In Bull Durham, writer-director Ron Shelton gracefully sustains two contradictory tonalities. The film is a classically structured romantic comedy, following sharp talkers as they engage in verbal combat as foreplay. Yet this action isn’t set against a backdrop that naturally complements its freneticism, such as the big cities that frequently figure in romcoms, but rather the sleepy, autumnal city of Durham, North Carolina, home of the Durham Bulls, a minor league baseball team. The film was actually shot in Durham, and Shelton often lingers on the city’s beautifully scruffy, half-empty stadium and on the extras as they eat hotdogs, drink beer, and watch the rituals that kick off a game of baseball, such as the performances of “Clown Prince of Baseball” Max Patkin, who appears as himself. Some of Bull Durham’s images have the lonely, plaintive quality of certain Edward Hopper paintings, which starkly contrasts with the Hollywood glamour at the center of the narrative.
In other words, Bull Durham moves at two speeds at once—fast and deliberate—mirroring the weird tempo of baseball itself, in which long periods of inaction are occupied with talking that’s suddenly punctuated with moments of high drama. (In an interview included with this Criterion Collection edition, Shelton refers to baseball as a “talking sport.”) This sense of double speed is Shelton’s trademark, as evinced by the freighted alternations of rest and motion that drive other sports films such as White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup. Shelton is a poet of rechanneling, capturing how athletes duplicate their on-field highs via drinking, bullshitting, and screwing.
And the drinking, bullshitting, and screwing of Bull Durham is among the most spirited and gracefully verbose debauchery in American cinema. The film is inescapably sentimental in a manner that recalls Almost Famous, as Shelton is similarly disinterested in the ugliness of professions that allow men to live in states of arrested, hedonistic self-involvement. In Cameron Crowe’s film, this sunny-side-up mentality feels evasive; in Shelton’s film, though, the glorification of boys-behaving-badly serves a subversive end. Bull Durham is less interested in critiquing baseball than the romantic comedy itself.
In Bull Durham, Shelton casually refutes the puritanism that governs even classic screwball comedies. These films substituted good dialogue for sex, inadvertently honoring a fraudulent duality between intelligence and sensuality, which our society often assumes to be mutually exclusive. Instead, Shelton serves up sparkling dialogue and then allows us to see the fruits it eventually bears. This notion of the union between the northern and southern hemispheres of the body is personified by Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a self-appointed high priestess of Durham Bulls baseball who makes a point of sexually tutoring a promising new player every season, while also educating them on, say, the poetry of Walt Whitman. Shelton doesn’t parody or condescend to Annie’s sexual voraciousness, nor does he make a point of congratulating himself for his progressiveness. He accepts her as she is: a glorious eccentric whom most men would kill to meet.
Meanwhile, Annie’s new suitors, pitcher “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner) and catcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), reaffirm the notion of the mind and body as polar dualities. Though played by Costner at his peak charisma and handsomeness, Crash is stuck in his head, using his intellectualism as a defense mechanism. A player nearing the end of a long minor league career that never went further, Crash is cursed with a consciousness of his own limitations, while Nuke, a rookie prodigy with a golden arm, could use a bit of mental control to hone his erratic gifts. No wonder that Annie initially courts both men, as they cumulatively forge the persona that she’s worked so hard to foster within herself. Of course, Annie’s more vulnerable than she appears to be. Like Crash, Annie suspects that she’s wasted her gifts on baseball, and there’s sense in Annie’s fanciful erudition of an artist who never found her outlet.
Shelton establishes this complex romantic triangle—essentially three overlapping love stories between Crash and Annie and Annie and Nuke and Crash and Nuke—with seeming ease. The leisurely plotting and atmosphere of regret inform the film with a naturalistic believability that paradoxically heightens the stylishness of the writing and acting. We’re allowed to see the real world that exists just outside of the periphery of Annie, Crash, and Nuke’s fantasies of themselves, particularly when Crash strolls along an empty street alone, examining his batter’s pose in a store window. Such sequences are worthy of the similarly deconstructive writing of John Cheever and of glamorously gritty sports film like Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, and they heighten the emotional wallop of the film’s conclusion. Eventually, boundaries of self-consciousness come tumbling down in a finale that allows Annie and Crash to exorcise their demons with prolonged and proudly enjoyable movie-star sex that gratifies audience’s fantasies while underscoring the protagonists’ longing. In Bull Durham, Shelton fashions an appealing and resonant kind of character: the every-person legend.
This newly restored 4K transfer is a revelation. Several prior home-video editions of Bull Durham featured flat images with glare issues, but this image boasts incredible depth and texture, with finely sculpted shadows that reveal writer-director Ron Shelton to be a subtle stylist as well as a gifted wordsmith and director of actors. Durham, North Carolina has even more of a palpable presence in this edition than it did before, as we can now vividly discern the creaks and cracks of buildings, dim barroom lighting, as well as the noir colors of Annie’s home, which features a room with a finely detailed monument to baseball. Skin textures are also extraordinary, particularly intensifying the intimacy of the film’s love scenes. Two DTS-HD Master Audio surround mixes have been included, a 5.1 and 2.0, and both offer an immersive and naturalistic sound stage that’s most noticeable in the film’s many baseball scenes. The 5.1 has a bit more diegetic detail, but both are rich and sturdy.
Two archive audio commentaries, featuring Ron Shelton and actors Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins, respectively, have been ported over from other editions, and they’re both still worth a listen. Shelton discusses his own experience in minor league baseball, and how he left at a certain age because he didn’t want to become like Crash Davis. Bull Durham was inspired in part by Shelton’s frustration with other sports films, such as The Pride of the Yankees, which he dismisses as a very good film about dying. Shelton recalls the shaping of the film in the editing room (disappointingly, there are no deleted scenes on the disc), recalling, for instance, a long scene where Annie explains her history with baseball, which he originally thought was the heart of the film. Costner and Robbins’s commentary is more casual and conversational, and Costner has an amusing habit of commenting about Susan Sarandon in a fashion that’s of questionable taste given Robbins’s relationship with her at the time. (Robbins proves to be a good sport.)
A variety of other archive featurettes cover ground that’s more extensively mined by Shelton’s commentary, including an appreciation of the film from 2008 and a collection of interviews with the cast and crew from 2001. Short excerpts from NBC Nightly News and NBC’s Today offer updates as to what happened to the original Durham Bulls stadium and to Max Patkin years after the film’s production, respectively. New to this edition is a contemporary interview with Shelton, hosted by film critic Michael Sragow, in which the filmmaker claims that every athlete believes themselves to be an actor while every actor believes themselves to be athlete. Rounding out a solid package is an updated article on Bull Durham from the New Yorker by baseball writer Roger Angell, as well as the film’s theatrical trailer.
This warm, literate, erotic sports film receives an appropriately vibrant refurbishing courtesy of the Criterion Collection.