Saturday, August 6, 2022

Stubs - Bull Durham

Bull Durham
(1988) Starring: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Trey Wilson, Robert Wuhl. Directed by Ron Shelton. Screenplay by Ron Shelton. Produced by Thom Mount, Mark Burg. Run time: 108 minutes. USA. Color. Romantic Comedy, Sports

Sometimes you see a movie a second time and it is not as quite as good as you remember. Thirty-four years ago, I went to see Bull Durham on the first date with my wife and on our anniversary, we decided to watch it again. I’m happy to report that the film is as funny and as romantic as it was the first time.

The film is somewhat based on the experiences of Ron Shelton, its writer and director, who played minor league baseball for five years, though he never played in the Carolina League, which is where the Durham Bulls play. When he pitched the idea, baseball films were not considered a viable commercial prospect and every studio passed except for Orion Pictures. They gave him a $9 million budget (with many cast members accepting lower-than-usual salaries because of the material), and an eight-week shooting schedule. The film was in production from October 5, 1987 through November 30, 1987 in Durham, where Shelton decided to place the film.

At the beginning of the film, Annie (Susan Sarandon), seen with her protege, Millie (Jenny
Robertson), hasn't yet selected her player for the season.

The film opens in springtime. Annie (Susan Sarandon) is a fan of her town’s minor League baseball single-A team the Durham Bulls. A believer in the “Church of Baseball”, Annie is such a fan that she takes a personal interest in the team, or at least one player, a season. When the film opens, she still hasn’t found that player.

Annie's choices come down to Ebby Calvin LaLoosh
(Tim Robbins) and "Crash" Davis (Kevin Costner).

Her choices are between two players, Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a hotshot rookie pitcher known for having a "million-dollar arm, but a five-cent head," and "Crash" Davis (Kevin Costner), a twelve-year veteran in minor league baseball, who is sent down as the team's catcher to educate LaLoosh and control his haphazard pitching.

Crash’s relationship with Ebby gets off to a rocky start when they get into a fight over Annie. Crash dares Ebby to hit him with a fastball and humiliates him when the ball comes nowhere near hitting him. While the two come to a truce of sorts, Crash degrades Ebby by giving him the nickname of "Meat”.

Meanwhile, Annie invites both men back to her house. And even though Annie and Crash seem to have more in common, he tells her that he’s too much of a veteran to “try out” for anything. Before he leaves, he delivers a memorable speech:

Crash Davis: Well, 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. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.

This only further sparks Annie’s interest but he walks away. Despite that, both Annie and Crash work from opposite angles to shape Ebby into the big-league pitcher everyone thinks he can be. Crash does it by tough love. No matter what Ebby might do, Crash is there to tell him that it’s not enough; that the hitters in the “show” as the majors are referred to, can hit everything. He also tries to get Ebby “not to think”, something that Ebby is not good at, to begin with.

Annie works through sex and, more importantly, the promise of sex, using mild bondage games, and reading poetry to get Ebby to think differently. She also gives him the nickname "Nuke". She even gives him one of her garter belts to wear while he’s pitching on the road.

Throughout the season, Crash continues to mentor Ebby, including a series of clichés he’s supposed to recite to the media. Unlike the other players on the Bulls, Crash has been to the show, "the 21 greatest days of my life." The other players also look up to him, learning new ways to have fun on the road.

When at one stop, the players see a bus load of female ice skaters, they wish they could get a night off. Crash orchestrates a man-made rain out at the ballpark by turning on the sprinklers all night.

Crash wants Ebby not to think too much and to trust his catcher.

Meanwhile, Nuke starts winning. However, he sometimes doesn’t listen to Crash. When he waves off Crash’s signal for the next pitch, Crash lets him throw what he wants but warns the batter what to expect. It’s all part of teaching Ebby to trust the catcher.

