35 Years On, America Needs Movies as Horny and Smart as Bull Durham

Comedy Features Bull Durham
35 Years On, America Needs Movies as Horny and Smart as Bull Durham

In the second act of Adaptation, the fictionalized Robert McKee (Brian Cox) famously tells the fictionalized Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) and a room of aspiring scripters that voiceover is a symptom of “flaccid, sloppy writing.” But something vital happens when Annie Savoy’s (Susan Sarandon) intelligent, wandering words open 1988’s Bull Durham. “I believe in the Church of Baseball,” the English teacher tells us in a thick Southern accent, “The only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out.” My dad similarly told me during a Fenway game, “This is America’s mosque!” We always understand the characters’ absurd, ridiculous behavior because we know the passion, the love Annie and the Durham Bulls minor leaguers feel for the sport.

Annie has a system all worked out: every Bulls season, she picks out the best player and gives him her own “spring training.” She’ll read Walt Whitman to them, give tips on their throw, and say goodbye when the organization “makes a change” or they switch to the majors. Her pick this year is Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a young, dumb, hilariously overconfident pitcher with “a million dollar arm, but a five cent head.” Enter Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a veteran player the Bulls have hired to train the slapdash rookie. Crash and Annie work together to help Nuke improve his aim while also dealing with their obvious mutual attraction.       

Yes, Bull Durham, now 35 years old, is often cited as the greatest baseball movie. Writer/director Ron Shelton actually played with the Rochester Red Wings for five years, and there’s a ring of authenticity here, especially in the absurd chaos of the umpire fights, the hushed way the characters call the major leagues “the show.” Like a lot of great art, it is also about love and worship—what church, what life have you given yourself to, and how long, how much, will you be able to give in the long run? Annie cites Whitman as well as the radical Christian William Blake, and the script shares those poets’ anti-Puritan, passionate sensibilities. So many American films are, for better or worse, about work, but Bull Durham is all about play: the characters correctly believe art, sex, and games are the true value of living. (“Beats workin’ at Sears,” Bulls manager Skip, played by Trey Wilson, says of the team early on to a reluctant Crash.)

“Announcing your fucking presence with authority?!” “Welllllllllll, he fucks like he pitches—sorta all over the place.” It’s tempting to fill this essay with the movie’s IMDb quotes page, because that’s just how good Shelton’s lines are. Obviously the minor-league players in the movie love games, and that extends to the profane screwball language. Soliloquies from Nuke and Crash pepper the movie alongside speeches and one-liners. The repartee between Crash and Annie are innings in a greater match between equally clever people. Then, when she finally seems at a loss for words, she drops a single, blunt sentence on Crash. It’s electric to watch. 

Make no mistake—this is a film as obsessed with dugout quickies as it is baseball. There are some solid reasons for why sex scenes have disappeared from modern-day films—including corporate consolidation and Internet porn—but people do fuck in real life, and pretending otherwise is just ridiculous. Bull Durham clearly believes that sex is a healthy, fun, funny, and joyous thing everyone should enjoy, and the act can also serve the story. The emotional climax isn’t really Nuke going to the majors, bittersweet as that is. No, it’s Crash visiting Annie after he’s been let go from the team, the tenderness and raw energy in the air as he takes her drink. She feels his black eye, puts her hand around his neck in a gesture of sheer intimacy, both smiling sheepishly as they kiss. Bull Durham isn’t Basic Instinct, but it knows how hot those little gestures are, the way nothing on the table matters (note how the spilled milk flows around Crash and Annie—now this is baptism) when the surface can hold both your bodies at once.

That approach extends into a refreshingly anti-slut shaming attitude for a film from the Reagan era. When Millie (Jenny Robertson), a Bulls “groupie” and friend of Annie’s, marries Christian ball player Jimmy (William O’Leary), Crash threatens the asshole who laughs about her past. “Hey! Anyone says a bad word about Millie, I’ll break their neck!” Millie is later seen looking in the mirror as Annie helps with her wedding dress. “Annie…do you think I deserve to wear white?” “Honey, we all deserve to wear white,” she says patiently. 

Bull Durham is obviously about jocks circa 1988, and it was clearly filmed in 1988. Crash says at least one homophobic line, and there’s a racist, inaccurate running gag about Jose’s (Rick Marzan) bat, voodoo, and superstitious ball players. But the movie’s love and sincere approach to character have helped it endure the years. Nuke is at his core a sweet kid, and even Jimmy doesn’t try to force his religion on the other players. Annie and Crash meanwhile are adults with recognizable pasts and regrets. (Shelton remarked in a 2022 interview that Crash’s world-weary player is relatable because we’ve all “loved something more than it loves us back.”) But they also know how to enjoy poetry, and sex, and dancing, and baseball. As Annie suggests, these great pastimes are all intertwined. They’re why we really get up in the morning, and that poetic approach to life is why Bull Durham is still, to this day, one of the great American comedies.   

C.M. Crockford is a Philly-based neurodivergent writer with poems, articles, stories published in various outlets. You can find him on Twitter and find his other work at cmcrockford.com.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin