Throwback Thirty – Bull Durham (1988)

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51u8fxjcqal5_star_rating_system_4_stars1 Another week down and another 30 year-old film to discuss. I’d not seen Bull Durham before because, quite frankly, when something is described as a mixture of romantic-comedy and sports film then I’ll just assume it’s not for me. I don’t have the best history with sports film because I really can’t give a shit about sports. Sure when the Summer Olympics is on I might watch a few of the more exciting events but I can honestly think of better things to do with my time. I’m of the opinion that if you like a sport that much then you’d be better off playing it than sitting in front of a TV watching it. But I’m also the kind of person who finds board games to be edge of your seat excitement. So, I don’t exactly go out of my way to watch a sports film unless there’s another reason to enjoy it. Sure, when I was younger, I was obsessed with the film Little Giants but that was only because it came in a 3 film VHS set along with Richie Rich and Dennis. Still, just like my beloved Mighty Ducks trilogy, it’s an incredibly silly film that happens to be about sport. Not exactly up there. The closest I’ve come is The Damned United; a film that I only watched because I’m completely in love with Michael Sheen and his face. Ask me anything about football and I’d draw a blank. So, I couldn’t exactly say I was looking forward to Bull Durham but I also figured that it was about time that I watched it.

Bull Durham is the story of three people whose lives become connected through love and minor league baseball. At the heart of the film is baseball groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) who is a fan of the Durham Bulls. At the start of every season she picks one player who she intends to sleep with whilst also helping them make it to the big leagues. This year she picks rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) but finds herself drawn to veteran player “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner). Both Annie and Crash take it upon themselves to help mould Ebby, who goes by the nickname “Nuke”, as he’s still a little rough around the edges. Nuke and Crash have a turbulent relationship, exacerbated thanks to their feelings about Annie, but eventually they are able to work their way towards a, mostly, harmonious partnership.

Before watching, I wasn’t sure what I’d think of this film. On the one hand, it has a ton of positive critical reviews and is constantly being named in top film rundowns. On the other, it was a mixture of films that, by and large, I don’t tend to be drawn to. I was pleasantly surprised as I went on. Turn out, when you try to mix three or so different genres together then none of them end up falling foul of the usual clichés. The sports side of it is handled pretty well and the tension between the two players feels believable. The romance side is more than your simple love-triangle thanks to the partnership that forms between Nuke and Crash. It’s also pretty funny and sensitive. I can’t pretend to know much about baseball but, from what I can tell, this film knows what it’s talking about. The moments where we get a glimpse into the players’ heads seems realistic and natural. Watching this film made me wish I knew more about the sport.

Although, it is not the different genres that make this film so great. It all comes down to the three main performances. Susan Sarandon is perfect in the role of Annie who mixes her love of literature with her love of baseball. On her first night with Nuke, she gets him to strip off, ties him to the bed, and read Walt Whitman poems to him. Annie is a fantastic character and nobody but Sarandon could play her. Kevin Costner is at the top of his game as Crash here. His world-weary brooding plays well against Sarandon and he manages to be surprisingly funny. Then, completing the set, is Tim Robbins playing the egotistical youngster who thinks he knows it all. Nuke is seen as being both stubborn and full of self-doubt. He is so desperate to make it to the big time that he is already playing the part. Watching his journey is fascinating and seeing the impact both Crash and Annie have on him is wonderful.

I wouldn’t have expected a film based around baseball to be quite so profound about life and love but Bull Durham has surprising depths. When I decided to spend the year watching films that are as old as me, I was expecting to find a lot of cringey 80s films that I could make fun of. With this film, I’ve found something I’m genuinely glad that I made myself watch. Maybe it’s time I start watching more sports films? Although, that one about female relay runners really did prove to be everything I think I hate about this genre so… maybe not.

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