by Karina Wolf
Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: Ron Shelton’s 1988 comedy Bull Durham is a movie that follows the fortunes of a minor league baseball team in Durham, North Carolina. In other words, it’s a movie about sports. For anyone who doesn’t know, full disclosure: I know almost nothing about athletics (witness: the time I asked the distance of the Dublin marathon, not understanding that all marathons are the same length). I find them hard to watch – the tussle enacted on the field/court/pitch and the chest-thumping territorialism that is inherent when one team confronts another. For me, all sports are like the mimes-playing-tennis scene in Antonioni’s Blow Up—an absurdist exertion, another way to blot out our allotted time on Earth. I hold this opinion steadfastly, but with a secret fear that I’m utterly incorrect; pastimes are admittedly a question of taste.
Baseball, with its slouchy pajama uniforms and endless stretches of inactivity can be a baffling subject of fervor. It’s one of the most cherished subjects for film—maybe it’s because baseball is synecdoche for an American ethos, or maybe because the geography of the game, the diamond itself, is so photogenic. I’m sure some people can enjoy Bull Durham for its insights—its dialogue is rife with allusions, trivia and superstitions linked to the sport. The film is populated with baseball figures, and its story is in some way derived from real life athletes (Crash Davis, one of the heroes, was a minor league player). Somehow, though, writer-director Ron Shelton has linked the love of the game with other kinds of transcendence: sex, religion and romantic love. And the best reason to watch Shelton’s baseball comedy is for what it has to tell us about the human condition.
The movie is not, in fact, about the allegiance of a team; rather, it considers the collection of men and women who are united in the glorification of the sport. As team members, players accept that they are chess pieces, swapped according to their utility—their personal ambition is foremost to stay in the game. Those that manage it can continue the childlike gift of play as vocation. But success in the field is a result of a cocktail of god-given gifts and disciplined application: talent combined with canny observation and emotional toughness, reverence for the game matched by unswerving dedication. The players are warriors, but they are also poets. This mix of control and wonder make the activity hallowed and ennobling. And the sport can never disappoint, since human error is an integral part of its narrative, which begins with promise and culminates with vindication or failure.
Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who teaches beginning composition at a local junior college, is a baseball fan in the way that Penny Lane is a music enthusiast in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. Annie is a kind of high priestess and a groupie. For the provincial Durham Bulls, she is legend: each season, she selects a player and teams up with him—the bargain is that she has a lover, and in return the player receives the envy of his teammates and the attention of a mistress who likes light bondage, canonical poetry and game time strategy.
At the start of this particular season, Annie finds two likely options as paramour. Ebbie Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) is a hot-headed young pitcher with major league promise; Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is a world-weary catcher who is hired to train the rookie. “Crash is really different,” a friend tells Annie. “I actually saw him read a book without pictures.” Since Annie loves words as much as she loves sport, the attraction between her and Crash is matter-of-course.
“Does anyone choose anyone?” Annie asks, after she brings both men home to her place for a kind of orientation. “Nobody on this planet ever really chooses each other. I mean, it’s all a question of quantum physics, molecular attraction, and timing.” Her locutions bring a nice kind of kismet to how people come together and what keeps them apart. But watching these characters, we can see that they (like all of us) get in their own way; their successes or failures have much more to do with internal handicaps and flawed belief systems.
Annie uses her theories like a stun gun—she immobilizes men who will “listen to anything if they think it’s foreplay.” But what’s an overeducated woman doing fishing for men in the minor leagues? LaLoosh listens to Annie talk quantum physics of the heart like it’s a foreign language. He’s waiting to see if anyone’s going to fuck (his language). The great thing about LaLoosh is his openness—he’ll accept anything from Annie. The detriment is that he misses all of the nuance.
Crash, on the other hand, can match Annie word for word. “I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap,” he begins his manifesto. Crash likes to give speeches; they both do. Their beliefs are not a one-to-one match, but complementary. Annie’s principles are electric because they’re eccentric and amusing and thoroughly thought-out. Crash’s are impassioned, direct, urgent.
