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Bull Durham

Drama and Sports movie directed by Ron Shelton

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Crashes, Nukes, and Bulls

  • May 10, 2011
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Bull Durham is considered the end all of baseball movies, and knowing the background of writer/director Ron Shelton, it's easy to understand why: The man was once a minor league ballplayer himself. He uses his experience to capture the quirky reputation of minor league baseball teams, and so Bull Durham is rife with brilliant writing, wonderful characters, and funny jokes. But for all the good, I can't help but believe Bull Durham is just a wee bit overrated.

Granted, the movie's stellar reputation as the Citizen Kane of baseball movies might have something to do with that. It's entirely possible I was let down because Bull Durham had such high expectations to live up to. But even so, I thought the movie took a nasty turn for the worse in the third act which totally derailed it. And you know what? I'm blaming Susan Sarandon's character, Annie Savoy, for that. It's all Annie Savoy's fault!

Understand that Annie Savoy is one of the most revered characters in baseball movies. Despite being a fabrication which sprang from the mind of Ron Shelton, Annie captured the imagination of baseball-loving moviegoers to such an extent that she was recently granted an induction into the Baseball Reliquary. I'm not arguing against her induction; after all, the Reliquary is meant to preserve those who have contributed to baseball's culture and capture the imagination of baseball fans and the public at large, and in those respects Annie's honor is totally deserved. But I do wonder how she managed to capture our imaginations.

I'm not going to go as far as to insist Annie was shoehorned into the movie, but I will call her arbitrary and unimportant. I once read an article which suggested her opening monologue about the "Church of Baseball" was meant to be tongue in cheek, but her actions throughout the movie say otherwise. She's truly devoted to the game, but her presence is not, contrary to the dominating belief, part of the main plot. In fact, for a good chunk of the movie, she gets in the way. Her scenes begin to dominate the last leg of Bull Durham, but until then, the movie could have existed just fine without her.

Bull Durham is about a young, gifted, and extremely thick pitcher named Nuke Laloosh who gets mentored by his experienced catcher, Crash Davis, a career minor leaguer with the exception of 21 of the best days of his life in the bigs. Bull Durham revolves so completely around these two that virtually no attention is given to how good the Bulls are. It could just be Shelton's experience here, Shelton being a one-time minor leaguer himself; the players in the minor leagues aren't there to win titles, they're there to win their tickets to possible stardom in the major leagues. Yes, there are quite a few characters in Bull Durham, and yes, their managers sometimes berate them for being such a bad team. But for the most part, the players are only really concerned about getting the ultimate promotion to The Show. None of them really care all that much about the team's fortunes - the only mentions of the team's success come from the managers.

It's established that the Durham Bulls are in the dumps as a team. They recently acquired a new pitcher named Nuke Laloosh, who has a golden arm but is prone to throwing every pitch many feet wide of the batter. Now, what's important to note is that Laloosh is never seen as the team's savior. They bring in a veteran catcher, Crash Davis, to help him learn how to control his wild throws, but no one is pressuring Nuke to be the pitching messiah who takes the scrappy underdogs from worst to first. He's there because he just happens to have wound up there, and the same could probably be said for Crash as well. Crash's immortal first line, when he introduces himself, is "I'm the player to be named later." Crash is clearly not a character who is any longer entertaining dreams of grandiose about the majors. We're not told why he's still sticking around in the minors, and it's quite possible he can't figure it out himself.

The mentoring of Nuke by Crash is the plot of the movie. Period. Annie is there trying to make things a bit more interesting, but for all of the love triangle reputation earned by Bull Durham, well, there is no love triangle, and barely any romance. Annie picks a player to sleep with every season, and this season she's trying to choose between Crash and Nuke. But any romantic drama this could have had is nullified because Crash gets angry and concedes the woman's wiles to Nuke. The two have their fun, and after awhile Annie suddenly realizes how much she wants Crash. This transition makes sense; Annie loves poetry and literature and Crash is her intellectual equal, while Nuke asks her what team Walt Whitman plays for.

The problem I have with Annie is that until then, she plays no role. She claims to want to help Crash and Nuke develop their skills, but she doesn't do much of that beyond wisecracks at ballgames and reading poetry at Nuke. Her scenes with Crash near the end really bring Bull Durham to a grinding halt, and given the fact the Annie is what ballplayers refer to as a "Baseball Annie" - basically a groupie who uses her favorite players for sex, which is probably why Shelton named her Annie - she really didn't need to be in the movie. It's true that she adds a little bit of substance, but even the romantic entanglements feel shoehorned in because Crash stays away from her until Nuke is called up to the majors. When they get together, we see a series of montages which hit the brakes on Bull Durham's momentum.

I don't want to complain too much about it, though. I am trying to reassure people that Bull Durham is a well-written movie with a real wit that isn't seen in many movies these days. Crash and Nuke and especially developed characters, but there's really no need for them to be. Nuke, I think, is intentionally written without much of a background because it just makes him a more amusing character, and it's easy to laugh at him when we see him in a TV interview, up in the majors, using every single cliche Crash taught him to use during one memorable scene earlier in the movie. Crash himself is a bit more developed, and the monotonous drone of Kevin Costner, who plays him, projects both a weary wisdom and a hint of the sorrow he feels for not getting to stay in the majors.

Bull Durham is enriched by the liberal sprinkling of other odd characters, like a groupie friend of Annie's who eventually finds herself engaged to the born-again Christian ballplayer. The other characters are also given unique personalities of their own, and so many of them break free of sports character molds and become memorable line spewers themselves.

The third act slows the movie down and takes the focus away from a lot of the ballplayer hijinks that dominate the first two acts. Annie takes more of a central role, and that has the unfortunate effect of relegating the supporting characters to the background. For me, that's what killed the movie. But for those first couple of acts, you'll be regaled with some of the funniest characters ever seen in a sports flick. Nuke Laloosh was supposedly based in part on Bill Lee, a former all-star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos who was so nuts, they nicknamed him Spaceman. That in itself should make Bull Durham worth a watch.

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Nicholas Croston ()
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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Wiki

Bull Durham

Bull Durham is a 1988 American romantic comedy about baseball. It is based upon the minor league experiences of writer/director Ron Shelton and depicts the players and fans of the Durham Bulls, a minor league baseball team in Durham, North Carolina. Kevin Costner stars as "Crash" Davis, a veteran catcher brought in to teach rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) about the game in preparation for reaching the Major Leagues. Baseball groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) romances Nuke but finds herself increasingly attracted to Crash. Also featured are Robert Wuhl and Max Patkin.

Baseball movies were not considered a viable commercial prospect at the time of this film's production, and every studio passed except for Orion Pictures, who gave Shelton a USD $9 million budget, an eight-week shooting schedule, and creative freedom. Even so, many cast members accepted salaries lower than their usual due to their enthusiasm for the material. He cast Kevin Costner because of the actor's natural athletic ability. During filming, Costner was able to hit two home runs while the cameras were rolling.

Bull Durham was a commercial success, grossing over $50 million in North America, well above its estimated budget, and was a critical success as well. Sports Illustrated ranked it the #1 Greatest Sports Movie of all time. The Moving Arts Film Journal ranked it #3 on its list of the 25 Greatest Sports Movies of All-Time. In addition, ...

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Details

Director: Ron Shelton
Genre: Sport, Drama
Screen Writer: Ron Shelton
DVD Release Date: April 2, 2002
Runtime: 108 minutes
Studio: MGM (Video & DVD)
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