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Bull Durham (1988) - Does it hold up?

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Another baseball movie that’s about other things far more than baseball.

Kevin Costner dans ‘Bull Durham’
Kevin Costner in a promotional photo for the movie Bull Durham
Photo by Matthew NAYTHONS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

I’ll be upfront with you right now so you can assume whatever biases you want about me, though I promise I always try to be as objective as possible when talking about stories and this time will be no different.

I did not enjoy Bull Durham.

Which isn’t to say it’s a bad movie. I don’t really think that it is; it was probably a very good movie when it came out. There are even some parts that work pretty well even now, too. Let me explain.

Characters don’t matter (but they don’t have to)

Bull Durham is a movie more concerned with themes, ideas, mood, and metaphor than it is with characters. My personal preference will always be for movies more focused on characters. This is not to say that Bull Durham or other movies that are less character-driven are bad movies. Just that I will rarely, if ever, personally enjoy them.

That said, if I had to give the movie credit for one thing, I would give it credit for setting a strong tone and effective metaphor. The characters don’t have much in the way of personal arcs, but the movie still conveys themes of growth and maturation. The feel of the film seems to grow and mature as the movie goes on even independently of the characters in a way that’s difficult to describe. Of course, the characters are shown to mature at least a little, as well. That goes not just for Nuke, but also for Crash and Annie and even Millie. To certain degrees, at least.

Nuke grows up in the most direct way; he comes into the league as a hotshot kid with no brains and through his interactions with Crash and Annie he learns to at least present himself a little bit smarter. His talents also mature thanks to their intervention. Crash’s maturation is a bit more somber; he gradually realizes that he’s got to let go of his lifelong dream of going to the big leagues and sticking around.

Nuke’s maturation is there to remind us how such things are supposed to work in baseball movies. The guy has an obvious but fixable flaws. He grows up and eliminates them. He becomes successful. That’s the dream we all have, after all. Crash’s maturation drives home, like the sport of baseball itself, just how hard it can be to find that success even if you know all the answers. Even if you do everything right you still might not find the success you feel you deserve. And sometimes you’ve got to find your happiness somewhere else, doing something else. It’s a hard lesson but most of us have to learn it at one point or another. Especially those of us that grew up wishing to become baseball stars.

The movie doesn’t treat its women great

Here’s the part of the article where, based on the response I got last week, I need to put a warning in for people who don’t like reading about how movies - especially ones from 30+ years ago - don’t always make do well in writing their female characters. If you don’t want to read about that sort of thing go ahead and skip down to the next header.

This movie, like last week’s entry, Mr. Baseball, does not pass the Bechdel test. Is the test overly simplistic? Absolutely. Is failing the test a sure sign that a crime has been committed or even that the movie is bad? Of course not. But it’s a useful benchmark to keep an eye on. And while Mr. Baseball did good work in representing its lone female co-star, this movie did not. Millie and Annie are portrayed as wanting only one thing: to sleep with baseball players. They have different ways of doing it; Millie sleeps with all of the players she can get her hands on; Annie picks one player a year and is monogamous with him for the duration of the season. There is, of course, nothing wrong with either approach. They’re consenting adults. They can sleep with who they want to for whatever reasons seem best to them.

What this movie does, however, is give them both a chance to “grow up” by settling down with one man. Millie marries the team Christian and Annie gives up sleeping with a new player every season to choose Crash permanently. That’s...not growing up. It’s becoming closer to society’s expectations of women.

Furthermore, Annie’s fascination with Crash isn’t given enough screentime to breathe. The movie wants to have a love story between them but they don’t share enough screentime where they aren’t either having or talking about having sex to sell the audience on the idea that either could feel anything more for the other than lust. Again, it’s fine if they want to do that. But to act as though it means anything more than that they find each other attractive or that the feelings have somehow “matured” Annie seems quite insulting to both women and non-monogamous people everywhere.

This isn’t to say that the movie is evil or that you’re a bad person if you enjoy it. There is hardly a story written that isn’t problematic in one way or another and art is too important to dismiss anything for being imperfect so long as it isn’t actively advocating for something evil. But if we don’t ever address these issues then they won’t be improved, either.

The movie captures the feel of baseball better than most

For whatever issues the movie has, it does have some scenes and monologues that really stand out, both in the context of the movie and outside of that context. You could hear the spoken lines anywhere and know that what they were talking about was baseball. And Kevin Costner delivers them - along with the rest of his performance - beautifully. We all laughed when Crash teaches Nuke about the interview cliches because we all know that somebody is absolutely doing that for the talented minor leaguers before they get into the spotlight of the big leagues. When Crash romanticizes about the 21 days he spent in the big leagues we can feel the yearning he and all the rest share about reaching that promised land. I’m sure many of you appreciated the first monologue Crash delivers to Annie when finding out that she’s choosing between him and Nuke for her player to sleep with for the season.

But for my money, the best scene in the movie might be the one where Annie storms into Crash’s apartment after finding out that he told Nuke not to [mess] with a streak. She believes that Crash told Nuke not to sleep with her in order to upset her, but he stops her and explains...well, here, just let the movie speak for itself:

Crash Davis: I never told him to stay out of your bed.

Annie Savoy: Yes you did.

Crash Davis: I told him that a player on a streak has to respect the streak.

Annie Savoy: Oh fine.

Crash Davis: You know why? Because they don’t - -they don’t happen very often.

Annie Savoy: Right.

Crash Davis: If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid, or because you’re not getting laid, or because you wear women’s underwear, then you *are*! And you should know that!

That bit of dialog should be meaningful to anyone who has spent any amount of time around the sport of baseball. There’s a reason superstition is so prevalent in the sport; seemingly beyond even its prevalence in other sports. Streaks are hard to come by and you’ve got to respect them.