What’s interesting is that, despite her obvious chemistry with Crash, Annie persists in staying with impetuous LaLoosh, whom she catchily nicknames “Nuke.” Maybe Crash pegs her correctly when he tells Nuke, “Annie’s only with you because she can boss you around.” And maybe Annie is rightfully wary of a man who insults her when she doesn’t immediately throw over Nuke for him. “I know women like you,” Crash spits it out like an insult, not willing to linger in hopes of Annie’s interest. “After 12 years in the minor league, I don’t try out.”
These gorgeous fantasists are lonely but not alone, although it’s also clear neither of them is an easy mate. Crash has a temper and a chip on his shoulder. Not too many athletes are sophisticated enough to parse Annie’s goofy New-Age spiritualism and continental bordello chic (just before they break up, Nuke pounds on Annie’s door saying, “I know you’re in there. I hear that crazy Mexican singer” about her Edith Piaf records). Still, they circle each other. There’s intrigue in meeting an equal; but there’s fear in that meeting and safety maintaining an imbalance of power.
It takes a spiritual crisis to bring them together. Crash has an easy smirk when he’s confronted with the puppy-faced arrogance of Nuke—Crash can anticipate the rookie’s every thought. But the older player is less sanguine when confronted with Nuke’s athletic gifts. Crash is trying to make a living in the most poetic way; according to his dreams. His curse is to have enough brains to get to the major leagues, but not quite enough talent to stay there.
Failures are the milestones of maturity. We can treasure the potentiality of youth, even if we smile at its ignorance. The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness, Annie remarks wryly. But Bull Durham also shows us what we should love about growing older—how external and internal circumstance define possibility, and increase pressure to use time most preciously.
When Nuke is called up to pitch in the major leagues, the movie culminates as it should—the circumstances of the movie’s dramatic questions change. Nuke makes it to the show; Crash is left with the aching knowledge that he groomed Nuke for a hero’s journey that he himself won’t make. Crash can’t find joy in the young man’s success; he incites a fist-fight which they both regret. “Sometimes I like to howl at the moon, you know what I mean?” Crash asks, to Nuke’s incomprehension. Nuke is too young to be parsed; he hasn’t yet glimpsed his own limitations. “You will [know],” Crash warns him.
Equally, Annie wrestles with her shortcomings. She is philosophical about unsatisfactory romances: women are “strong and powerful creatures,” and bad trades are an invariable part of the baseball season. Her character proceeds from Sarandon’s life in pictures up to that point: from the soft core camp in genre pictures like Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) andThe Hunger (1983) to her dramatic work in Pretty Baby (1978) and Atlantic City (1980). Sarandon’s cartoonishly prominent eyes and stick figure limbs always made her a kind of Betty Boop; here, age manages to make her more attractive because of her knowingness and accountability.
Indeed, the movie works best because of its surprises. Kevin Costner is best suited to a character who’s a failure rather than a savior. He’s so much better when he’s not allowed to take himself seriously, or when that tendency is used for comedic purposes. His voice rests in a natural monotone, but he has a nice sense of irony.
What does all this have to do with love? In a high definition world, there are glossy pairings of actors, but is there desire? I suppose entertainment allows us a kind of surrogate sexuality, what it would be like to be intimate with this or that example of human perfection. But what movies are better at is not a glossy view of physical perfection but the portrayal of emotion conveyed through flesh.
Bull Durham has created two people who are perfect for each other; has kept them apart for reasons that seem arbitrary but in fact are essential to their natures. And when they come together, it is delectable. Annie is Southern belle by way of Anaïs Nin. She needs an erotic and spiritual equal.
“I hit my dinger and hung ‘em up,” Crash explains to Annie, after he discretely surpasses a minor league record and then parts ways with life as a player.
“I quit, too. Boys, not baseball,” Annie replies.
“Do you think I could make it to the show as a manager?”
“I think you’d be great…great,” she says.
You look for religion when you’re in a crisis; when an old belief system has failed. Baseball is the source of the characters’ strength and wisdom, the structure for their days and nights. Annie’s and Crash’s lives are on a timer, and their methods of getting by will run out at some undetermined moment when they are no longer needed—when Annie is no longer desirable and when Crash is no longer valuable as a player. The serendipity of the pairing is that both recognize that they need to retire from these lives at exactly the right moment— when they’ve found their perfect match for a new idea of the future. They make second chances look better than first love.