After a rough start, Ebby becomes a dominant pitcher and the Bulls do something they haven’t done much lately, win games. On the night his father comes to see him pitch, Ebby learns that he has been called up to the “show”.

Annie uses the occasion to break things off from Ebby. She tells him that he doesn’t need her anymore.

Ebby looks for Crash and finds him playing pool. When Crash finds out, he is jealous. Crash is frustrated by Ebby’s failure to recognize all the talent he was blessed with.

The next morning, Crash seeks Ebby out and apologizes for his behavior.

With Ebby gone, the Bulls no longer need Crash, so they release him. The manager offers to put in a good word for him with the organization but there’s nothing else he can do.

With Ebby out of the picture, Crash and Annie finally get together.

With nowhere else to go, Crash ends up on Annie’s porch swing. When she comes home from the ball game, the two consummate their attraction with a weekend-long lovemaking session.

Unexpectedly, Crash leaves to seek a further minor-league position with the Asheville Tourists. During his brief stint, he breaks the minor-league record for career home runs; a dubious honor.

Now in the big leagues, Ebby recites all the cliché answers Crash had taught him.

Having broken the record, Crash retires and returns to Durham, where Annie tells him she's ready to give up her annual affairs with "boys". Crash tells her that he is thinking about becoming a manager for a minor-league team in Visalia.

The film ends with Annie and Crash dancing in Annie's candle-lit living room, though it’s still not clear if they will stay together or if they’re just two ships docking in the same spot for a while.

As I’ve written previously, I am not a big fan of baseball, though I do like a good baseball story. Bull Durham is an interesting study in minor-league baseball. Though I doubt there are too many “Annies” out there like Susan Sarandon, I do imagine Crash’s and Ebby’s working relationship goes on all the time, with a savvy veteran being called in to help an inexperienced player learn the ropes.

Kevin Costner, who would go on to direct the Academy Award-winning Best Picture Dances with Wolves (1990), seems like a good fit for the role of Crash. He was about the right age and was athletic enough to carry the part. He would also star in two more baseball-related films, Field of Dreams (1989) and For Love of the Game (1999). While I haven’t seen For Love of the Game, based on this film and Field of Dreams, I would say he and baseball are a good match.

Susan Sarandon is an accomplished actress, getting her start in films like Joe (1970), but the first time I saw her on film was The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), a horror musical. She seems to be the right choice for Annie, who uses metaphysical theories and sex to mold young baseball players but also to make herself still feel pretty and desirable. She has since been in such films as Atlantic City (1980), Thelma & Louise (1991), Lorenzo's Oil (1992), The Client (1994), and Dead Man Walking (1995), for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Despite what appears to be celluloid chemistry between her character and Crash, Sarandon would end up with Tim Robbins, who played Ebby. Robbins does a good job here playing someone much younger than he was when he made the film. He’s quite believable as a man with a million-dollar arm and a child’s brain. A versatile actor, Robbins would go on to appear in such films as Twister (1989), Cadillac Man (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), The Player (1992), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), High Fidelity (2000) and Mystic River (2003). He would also write and direct Bob Roberts (1992) and Dead Man Walking (1995), and Cradle Will Rock (1999).

Two of the character actors who shine in Bull Durham are Robert Wuhl
as assistant manager Larry Hockett and Trey Wilson as manager Joe "Skip" Riggins.

The film also gets a boost from some very good character actors led by Trey Wilson as manager Joe "Skip" Riggins and Robert Wuhl as his assistant manager Larry Hockett. The two of them make a nice comical pair. Jenny Robertson plays Millie, a younger version of Annie, who is known for making time with the ball players. She is tamed by David Neidorf as Bobby, a Bible-carrying ball player when she makes her play for him and instead falls for him.

Bull Durham is one of those films that has aged very well and continues to be enjoyable even 34 years after its release. Even, if like me, you find the game of baseball a little dull, stories about baseball can be enjoyable, especially when they’re as well made as Bull Durham.

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