BULL DURHAM A film review by Ralph Benner Copyright 1996 Ralph Benner
There are other sports more boring than baseball but I can't think of one I hate more. It has everything to do with having grown up in a family that lived baseball every waking moment of every hour, 365 days a year: The McLains, the most (in)famous being ex-Detroit Tigers pitcher-now ex-con Denny McLain, the first pitcher since Dizzy Dean to win thirty games in a single season. Unmercifully teased throughout my youth that my intense dislike for the game had everything to do with my ineptitude -- so incompetent even as a batboy that I was once replaced by a pair of twin girls -- I always knew what my family refused to admit, that I wasn't and didn't want to be athletically inclined, and while Denny and his brother often tried to shame me out of my shortcomings, I was content to sit in the bleachers, secretly praying for rain, hoping that during the interminable games my Hitachi radio's batteries would hold out to hear for the umpteenth time "Please Love Me Forever" or "Quarter to Three." I maintained my hatred even when Denny was well on his way to Cooperstown, instead of where he'll end up -- the Hall of Shame. (Though inexcusable, this explains why Ken Burns omits Denny from that eighteen hour error-filled snoozer "Baseball"; assembling footage of the 1968 World Series, Burns gives the viewers the impression that the St. Louis Cardinals were victorious, instead of the Tigers.)
The mindless jock fanaticism of baseball got to me early on: too many people actually took this g.d. game seriously. How I remember the sheer insanity of the fights -- usually between parents -- that ensued when Denny "lost" a Little League or Babe Ruth game. Hearing those screamfests and recriminations never made much sense to me and even way back then -- in the late 50s and early 60s -- I realized that this "healthy" All-American pastime was corrupt and, worse, victimizing. My fears were confirmed not only when Denny's father died prematurely at 36 from a stress-related heart attack but also when Denny signed on with the Chicago White Sox and later with the Tigers: the extent to which illegality -- gambling, prostitution, underworld fixes -- coexisted cavalierly with pro ball didn't shock as much as confirm to me the whole rot of big moneyed sports. BULL DURHAM doesn't explicitly examine the underbelly of celebrity sociopathology -- all we really have to do is recall goofus Pete Rose, womanizer Steve Garvey or read Denny's lie-filled apologia "Strikeout" for a re-confirmation (or note that once again Denny's been indicted for fraudulent business activities) -- but the movie more than implies that obsession for "the show" stunts the mind and inhibits spiritual growth. Considering the realities of baseball as I perceive them, BULL DURHAM is of course too clever by half: I challenge anyone anywhere to name players in one or any of the major or bush league teams who could tell us who Susan Sontag is, much less what her books might be about. Granted, this name-dropping doesn't hurt the movie -- for baseball haters, it's pure revel -- but it tells you that director-screenwriter Ron Shelton has one eye on the bleachers of the bored and the other on the mound. Not to say anything about the bed: BULL DURHAM is an insistently sexy movie, with a tantalizing, if not over-emphasis on crotches: the men's have a big screen fullness and leading lady Susan Sarandon is quite eager to expose hers. It's refreshing and honest: Shelton not only has his own oral fixation, he also knows what baseball really is -- an oral sport. This is the only movie about baseball I can think of (or could tolerate) that hits a grand slam without needing to be in a stadium. Not too shabby for a director making his debut.
Kevin Costner couldn't have been photographed in a more seductively tired way -- it's a minor triumph all by itself. He physically encapsulates what we often see in failed or retired sports figures -- that they seem quasi-boozed fatigued, not necessarily from the ever-handy Miller's but from their sport of choice having nearly beaten out everything inside them. This specific performance could be interpreted as an early Mickey Mantle warning about how sport suppresses adulthood in bozo athletes, how the child in them never grows up. If it's not a warning, it's because Costner's Crash is that rarity -- a thinking man's athlete who recognizes the trap. This is also the first time Costner merges with his movie character as if he belonged, something we can't say about his puniness in the silly frenzy of NO WAY OUT, his fractured boy-man in the overblown SILVERADO or UNTOUCHABLES, his hogging-the-camera stuff in the tanned romantic twaddle of DANCES WITH WOLVES, the bad hair day martyrdom in THE BODYGUARD, the worthless WYATT BURP. There's an obligatory cliche that Crash has to utter -- "I want to find me" -- and when we've heard other actors attempt to justify something similar, we've been embarrassed for them, like we are when we read the throwaway quotes by nude centerfolds in Playboy, but Costner delivers the line with an exhausted conviction that bares what's dangerously empty-headed in sports: that too often athletics strive to become record-setting icons not because of who they are or what they really want to be but because of what others want of them, like Denny living out his own parents' dream, which turned into a nightmare.
When not jingle-jangling silver jewelry, Susan Sarandon's Annie Savoy is reciting Blake and Whitman; but she's not just an over-dressed, hot-to-trot poetess -- she's also a baseball groupie-coach as the Queen Bee of Triple A ball who literally builds shrines to the sport. She's a fire hazard too: just how long could those candles be allowed to burn so close to walls that are most likely covered with combustible, if not toxic wallpaper? But here's the greater concern: Sarandon almost didn't get to play her. "I had to grovel to get that part," Sarandon told Bruce Newman in a N.Y. Times Times News Service interview. "The studio had a list of people who they preferred, and I was not on it." Those others were actresses who refused to audition for Annie, so when Shelton asked Sarandon, who didn't yet know she wasn't even on the list, to move beyond the humiliation of having to read, she dressed herself up in what becomes one of the movie's bright teases -- a "showy red and white striped" number as invitation. Happily, Sarandon got Annie, and even more happily, she's been decaffed, so we won't have to go through the feminist jitters, yet, despite how wonderful she is -- and it's a performance that gets better each time you see it -- I have to say that I've met very few women like her Annie. Except in television, where Annie might (and should) end up as a sportscaster. Maybe this is the reason she didn't earn Academy Award recognition -- "I was shattered when I didn't even get a nomination. I wept for days," she told Newman -- because, despite their enormous likability, Costner's Crash is almost atypical of sports and Annie surely is; they're too intelligently conceived, which, for a baseball audience, is a major turnoff. But I have met plenty of the other kind, the young bimbos whose only aims are to latch on to athletes on the rise. Denny married one. In "Strikeout" he calls her a saint. That's code for vacuousness; in baseball, it's contagious.
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