Bull Durham is a movie about the love-hate relationship with baseball. Its themes of longing, lonliness, and heartbreak is intermingled with a mature, fowl mouthed sex comedy that finds poetry and beauty in the quick witted ruminations of its characters. Their lives are full of passions both on the field and in the bedroom, making this one of the most explicitly sexual romantic comedies ever made. Yet for each character, their passions are misplaced. They yearn for something they have yet to achieve, and the one constant they cling to is the highs and lows brought on by America’s favourite pastime.
The film tells the story of ragtag bush league team the Durham Bulls throughout their regular season. While the team does not display any exemplary talent, they do possess the magic touch of an up and coming lunkhead pitcher named Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins). Nuke has potential to make it to “The Show” (ie The Majors), but he suffers from a lack of discipline. This is demonstrated by his haphazard pitching style where he hits the mascot the same amount of times he strikes players out. This captures the eye of baseball aficionado, and local player groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who takes it upon herself to personally coach Nuke both on the field and in the bedroom. Another mentor comes into play in the persona of Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a minor league veteran who has been hired on as Nuke’s catcher to train the young athlete the tricks of the trade.
While both Nuke and Crash take a liking to Annie, she only has room for one lover per season. While Nuke takes sex about as seriously as he takes baseball, he’s ready, willing, and able to hit the sack. Meanwhile Crash is older, wiser, and has no time to play games, he willingly walks out on Annie and leaves her with Nuke. As the season commences, both Crash and Annie begin to mold Nuke into a respectable player, and after a rocky start, he begins to show some promise. As Nuke matures, Crash and Annie try to suppress their mutual attraction for one another, but as these movies go we know it will be inevitable that the right couple will end up together.
Bull Durham treats baseball as something to be loved, yet like anything we love, it has the ability to disappoint us. It is a beloved game, yes, and there are aspects of it that can be clearly romanticized, but at the end of the day it is grunt work, and only the talented ones can survive it. Where does that leave everyone else? Those poor lost souls who have a love for the game but either lack the talent or luck to excel in it. Writer/director Ron Shelton examines these aspects of baseball by linking it to human connection. As exhibited through both Crash and Annie, baseball is an extension to the human experience. To them it is more than just a game, but a way of life. For Annie, she finds poetry in it, like the type she recites to Nuke while having him tied up to her bed. For Crash, it is all he knows. It dictates his life more than anyone else in the film. He is a master of the game, but he’s over the hill. In Crash’s case, baseball is something he wishes he could quit, and for Annie, it is a romance that leaves with the changing of the season.
As for Nuke, he is too young and immature to comprehend these meanings. He’s out for a good time, and doesn’t stop to think. He is lost inside himself, and doesn’t quite know what he might find. Nuke poses and swaggers, because that’s the way he thinks ball players are supposed to behave. But he’s sloppy, ignorant, and lacks direction. Nuke’s own focus is putting on a show rather than playing the game. Like Annie and Crash, Nuke’s problem comes from not knowing what he really wants. In his case he thinks its respect from others, but rather its respect for himself.
Along with the art of baseball, Bull Durham is also preoccupied with the act of sex, and how it defines its characters. As with baseball, sex is seen as an extension of the way each character lives their life. For Annie, she emits sultry energy, yet she acts to a certain code of conduct with her lovers. The way she makes love to Nuke almost feels like it is in the service of baseball rather than for her. Her intimacy and passion comes from the mentality tied to the love of the game because she sees potential in Nuke as both a player and a lover. The end justifies the means because in her mind it’s serving the greater good. Yet she knows no long lasting relationship can ever come of this.
It is only when Annie gets with Crash that she experiences a consummation of real loving affection. Their love making is actually the climax of the film, and Shelton lingers on it through a montage of intimate acts. They go from the bedroom, to the bathtub, to the kitchen table, all with the passion of wild animals. In one instance, Annie is tied to the bed like she did with Nuke, while Crash is shown painting her toenails. Her ecstasy in this scene is palpable to extreme erotic pleasure which she has been waiting for all her life. Here we see both characters having the chance to release all of their frustrations and hostilities towards baseball, and their own limited lives. Both give something what the other needed all along, which is a meaning beyond baseball, and a way to express themselves fully to someone else. There has been a lot of discourse lately about the lack of sex in recent movies, and how some people feel it is unnecessary. With Bull Durham, sex is not only necessary, but imperative to the characters’ own happiness. When we deal with such sexual people like Annie and Crash, it would do them a disservice not to show them in the throws of passion. There is a catharsis to sex, and a revelation that can spark a change in attitude. It is then no coincidence that after their love making ends, Crash goes on the road to join a new team. Yet it is not a goodbye to Annie, but rather to baseball itself. It is at this point, Crash has now found a way to move on from the game he so loves. He hits his final home run which he knows is a league record, and with a feeling of contentment returns to Annie’s front porch. In the final moments of the film, Crash says to Annie “he just wants to be”, which is probably the most honest statement he has said about himself. We can see now that he’ s tired of playing games, and he’s ready to settle down.
Bull Durham is a funny movie, and sometimes so much so, it’s easy to forget the underlying sadness it emits. Everyone in the film is in the middle of the road, waiting for the next big thing to happen in their lives. They are tied to a game that makes them feel alive, but they know it’s not enough. It’s a film about searching for meaning beyond what’s in front of you, and finding purpose in something new.
This is best illustrated in the character of Crash Davis. As portrayed by Costner, Crash is a loner who is out of place in his natural environment. He is world weary and lonely, wondering why he’s still playing a game that has shown him nothing but disappointment. He is a fascinating character because he doesn’t seem to have much left to prove, but he’s stuck having to prove it over and over again because that’s all he knows. Costner has probably never been better as he is able to elicit both his charm, sadness, and sexuality in ways that complement each other.
As Annie, Sarandon is tailor made for the role, and there is a bit of irony in the way Shelton chooses her character to narrate a mostly male dominated world. Annie is given the same amount of respect and confidence as any player on the team in the way she understands baseball, which even Crash understands. Her femininity is not undercut by her love of the sport, rather it’s enhanced. She is an empowering presence to the players, in the way she gives sage advice on handling the bat or throwing the ball. Her knowledge is mixed in with her sexual desires, which she flaunts with knowing pride.
As Nuke, Robbins is careful never to go overboard with the empty headed character. He imbues a type of naivete to the role, but also a playfulness and humanity. Nuke never becomes cartoonish, even though that’s where you fear he may go. Rather, by the time the film ends, you are surprised at how the character has changed, which even surprises Crash when the moment comes.
Bull Durham feels like the natural evolution of the classic thirties romantic comedies. Those films elicited outrageous humour, sexuality, and sadness in the same way this one does. They often included romantic triangles, and intimate affairs, only they were never able to portray it as openly as this film. While Bull Durham can get away with more explicit scenes, it doesn’t forget to tease and scintillate. It’s what drives the character’s motivations, and it creates a tension that can only be cut when something is done about it. But it’s a testament to the film’s richness of the characters, we care deeply about what they do because we want what’s best for them.
By the end of the film, we see our three main characters enter new worlds more assured with who they are and where they are going. There is a change in their lives that elicits optimism and happiness. We’re not sure how well Nuke will do in the big leagues, nor do we know if Crash and Annie’s relationship will last, but we suspect that each person now knows what they want out of life, and that’s half the battle.