By Marc S. Sanders
How Susan Sarandon did not even get nominated for an Oscar for Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham, I’ll never know. Shelton writes the character of the lustrous, Annie Savoy with grace, wisdom and silky sex appeal. It remains one of the best female characters to ever appear on a screen and no one else could have played the part other than Sarandon.
Shelton’s sensational script opens with Annie’s declaration that she believes in the “church of baseball” and from there it waxes poetic on the sport’s religion and traditions as Annie uses her charm to seduce the Durham Bulls’ newest talent, dim witted pitcher Eppy Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins) leaving the team’s experienced catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) wanting more. That is until Annie realizes that she’s the one who wants more.
Davis is recruited to groom Nuke for the big leagues. Nuke has got a million dollar fast ball arm but he “…fucks like he pitches. Sort of all over the place.” Crash is the frustrated player with talent but the sun is setting on his opportunity for the big leagues. Dumb Nuke has a future that just doesn’t seem fair to Crash. Annie is no help when she chooses Nuke over Crash to hook up with for the season.
Shelton explores so many dimensions in his script. It does not solely focus on the three primary characters. The screenplay stirs in a mixture of what it’s like to serve on a minor league team with bats and gloves that are cursed, the urge for a rain out game or what present to get Bobby and Millie for their wedding. A call to the mound might settle some of these things.
Shelton directs his script with a very natural approach. Watch Crash and Annie flirt in a batting cage. Costner and Sarandon don’t even flinch as the balls whiz between them. Baseball is a part of these characters. They live and breathe baseball and they relish sex.
Shelton’s last 15 minutes of film offer a celebration of sexual release that appears pleasant, fun and somewhat religious as the chemistry between Costner and Sarandon remains strong. They rattle the whole house it seems and the kitchen will never be the same.
Robbins is great with his idiocy. He wasn’t as well known when this film was released in 1988. His surprise appearance of stupidity is so lovable and welcome. When he tries to think he gets himself in trouble. When he listens to his coaches, Annie and Crash, he excels. The pains he goes through upon their advice is ridiculously hilarious. Don’t forget to breathe through your eyelids, Nuke.
I also gotta recognize Robert Wuhl and Trey Wilson as the managers of the team. They are hilarious but not overt. Wuhl is great as he bellows out encouraging but incomprehensible cheers from the dugout. Wilson looks on with tired facial expressions.
This cast is invested in the cloth of America’s pastime. They know the batting averages. They read the signs. They play for the crowds. It’s as if Shelton moseyed into the town of Durham, North Carolina, put his camera up and watched how another season all played out. His lens could have been working with a documentary mindset.
Bull Durham is one of the best scripts ever written full of brilliant one liners and philosophies that I might not entirely understand what any of it is referencing. Yet when Annie or Crash carry on, I can’t help but suddenly get interested.
Bull Durham is the best baseball film ever made performed by an outstanding cast led by a director with a clear, wide-open vision.