Bull Durham seems an unlikely hit. It’s a film about baseball and relationships, two subjects which seem to have nothing to do with each other. But it has neither the typical traits of a sports comedy or a romantic comedy. Writer/director Ron Shelton plays by his own rules, making a playful, leisurely film that works outside of the usual genre conventions.
The basis of the story is a love triangle. Every season, baseball “groupie” Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) picks the best young player from her local minor league team and “trains” him in her favourite pastimes -- sex and baseball. When they are not in bed she uses her wide knowledge of baseball to improve him as a player and help him make it to the major league. Her chosen lover for the season is “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a brilliant young pitcher. He’s got one of the best arms in the business but he’s not very bright. Also on the team is “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner), a veteran player who's also trying to get Nuke into the major league. During the course of the season, both men fall in love or lust with Annie, leading to all sorts of complications for them and the team.
Unlike most films about sport, Bull Durham does not follow the predictable story arc of leading up to a big match (which the heroes always win). Instead, it’s all about the build-up to whether Annie and Crash will get together when Nuke leaves for the major league at the end of the season. The “will they, won’t they?” question lingers all the way through the film, creating a delicious tension. It makes the whole film seem like a long bout of foreplay.
There is a wonderful and easy chemistry among all three lead actors, but Sarandon has by far the most interesting character. Annie is such a contradiction -- a woman who loves baseball, sex and literature in seemingly equal measure. She even manages to combine all three of her passions -- by tying naked baseball players to her bed and reading poetry to them. Weird? Yes, but Sarandon imbues the character with a warmth and humanity that makes her quirks seem believable.
In the case of Sarandon and Robbins the chemistry must have been genuine, because when the two actors met on Bull Durham’s set they began a real-life romance which continues to this day, making them one of Hollywood’s most enduring couples.
At the end of the film, Sarandon quotes Walt Whitman as saying baseball is “our game. The American game.” This is true -- it’s an American sport that non-Americans are not so familiar with. This could have been a problem -- the long scenes of play on the baseball diamond could have alienated audiences who don’t know or like the game. But director Ron Shelton, himself a former minor league baseball player, wisely doesn’t let the film get bogged down in the details of the game. He focuses on the drama in sport, depicting the subtle shifts in power, the desire to succeed and the difficulty in staying motivated. These are things that almost anyone can identify with.
Bull Durham is that rare thing, a sports film that does not require much knowledge of the sport, and one that most people -- men and women -- can find some way to relate to.
(Released by MGM Home Entertainment; rated "R" by MPAA.)