Special Alert

‘Bull Durham’ has always been a great movie. Now, it’s entering the canon.

Published: 04/18
Try to define what counts as a classic work of art, and you're virtually guaranteed an argument. But in film, one potential measure is whether a movie makes it into the Criterion Collection, a series of carefully preserved and presented home-viewing editions of "the defining moments of cinema." So it was with total delight that I learned this week that Ron Shelton's "Bull Durham," one of the greatest movies ever made about baseball, a brilliant romantic comedy and a film that stands as a rebuke to many of the false choices the entertainment industry now seems to take for granted, is getting a Criterion Collection release in July.

"Bull Durham" takes place over a single summer, or more precisely, over a season for the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team. It concerns a love triangle among the team's biggest fan and part-time English professor Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) and aging catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), assigned to prepare LaLoosh for the majors. Annie, who takes a new player as a lover each summer, identifies the two as "the most promising prospects of the season so far." And though she ends up with LaLoosh, whom she nicknames "Nuke," when Crash explains that "after 12 years in the minor leagues, I don't try out," she can't get the older man out of her head - not least because he sees baseball the same way she does: as the encapsulation of a certain American idea and a particular approach to life.

It's easy to get hagiographic about the national past-time, and part of the charm of "Bull Durham" is that Annie makes the idea of baseball as a religion literal instead of metaphoric. "There are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball," she explains in the movie's iconic opening monologue. "When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring."

But unlike some other, more saccharine baseball movies, "Bull Durham" is sly enough to note that the game Americans have chosen to represent as our national character is full of cruelties, ironies and inherent disappointments. Bad trades are part of baseball, as Annie points out. Marginal differences in talent and marketability make the difference between being rewarded with immense riches and facing the fact that you're considered worthless in middle age and the job you've had so far has given you few skills that will sustain you in another profession. "Bull Durham" knows that the story we tell ourselves about baseball and about America may be an opiate. Still, it sees the sweetness in the drug and in transcending it.

One of the central insights of "Bull Durham" is that baseball and sex and romance are of equal interest to men and women. This is not a movie where a woman blithely wanders into a male realm she knows nothing about and finds love, nor one where a hard-bitten professional man finds himself distracted by a woman who reminds him that domestic life has its charms. Instead, Annie and Crash are both deeply knowledgeable about baseball history and the technical aspects of the game, even if they disagree about the best way to improve Nuke's performance. "Bull Durham" is a love triangle, with Nuke and Crash competing for Annie's attention, but it's also a triangle built around mentorship, with Crash and Annie jostling for preeminence in Nuke's journey to the big leagues.

When "Bull Durham" begins, Annie's summer romances are based on the idea that she has something to impart to the young men she takes into her bed, but that she might not get equal care and insight in return. And when Crash arrives in Durham, he's suspicious of the idea that this particular woman has set herself up as an expert on the game he has devoted his life to. Before they can be together, each needs to evolve. Annie has to reach a place where she recognizes that a man could give her as much as she gives him. And as he nears the end of his playing career, Crash has to get to a point where he can recognize that Annie's pride in his minor-league accomplishments and her sense of the glorious metaphysics of baseball have helped restore his love of the game to him.

There are a lot of things about "Bull Durham" that make it feel unmoored from the present moment: the clothes, the reference to Susan Sontag's novels during a literary argument, the use of landline phones. But most of all, the movie is unencumbered by some of the anxieties that burden contemporary movie-making.

"Bull Durham" makes no apology for being a romance movie; it takes for granted the idea that two grown-up people finding their way to each other, and finding new places for themselves in the world, is a subject of interest. The film is also comfortable assuming that its audience is literate and intelligent, that they know what quantum mechanics are and who Walt Whitman is, or at least that they're not going to feel insulted when those terms get thrown around in conversation. This is not a movie weighed down by the need to make sure that members of a certain demographic are lured into theaters. In 1988, "Bull Durham" pulled in almost $51 million at the box office, making it the 18th-highest grossing movie of the year.

Maybe you can't go back to 1988 again. Maybe it's crazy to find glory in minor league baseball the way Annie Savoy does. But "Bull Durham" was one of the movies that made me love movies. If its enshrinement in the Criterion Collection reminds an executive somewhere in Hollywood that movies can still feel like this, then the whole idea of a canon might seem worth it.

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