1. Bull Durham Exists Between Modern Cinema and Classic Hollywood
From the establishing montage set to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” to its nostalgia-tinged homilies to America’s Pastime, Bull Durham is in many ways a subtly updated version of classic Hollywood fables of yore. The echoes of Gwen Verdon’s Lola from the 1958 musical-comedy Damn Yankees are more than faint in Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy, while Kevin Costner’s angsty Crash Davis shares much of the DNA of Paul Douglass’s “Guffy” McGovern from the 1951 classic Angels in the Outfield. And yet, with its outsized ribaldry and inversion of traditional gender roles, Bull Durham is an unmistakably modern film, one whose frank sexuality still feels eyebrow-raising thirty years on. In no small way, this sweet-spot hybrid of the old and new accounts for the picture’s enduring charm.
2. The Real Love Story Is Between Crash and Nuke
The homoerotic tension between Kevin Costner’s wizened veteran catcher Crash Davis and Tim Robbins’s pin-headed hurler Nuke LaLoosh is so barely sublimated as to scarcely qualify as subtext rather than just actual text. Their first ever meeting begins with a drunken barroom fistfight and ends up back at the home of mystical groupie-come-baseball-whisperer Annie for an ambiguous get together that culminates in the always cheerfully baffled LaLooosh wondering aloud, “So is somebody going to go to bed with somebody or what?” While Crash and Nuke’s love affair never takes on a physical component, it is ultimately the most explicitly drawn romance in the picture. Crash fetishizes and envies Nuke’s physical gifts and attributes—his constant reference to him as “Meat” is meaningfully freighted—and Nuke tries desperately to absorb Crash’s hard-won wisdom and preternatural cool. It is a classic May-September affair, fated to burn fast and end quickly.
3. Baseball Is Adjacent to Madness
As anyone who has played the game or followed it closely knows, the psychological toll of baseball’s un-perfectible demands are enough to make a strong man lose his mind. With its emphasis on the interior monologues of pitchers and hitters alternatively berating and celebrating themselves during games, Bull Durham does a uniquely fine job of rendering the borderline personality traits that frequently characterize the denizens of this loneliest and most mercurial of sports. When Costner’s Crash calls time during an at-bat and semimanically upbraids himself—“You ain’t getting that cheese by me, meat. Look for the fastball up. He’s gotta come with the cheese. Relax. Relax. Quick bat. Pop the clubhead. Open the hips. Relax. You’re thinking too much. Get outta your fuckin’ head, Crash”—it is in any other context the sound of a man entering a full-blown psychosis. In baseball, it’s just another at-bat resulting in a strikeout.
4. Bull Durham Came Out a Year After Broadcast News
It is an interesting coincidence that Ron Shelton’s baseball love-triangle masterpiece was released just a year after the similarly brilliant James L. Brooks film Broadcast News, a film that mirrors much of Bull Durham’s central tensions only played out through the prism of the high-stress world of network television. As with Bull Durham, Brooks’s movie tells the tale of a hardworking and respected veteran of his industry being asked to mentor a gifted but facile up-and-comer while both carry a torch for the same woman. Beyond those broad outlines, both films have something important to say about shifting tides in media culture and the accruing sense of surface appearances subsuming all else in an advertising and consumer culture that would soon evolve from pervasive to all-powerful.
5. A Different Kind of Locker Room Hijinks
Over the years, sports films have provided countless insights into the world of high-level athletics, from the intense and inspiring locker room sermons of Hoosiers to the tough-love training sessions of the Rocky franchise to the racy revelations of North Dallas Forty. To its infinite credit, Bull Durham operates at an entirely different frequency in this regard than any sports film that comes before it. The Bulls are a diverse group, and often hapless, but they seem to genuinely enjoy one another. The scene where Crash manufactures a rain-out for a struggling team needing a day off by leading his teammates in a nighttime invasion of the opposing team’s field and activating the sprinkler system is an instance of such sheer, tangible joy that it ratifies the very concept of team-driven camaraderie in a few moments of deliriously effusive filmmaking. A later scene, where a standard meeting on the mound between the pitcher, catcher, and infield devolves into a confused discussion of what to purchase a teammate and his fiancé on the occasion of their engagement, verges on a Wodehouse-level comedy of manners. It is quotidian, hilarious, and believable. And it’s a side of sports we haven’t seen depicted before.
Costner’s Crash Davis is inclined toward speechifying. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a cinematic character (non-Aaron Sorkin category) who has quite so much to say extemporaneously, seemingly off the top of his head. The results of this tendency to hold court vacillates between the comical, the inspiring, and the out-and-out cringe-worthy over the course of the picture. The establishing first-act monologue—which begins with the following: “Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back … the hangin’ curveball, high fiber, good scotch”—is in one reading perhaps the dumbest thing ever committed to celluloid. And yet, in its asinine way, it works. Costner plays Davis as the hard-bitten, self-styled hero of his own internal narrative. Much as Dashiell Hammett’s stoic detective the Continental Op relays his stories of adventure and turmoil with a winking awareness of genre mythos, Costner’s Davis is committed to his aging athlete archetype. One wonders how many of his stem-winding monologues he has rehearsed in the mirror.
7. For God’s Sake, Give Annie a Job!
We are led to believe that in addition to her abiding preoccupation with the Bulls’ fortunes, Annie has some manner of off-season sidelight as a professor of literature. But with her encyclopedic knowledge of minor league baseball, her evident mastery of the mechanics of the baseball swing, and her deep regional loyalties, why hasn’t Annie been provided some formal capacity with the Bulls? For the love of God, this woman is an untapped resource. At a bare minimum, she’d be a welcome addition to the broadcast team’s tired two-man booth. Better still, make her general manager. Nobody else in the organization has anything remotely resembling her eye for talent. And for that matter, who wouldn’t love to see Millie as director of player personnel?