Written by Ron Shelton
Directed by Ron Shelton
I don’t know of anyone who has a true love of baseball that doesn’t love this movie. In my opinion, it’s the best movie ever made about the sport. Ron Shelton is the writer and director of this romantic comedy centering around the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team. He does not romanticize the sport as was done in The Natural or Pride of the Yankees, two other baseball films I love, but has shown us all sides of the game. It can be fun, brutal, glorious, unfair, challenging, and tormenting.
The film opens with a collection of classic baseball pictures. A wave of nostalgia came over me as I watched it. In 1988, when this movie was filmed, Fernando Valenzuela was still in his glory. There is an incredible shot of him looking to the heavens as he pitches. I wonder how many kids growing up with the superstars today even know about him? The shot of Pete Rose also tore at me, as all he is doing his famous head-first slide. How many kids know about his great accomplishments in baseball, not just the controversy surrounding his (lack of) induction into the Hall of Fame? There are also pictures from before my time, including that of the Women’s Baseball League and Babe Ruth looking out towards right field. If these pictures don’t move you, then the baseball side of this film might not be for you.
The good news on that front is that Ron Shelton managed to weave a wonderful romantic comedy around the subject of baseball. Susan Sarandon portrays Annie Savoy, a baseball “groupie” who each year chooses a player off of the Bulls team to hook-up with and impart her wisdom on. A triangle forms as Ebby Calvin LaLoosh – also known as “Nuke” – and “Crash” Davis square off for her affection.
Nuke – portrayed by Tim Robbins – is a bonus-baby; an up-and-coming hot-shot with a million-dollar arm and a five-cent brain. He throws a fastball 95 miles an hour but has control trouble. In his first appearance, he hits the announcers, the mascot, and a whole bunch of players. However, he also strikes out eighteen players. He is so full of himself at the beginning of this film, I don’t know how his head fit into that cap. Robbins nails the part with a perfect balance of goofiness and seriousness that Nuke is believable and not a caricature.
Enter Crash – portrayed by Kevin Costner. Crash was in the majors for “21 of the best days of my life”. He is a veteran who has been around the minors for a long time. So long, in fact, that he is about to break the record for the most home runs in the minors. That record is a double-edged sword. While it speaks to his abilities as a player, it also tells just how long he has been rattling around the minors. In a great piece near the end of the film, Crash tells how what separates a .250 (minor-league) hitter from a .300 (major-league) hitter is just one hit a week – a blooper, or a fantastic play by the outfielder. It all boils down to luck and Crash seems to have been on the wrong side of that. Costner also has the perfect balance in this character. I found myself rooting for him, but not pitying him.
Crash was brought in specifically to cultivate the new potential superstar. Hit catching abilities are needed to help the kid settle down and teach him control of not just the baseball, but himself as well. Both of these men also begin vying for Annie’s affection, although she hooks up with Nuke after Crash makes one of the best speeches ever in a film. The famous I believe … speech has been parodied many times, but Costner delivers it with such feeling that watching it again now has the same impact it did all those years ago. And I happen to agree with him about the Constitutional amendment banning Astroturf and the designated hitter.
It’s easy to believe the chemistry in this film. Robbins and Sarandon first met here and it was a movie romance that is still continuing this day. It’s Annie’s and Crash’s chemistry throughout the film that have us rooting for them to be together, though. They seem perfect for each other as each year she is finding the rookies getting younger and younger and he knows the time is coming when the game will no longer be his to play. Their banter is slick, friendly and filled with affection. Both of them are facing “retirement” and fighting to get in their last bit of playing time.
There are lovely bits of comedy in the background of this movie as well. Robert Wuhl is terrific as the assistant manager, Larry Hockett, and brings in a lot of comic relief. I will never look at conferences on the mound the same way again after watching all of the players gather in discussion, and seeing Larry’s lack of surprise at the conversation taking place and his response to it. The superstitions that baseball players have is also played here for some comedy, and any fan knows how seriously superstitious most players are!
The DVD of this movie contains extras such as Between the Lines, a documentary about the making of the movie, a profile of Kevin Costner, and Sports Wrap, another short documentary. There are also the usual theatrical trailers. A big surprise, however, was the ability to run this movie with two different commentaries. One was by the director and writer, Ron Shelton, and the other was with Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner. After discovering the Robbins/Costner commentary, I watched the DVD a second time – it was that good! It felt like I was listening to two old buddies sitting in my living room commenting and laughing. At one point they make the comment that they are having such fun watching, they have to remember to comment. They are having fun and it shows!
By the way, Tim Robbins is a Mets fan!
A Review of the Movie Bull Durham
Written by Ron Shelton