Editor’s note: In this feature, running every other week, Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald shares her love of certain movies and what makes them great — in the hope of inspiring some of your at-home entertainment choices.
There may be no joy in Mudville these days — the coronavirus pandemic has seen to that — but at least there’s still “Bull Durham.” Watching it again, you disappear into another world: one of warm summer evenings spent at a pleasantly shabby ballpark, hearing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” played on tinny organ (or, more likely, a recording of some long-ago tinny organ) and marveling at the resonant crack of a bat connecting with a ball, sending it heavenward.
Both atmospheric sports movie and sexy romantic comedy, “Bull Durham” is essentially a love triangle, playing out over a season with the minor-league Durham Bulls of North Carolina. Crash Davis (Kevin Costner, never better) is a veteran catcher sent to the organization to help settle down the erratic but talented young pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins); Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is a local English teacher who worships at “the Church of Baseball” and every year takes a gifted young player as a lover and mentee. Initially she chooses Nuke — who’s got, we quickly learn, “a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head” — though it’s clear that Annie would be better matched with Crash, a moodily handsome fellow who, we’re told, has been known to read books that don’t have pictures. (Maybe she just likes saying “Ebby Calvin LaLoosh”; I know I do.) Ah well, it’s a long season, as Annie says, and you’ve got to trust it.
Writer/director Ron Shelton was himself a minor-league ballplayer, and “Bull Durham” — his 1988 directing debut — is full of details that seem hard-lived and authentic: the Yogi Berra quote (“In baseball, you don’t know nothing”) on the clubhouse wall; the cheap-looking towels and low-rent locker rooms; the sweat on the uniforms; the deceptively casual way a manager tells a player that “we’ve decided to make a change.” Shelton doesn’t sentimentalize this world; in fact, he has fun doing the opposite. “Get a hit, Crash!,” says an eager ball boy who looks like he stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. “Shut up,” Crash replies.
And Shelton takes us inside the heads of the players — Nuke on the mound, Crash in the batter’s box — during the game. Each pitcher-batter confrontation plays out like a Greek drama; that is, if the Greeks wore garter belts under their uniforms (Nuke does this, at Annie’s suggestion).
But what makes “Bull Durham” purr like a race car is its dialogue. (Shelton was Oscar-nominated for the screenplay, but lost to “Rain Man.”) I remembered the famous monologues: Annie’s, opening the film, about the Church of Baseball (on her lovers: “What I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball.”); Crash’s, on what he believes, ending with “I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.” Annie, for once wordless, can only reply, “Oh, my.”
I’d forgotten, though, Nuke blithely mangling the lyrics to “Try a Little Tenderness” (“She may get woolly / Women do get woolly / Because of all the stress.”) Or assistant coach Larry (Robert Wuhl), whose rapid-fire chants of encouragement during the games I can’t quote, as I have no idea what he’s saying; it sounds like strange music. Or Annie explaining that Walt Whitman “sort of pitches for the Cosmic All-Stars.” Nothing is predictable in this movie (except, perhaps, its inevitable and very welcome ending); every conversation feels fresh-minted. “Oh, Crash,” Annie sighs at one point, “you do make speeches.” They all do; you just wish they’d keep talking.
There’s a nostalgic pleasure in revisiting movies you loved when you were younger; the actors seem uncannily youthful and beautiful (Costner, in particular, is always framed in perfect movie-star light), and the world seems less complicated. I remember going to see “Bull Durham” long ago on a double date, and as we left the theater my friend gazed into her spouse’s eyes and observed that he looked like Costner. He didn’t, really, but looking back I see her point: “Bull Durham,” pulling us into its elegant game-playing, has that effect on people. At one point in the season, baseball magic strikes the Bulls, and they start to play, as Annie describes it, with “joy and verve and poetry” — all words that apply, quite deftly, to this movie. Batter up.
Written and directed by Ron Shelton, 1988, 107 minutes, rated R. Available on DVD from MGM Video and The Criterion Collection (Seattle Public Library and King County Library System have copies, or check with video stores Reckless Video or Scarecrow Video); streaming at Starz, Amazon Prime, iTunes and other streaming services.