The latest release from The Criterion Collection turned a fair few heads among the cinephile elite, but Ron Shelton's Bull Durham definitely fits the remit of the collection and I'll defend that status to my dying day. A mainstream Hollywood film with mainstream Hollywood stars, Bull Durham is not only one of the best sports films ever made (and likely the finest movie about baseball ever made), it's also a fascinating exploration and demystification of the athlete as working class bum.
Released in 1988, Bull Durham hit me at just the right time. I was probably ten years old when the film found its way to my VCR thanks to a baseball obsessed Dad who'd spent some time in his twenties playing pro ball in the Mexican leagues. My bedroom walls were plastered with posters of my heroes, at the time, as a kid growing up about half an hour outside of San Francisco, those heroes were the future legends from the Oakland A's (Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, and the rest) alongside the San Francisco Giants (Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, etc...). I was far too young to appreciate the sage sexual wisdom being imparted by the film, but I was obsessed with the game, and that was enough for me.
Bull Durham is the story of a love triangle strung out over one season for the Minor League Durham Bulls. Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon in the role that would turn her into an A-list star, is a kind of erotic mentor/baseball guru to the team who takes on one player every year to help him become the best ballplayer he can be. When Ebby "Nuke" LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a kid with a cannon for an arm and shit for brains, gets picked up by the Bulls, it's up to Annie and veteran minor league catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) to turn him from a sloppy mound of unrefined potential into a major league star. Over the course of a summer, Annie learns that what she's looking for can't be found on the field, Nuke learns that his cockiness doesn't mean a thing if he can't produce, and Crash learns that all of the lessons he's taken in and given out mean more than he thought they did.
What makes Shelton's vision of the minor league life unique is the realization that baseball, especially at this level, is a job, not the privileged life we think of for most professional athletes. These players aren't swimming in cash, they don't fly from town to town on chartered planes, they don't own million dollar houses, and they certainly don't survive off of lucrative sponsorship deals. They're just trying to make themselves indispensable so they can live to play another day. As a kid this was a revelation.
Even in the age before the constant whining about the disproportionate salaries of professional athletes - and trust me, I hear you, $20 million dollars is a lot to get paid to play a game - baseball players still seemed like gods, but I never thought about the mountains they had to climb to reach that status. It's a lesson that sticks with me today. Nearly every successful person is any competitive industry was once a peon, fighting to earn that next job. Even your favorite filmmakers were most likely busting their asses to get where they are today. I know that for years I thought of the title of "director" as more of an honorific than a job title, but someone has to do the work, and Bull Durham could just as easily have been about the movie business as baseball, but thank God it wasn't.
Revisiting the film as an adult, Bull Durham's shockingly progressive stances on sexuality, women's agency, and the value of hard work are only some of its obvious merits. Bull Durham tells the story of baseball in between the pitches. The moments that the fans dread, the ones that slow the game down, are celebrated here as a window into a world that happens right before our eyes. It's not all cheering crowds and hero worship, most of it is figuring out how to get out of that slump in a business where successfully getting a hit 30% of the time is considered impressive.
In terms of the sexual politics of the film, Sarandon's Annie Savoy is a stern feminist who makes no apologies for her sexual frankness. She takes on one player per year as lover and mentee in order to shape them into the player she believes they can be. She loves the game and the Bulls and finds that this is the way she can best support their growth, there's no conversation about whether or not this is right, she is respected as much as any of the coaches or veterans on the team, her lessons are less easily forgotten though. It's a role that Sarandon has played often on film, from The Hunger to White Palace, but never is her raw power and sexuality as clearly defined and worshiped as it is in Bull Durham.
Seeing Bull Durham at ten-years-old was eye opening, and not just because of all of the sexual stuff - though that certainly made an impression - it also made me understand that those people I worshiped were human, a lesson that remains valuable as I try to find my happiness in life. They didn't stumble into professional sports, and they can't coast once they get there. They have to work to stay, and even when they do their job, nothing is guaranteed. Not only that, their problems don't evaporate once they reach that level, if anything they compound. It's the clever, unfussy humanization of these athletes that's stuck with me all these years, and it works just as well today as it did thirty years ago.
The Criterion Collection presents Bull Durham from a new 4K transfer approved by the director and it looks a bit different in terms of color rendition from previously available Blu-ray editions. There is a slight shift from blue toward teal, but most fans won't be bothered. The improvement in the appearance of the grain and overall contrast of the image, but the film was never a visual stunner to start with, so no harm, no foul.
In terms of extras, Criterion ports over most of the available materials from previous home video releases. The sole significant newly produced extra is a 2018 interview with director Ron Shelton that runs about 20 minutes and allows him an opportunity to look back on the production with hindsight and is well worth checking out. Shelton also appears on an archival audio commentary and two archival featurettes, one from 2001 and another from 2008. A second commentary features Costner and Robbins and was also ported over from previous releases. New acquisitions for this release include a news piece on the final season at Durham Athletic Park, and a 1991 Today interview with the Clown Prince of Baseball, Max Patkin. Printed excerpts from a 1989 piece of baseball cinema from Roger Angell rounds out the extras and explores the late '80s heyday of Major League, The Natural, Eight Men Out, Field of Dreams, and of course, Bull Durham.
I love Bull Durham, and I was so excited and nervous to rewatch the film after at least a decade for fear that it'd be less of a masterpiece than I remembered. Thankfully, it holds up beautifully and this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is an easy recommendation.