Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Ten

#10 — Bull Durham (Ron Shelton, 1988)
I believe in the church of baseball. There’s something magical that happens between those white lines under summer skies. It’s a sport in which two full teams face each other other, but the most decisive match-up, the one that dominates the game, is between two people–the pitcher and the batter–trying to outguess one another over and over again. In its patience, persistence, camaraderie, individualism and surge from relative sedateness to a field full of controlled chaos, it genuinely gets at something inadvertently revealing about the quintessential American spirit. As romantic as it can be, it’s also tinged with humor, led by the spectacle of seeing men play a boys’ game. It’s a long season, somewhat akin to a robust life, and the difference between grand success and abject failure is twenty-five hits. Just one dying quail a week.

Part of the brilliance of Ron Shelton’s directorial debut, Bull Durham, is that it’s unashamedly about baseball, every last bit of it. Yes, it’s the poetry of a Walt Whitman testimonial or the beauty of a well-struck ball sailing high into the night, but it’s also the grind of indistinguishable days, the frustration of an unshakable slump and the days when distractions simply take over. Candlesticks do always make a nice gift. Shelton doesn’t feel need to dumb down the material, drawn from his own experience as a minor league baseball player, and, in doing so, he not only made a movie that took the sport more seriously than any prior film treatment, he fundamentally transformed the general understanding of a game so entrenched in the culture that it’s called “America’s Pastime.” When journeyman catcher Crash Davis refers to the Major Leagues as “The Show” in Bull Durham, it introduced new terminology into the vernacular. This fall, the phrase is used in Moneyball as casually and comfortably as a character in a romantic comedy proclaims their undying affection for another after a series of misadventures. Shelton demythologized the sport that exploits mythology like no other, paradoxically making it seem more special and wondrous than ever before.

But Bull Durham is not just a movie about baseball. While the scenes centered solely on the action on the field are all engaging and terrifically funny, the movie is as much about the people as the playing. Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner in the peak of his down-to-earth charm, is brought in to tutor a hotshot pitching prospect, playing with doofus bravado by Tim Robbins. Their already fragile, contentious relationship is complicated by the different levels of affection (or lust, perhaps) the two players feel for Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon in the single most inventive, striking performance in a career that has no shortage of nominees for such a designation. Annie is a ballpark groupie who enters into sexual relationships with a new player each year, offering her own prodigious knowledge of all aspects of the world, including baseball, to her season-long paramour.

Just as Shelton rejects oversimplification of the sport at the film’s center, he is adverse to any shortcuts in the inner and outer lives of his main characters. The interpersonal relationships are deeply complex and portrayed accordingly. It’s not quite a zero sum game, but every triumph for someone has a decidedly different impact on others. Mixes feelings abound, and there’s often no easy methodology for sorting through them. Both Crash and Annie offer their own distinctly different forms of mentoring to the upstart kid, but, in many ways, the film is about the ways all three of these characters need to suffer the indignity and challenge of growing up, of measuring the gap between who they’ve been and who they will be. With an absolute absence of pretension, Bull Durham charts that growth and the accumulation of knowledge and belief that shapes it. There are times when the travail of living requires intense self-reflection and then there are times when all it takes is a simple truism, like, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” Discerning between the two…well, that’s where wisdom lies.