EMPIRE ESSAY: Bull Durham Review

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A fan who has an affair with one minor-league baseball player each season meets an up-and-coming pitcher and the experienced catcher assigned to him.


Watching Ron Shelton's sublime valentine to the mystique of the ball game, an ancient joke rears its head. An old bull and a young bull are standing in a field when the young bull spots a herd of cows in a nearby pasture. "I've got an idea," he says. "Let's run down there, jump over the gate and fuck one of those cows." "I've got a better idea," says the old bull. "Let's walk down, open the gate and fuck'em all." It's tempting to believe that this venerable after-dinner chestnut I was on writer-director Shelton's mind when he christened the motley band of minor league grafters at the centre of his wistful able of The Durham Bulls. It captures perfectly the relationship I between weary-wise old pro Crash Davis (Costner) and loose cannonpitcher Ebby "Nuke" LaLoosh (Robbins) whose rough edges he is recruited to smooth off. This being baseball you see, a sport that has leant itself more readily to rich allegory and heady metaphor than any other, Crash has far more to teach Nuke than how to hang a curve ball. Like most other baseball movies, the last thing Bull Durham is about is baseball.

But where most other baseball movies with emblematic overtones (The Natural, Field Of Dreams etc.) overreach themselves, strip mining the game for the wish-fulfilment mythology and rose-tinted melodrama that the genuine crotch-scratching, corporate article delivers maybe once in a generation, Bull Durham is tethered much closer to reality. True, it's a reality that seems to exist on the cusp of magic hour. But not even the fireflies dancing in the gathering dusk or the poetry of Walt Whitman, which floats on the breeze like a prayer, can distract you from the film's harsh truth: in baseball, as in life, most people never get a shot at the majors. And, it is tacitly implied, even if they do they usually screw it up.

That's not to say glories can't be had, they abound in fact. But they're glories on a human scale, and they're hard won against the slings and arrows of outrageous losing streaks, tarnished dreams and ornery love affairs. There are no enchanted bats or spectral Hall-Of-Famers here. The pivotal character of the piece is Annie Savoy (Sarandon) a combination camp-follower and den mother who, "Worships at the church of baseball" and assists her beloved Bulls by offering overtly erotic coaching tips and adopting each season's most promising player as her lover. Both are expertly contrived character traits on Shelton's part. They reveal not only Annie's love of the game but her deep understanding of it.

Far from the stereotypical hardball groupie, Annie is a sensual woman whose primal passions are inextricably linked to the fortunes of the team. The fidelity she shows to whichever hot-shot slugger she beds becomes a lucky talisman. Naturally this opens up a whole new arena of competition for Crash and Nuke, whose mentor-protege relationship is already stormy enough. Annie, transfixed by Nuke's "million dollar arm" and temporarily blinded to his five cent head, bestows her gift on the raw young pitcher (even though undiscovered tribes in the rainforests of Borneo could have told her that she and Crash were made for each other). Thereafter, as Annie sets about singing the body electric and Nuke falls over himself firing "limpid jets of love" in all directions, the sexual tension simmers as the Bulls chase another elusive pennant down the dusty backroads of the Great American Pastime.

As Annie, Sarandon gets the sexual allure of a fading southern belle pitch perfect — a heady combination of Blanche DuBois and Mrs. Robinson she relishes her playful initiation of Nuke to the full even as she is yearning for Crash. Robbins is also a delight with a goofy grin and puppy dog charm that prevent Nuke from becoming the annoying jerk he could easily have been. It's not so much the callousness of youth that exasperates Crash, rather it's amiable dickheadedness. But even he, through his jealousy of Nuke's unseasoned talent and inelegant coupling with Annie, can see that the kid is just so full of juice he can't help himself.

Of the very few rough spots, the most jarring is Crash's celebrated "beliefs" monologue. It's obvious grandstanding and out of step with the film's languorous rhythms. Even Shelton admits, somewhat sheepishly, that it was an artificial ploy designed to hook a big name actor. It hooked Kevin Costner, and he turns in the performance of his career. Just the right side of weather-beaten and with an edge of cockiness that had yet to mutate into full-blown egotism, he nails every pensive nuance of Shelton's superb script to the wall. He's Rick Elaine in a catcher's mitt and even if it is uncharitable to say so, you can't help wishing he'd been hit by a bus on the way to the wrap party.

The precedent for a torrent of pale imitators, this is the real deal.