Crash Davis: Well, he really hit the shit outta that one, didn’t he?
Nuke LaLoosh: I held it like an egg…
Crash Davis: Yeah, and he scrambled the son of a bitch. Look at that, he hit the &#%$ing bull! Guy gets a free steak! You having fun yet?
Nuke LaLoosh: Oh, yeah. Havin’ a blast.
Crash Davis: Good.
Nuke LaLoosh: God, that sucker teed off on that like he knew I was gonna throw a fastball!
Crash Davis: He did know.
Nuke LaLoosh: How?
Crash Davis: I told him.
“Bull Durham” is the story of two minor league baseball players and the woman involved with both of them.
Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh is a young hotshot with a rocket arm and not a lot going on upstairs. Called in to “mature” him is veteran catcher “Crash” Davis. Annie Savoy is the team’s biggest fan, who beds Nuke (ostensibly to improve his performance), but has an eye for Crash. Over the course of the season, a love triangle ensues, while both Annie and Crash both try to coach Nuke up.
It’s a story of sex, romance, and most of all, baseball.
Throughout “Bull Durham”, we’re given a love letter to the sport of baseball. Minor League baseball at that, where the game seems somehow… purer. We’re shown road trips. The manager chewing the team out. Robert Wuhl’s inane, rapid-fire baseball banter. Meetings on the mound. Dugouts. Getting called up. Getting cut. Winning streaks, losing streaks, superstitions, arguing with the ump, and hitting the showers.
Via narration, Sarandon’s Annie waxes poetic about the game, often with actual poetry.
But most of all, we’re given the wisdom of Costner’s Crash Davis.
“Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”
Costner’s Davis is given some of the best dialogue you could ever want to see in a movie. In coaching LaLoosh, he’s a veritable fountain of wisdom. In romancing Annie, he’s a smooth talking, confident, ladies man.
His baseball acumen seems near inexhaustible. “Don’t think. It can only hurt the ball club.” “Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist.” “Don’t hold the ball so hard, OK? It’s an egg. Hold it like an egg.” “Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy.” Davis is a walking box of fortune cookies, each full of baseball wisdom.
Perhaps Davis’ dialogue is so strong because writer/director Ron Shelton was a minor league ball player himself. Shetlon played ball in the minors for five seasons as a second baseman in the Baltimore Orioles’ organization. The highest he got was the Triple A Rochester Red Wings. He was a .251 hitter, making $900 a month.
When he quit baseball, he turned to writing. He had been somewhat of a movie junkie in his time in the minors (with so much time on his hands on the road), and when he finished playing, he began writing. Prior to “Bull Durham”, two of his scripts had made it to the screen: “Under Fire”, starring Nick Nolte, and “The Best of Times”, starring Robin Williams.
When he was ready to graduate to directing, though, he turned to writing about something he knew. He was tired of seeing baseball movies that ended with home runs. He wanted to write something that was truer to the actual experience of life in baseball. So he crafted the script off of his own time in the game. The “rain out” scene, for example, was based on a real stunt he and his teammates pulled during his time in the minors. The character of Nuke LaLoosh was patterned off of a former teammate.
His first passes at the script weren’t quite working, however, until he decided to add the character of Annie Savoy, and add in the romance and sex. Then, everything clicked.
Shelton had difficulty interesting studios in the project, though. Being a first time director didn’t help, and baseball movies weren’t considered safe bets commercially. He was turned down several times before Orion Pictures gave him the go ahead on a (slim) $9 Million budget.
The original list of actors being considered for the role of Crash included Costner, Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell and Harrison Ford. Costner was an up and comer at the time who was just hitting his stride as a star. The year before (1987), he had released “No Way Out” and “The Untouchables”. “Field of Dreams”, “Dances With Wolves” and “JFK” still lay ahead.
Costner coveted the role however. He was a high school baseball player himself, and reportedly, a talented one. When he got ahold of the script, he was keen to play the role of Crash. He contacted Shelton and asked to audition. So the two went to the batting cages, and Costner started hitting. He turned out to be a switch hitter with a good swing. Shelton was impressed. Costner got the job.
For the role of the eccentric “Nuke” LaLoosh, Shelton and the producers (one of whom was actually a part owner of the actual Durham Bulls) wanted Charlie Sheen. Sheen, however, was committed to “Eight Men Out”. Orion Pictures then wanted Shelton to use Anthony Michael Hall, but Hall (perhaps in the midst of his famed difficulties with alcohol) arrived to the initial meeting late and without having read the script. Given a chance to read the script at night and reconvene in the morning, Hall only got halfway through. Shelton had had enough. Robbins auditioned for the role soon after, and after a mock pitching session with Shelton, he was given the part.
It was the role of Annie Savoy that was the most difficult to cast, however. Kim Bassinger, Kelly McGillis and Ellen Barkin passed on the role. Glen Close, Carrie Fisher, Mary Steenburgen and Debra Winger auditioned but didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. When Susan Sarandon became interested in the part, Mike Medavoy, the head of Orion, objected. He didn’t think she was funny, and thought she was too old for the role (Sarandon was 40 at the time). Producer Thom Mount told Sarandon to meet with Medavoy, wear a tight dress, showing as much cleavage as possible, and to lean over his desk as much as she could. She did. She also got the part.
The cast was given a five-week baseball boot camp prior to shooting, run by Pete Bock, a former semi-pro baseball player. They played against actual minor leaguers in the Durham park. Costner actually hit some home runs. Robbins worked on his fastball and eventually got it into the mid 80s.
Shooting was held in October and November in the half empty stadium. Extras had to be enticed over from nearby concerts, and the grass needed to be painted green.
During the production, a real life romance developed between Robbins and Sarandon. Each claim that nothing happened while they were still shooting the film, but other members of the movie say that it was obvious something was going on. It was the beginning of a relationship which would last just over twenty years. The two would never marry, but they would have two children together.
The runtime percentage of “Bull Durham” that’s devoted to sex and romance has earned it a reputation as the “Chick Flick of Sports Movies”. In fact, if you watch the trailer, it’s clear to see that the movie was marketed almost entirely as a romance and not as a baseball movie at all.
Annie’s affections mirror our own love of the game. With her shrine to baseball in her home and her avocation to the team, Annie represents the fan in all of us. We watch, we follow, we dream of being a part of it.
Players of the moment (such as Nuke) come and go, but the love of the game lasts forever. Crash epitomizes the joy of playing, in spite of the cold business of the sport. Even though he’s chasing a dubious record (if he hit so many homers, how come he couldn’t make it in the bigs?) Crash can’t pull himself away before hitting that one, last home run. It’s due to the fact that he truly and deeply loves the sport. It’s no coincidence that he’s who Annie winds up with in the end.
“The only church that truly feeds the soul day in day out is the church of baseball.”
Upon release, “Bull Durham” grossed $50 million at the box office, a sizeable return on its $9 million budget, and good enough to place it in the top twenty of 1988. Ron Shelton’s script would get nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but would lose out to “Rain Man”. That wouldn’t stop it from going on to become one of the country’s most beloved baseball films, though. Eventually, AFI would name “Durham” one of the top ten American sports films ever made (#5).
With its mix of comedy, romance and sports, “Bull Durham” is a unique, highly entertaining movie, perfect for the start of Baseball Season.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.