Impressions of Bull Durham

Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) worships at the church of baseball. When she isn’t teaching English 101 and Beginning Composition part-time at Alamance Junior College, she’s mentoring a chosen minor league player with the Durham Bulls via the recitation of poetry and the exchange of bedchamber intimacy.  She also carries an enormous handbag that must be filled with hair and makeup tools and quite possibly started that fashion trend in the late 80s and early 90s of women wearing a bazillion dangly bracelets (which calls to mind the Brighton Jewelry version of the Desperately Seeking Susan look).

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In Ron Shelton‘s 1988 part-drama, part-comedy Bull Durham, Annie takes pitcher Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) under her tutelage.  He has a great throwing arm but not enough game-smarts to really shine, so catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is assigned essentially “technical adviser” duties (such as telling him not to let his shower shoes get moldy).  Even though it’s clear that Annie and Crash have chemistry, she sticks by her rule of mentoring one player per season.

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I remember watching Bull Durham on television when I was a kid but all I could recall of it was Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner.  It received the Criterion treatment in 2018 and I recently picked it up on DVD on impulse when I was at Barnes & Noble (50% off Criterion sale).  One of the reasons I really like Bull Durham is that it’s about baseball — actually about baseball.  It’s not a generic sports film.  Yes, it follows three characters heavily invested in minor league baseball and incorporates some cliches (pre-game rituals, unintelligible play-calling/pep-talking by the coach, insecurity, what happens once you make it to the majors), but the sport itself is not a stand-in for something else.  In a more traditional sports film that’s executed well thematically and narratively, the sport depicted could be switched with a different one (keeping the solo sport or team sport factor the same) and the film wouldn’t change that much.

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The cover art for the Criterion edition speaks to its baseball-at-the-core quality.  It’s nearly all sports paraphernalia…and one wrist tied to a bedpost, hinting at some of the plot points that will unfold.

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Another reason why Bull Durham may be one of my favorite sports films is Susan Sarandon name-dropping Susan Sontag while hitting balls in a cage, Tim Robbins’s heavy metal t-shirts, and the bit about William Blake:

Crash: Wait a second.  Who dresses you?
Annie: What?
Crash: Who dresses you?  I mean, don’t you think this is a little excessive for the Carolina League?
Annie: ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’ — William Blake.
Crash: William Blake?
Annie: William Blake.
Crash: William Blake?
Annie: William Blake!
Crash: What do you mean, William Blake?
Annie: I mean William Blake!

The special features on the Criterion edition of Bull Durham are fantastic.  Apparently, Ron Shelton used to play baseball in the minor leagues and he’s felt that most sports films are made from the POV of the fan and not the player.  Maybe that’s why I liked this one so much.

Here’s one such gem:

 

Pic creds: imdb and Criterion Collection

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