseball, but not as good a movie. In Bull Durham, the then 33 year old actor linked the past to the future in a way that Costner has rarely been able to do. He was old enough to know better, but not an older man attempting to play a younger man as in For Love Of The Game.

Ultimately, Bull Durham is about capturing the spirit of minor league baseball — it’s quirky marketing schemes, the small but rabid following and the hopes and dreams of two dozen men who are on their way up or down, but can’t stop playing the game.

Nowhere is this captured as well as when Costner’s character supposedly breaks the record for the most career home runs in the minor leagues. It’s a record he doesn’t want because it shows that he stayed longer than other, perhaps less talented players, in the minor leagues, but Sarandon’s Annie marks the occasion in a delightful voiceover.

You see, Annie knows things.

The Bottom Line, Popcorn Kernels and All

Ron Shelton does a fine job in ridding Bull Durham of most sports clich├ęs. The ending is a little unsettling, but pleasant in its uniqueness. There is a strong story woven throughout that includes a coming of age story, a sports movie, a buddy film and a complicated love story.

The special edition DVD includes commentary by Costner and Robbins that is informative, yet accessible and friendly.

Meanwhile, there are no real drawbacks to this film. The language and adult themes mean you cannot screen the film for your Little League team, but baseball and non-baseball fans alike should find something to enjoy.

Five Things To Remember From This Review

1) Writer-Director Ron Shelton was a former minor league baseball player.
2) His script for Bull Durham was nominated for an Academy Award.
3) Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy should have been nominated, but the competition that year was named Foster, Streep and Close.
4) This is the first, and perhaps most well-rounded, of Kevin Costner’s three baseball films.
5) Want to know what minor league baseball is, but can’t go to a game? Watch Bull Durham.
6) An extra one – Yes, Virginia, there really is a Durham Bulls baseball team.

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