"BULL DURHAM" (1988) might not seem to gel with populism's normally straight-arrow Frank Capra film. However, actor Kevin Costner frequently has described "Field of Dreams" (1989) as an attempt to make "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) on the baseball field. Moreover, if one gets past the titillation factor of "Bull Durham," the movie that remains is a throwback to the crackerbarrel caretaker and Capra hero Will Rogers.
"Bull Durham" is a study of contrasting mentoring styles, the soul of populism. The pupil is the promising pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), who has "a $1,000,000 arm and a nickel head." One mentor is the Whitmanesque college literature instructor Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon). Each year, the free-spirited Savoy adopts a Durham Bull to tutor on the finer points of baseball and romance. For her, these two subjects often intertwine, from "There's no guilt in baseball and it's never boring" to "Love is like hitting.... You just got to relax and concentrate."
Through years of baseball study, she has collected enough pop culture background on the sport (such as her fascination with poet and pioneering baseball journalist Walt Whitman) that she has elevated the game to a religion: "I've tried 'em all--I really have--and the church that feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball."
Fittingly, Sarandon's character also is taken with the fact that there are the same number of beads in a Catholic rosary as there are double-stitches in a baseball: 108. Savoy has set up a shrine to the sport in her home, complete with assorted bits of baseball memorabilia, game stills, and candles--lots of candles. She essentially is an articulate groupie who could double as a Durham coach. Indeed, both the comic manager (Trey Wilson) and his tobacco juice-spitting bench coach (Robert Wuhl) are pleased whenever Savoy takes an interest in their players.
New Yorker critic Pauline Kael perfectly summarized this mentoring scenario: "She's a high priestess of baseball who has her own scorecard: 'There's never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn't have the best year of his life.'" (Groupies of the national pastime long have been referred to as "Baseball Annies." Also, "Savoy" is the name of a special bat in "The Natural," 1984.)
The second mentor in "Bull Durham" is catcher Crash Davis (Costner), a world-weary veteran of 12 years in the minors. Critic David Thomson describes the character as a "rugged philosopher far closer to Gary Cooper than the fellow...