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ON FILM: Bull Durham wears sports-movie crown

By Philip Martin

This article was published April 4, 2008 at 2:42 a.m.

Movie jacket for the Bull Durham Collector's Edition.

— Bull Durham (1988) is the best sports movie ever. Nothing else is even close.

I know I'll get some argument on that. I know some people love mawkish Rudy (1993). Hoosiers (1986) has its fans. (I'm among them, though, like the immortal Oscar Robertson, I'm a little bothered about how that film played around with history and portrayed the all-black team that little Milan defeats in the state tournament as an arrogant and obnoxious bunch. In reality, the loser had only two black players.)

The Natural (1984) is a really good film. I'm very fond of Spike Lee's He Got Game (1998). Some people will even try to get you to believe Field of Dreams (1989) is a superior movie - I didn't like it when it came out, in part because it had Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe Jackson batting right-handed, but over the years I've come to appreciate its particular charm. But Bull Durham is the best.

In the nearly 20 years since the movie was released - it hit theaters in June 1988 and the obligatory 20-year anniversary edition was released last month on DVD (list price $14.99) - it's held up as a terrific antidote to pointyheaded talk about baseball as sacrament. Writer-director Ron Shelton had played the game and was well-prepared to debunk the George Will school of baseball rhapsodizing. Shelton got the grind and ennui of the long season, as wellas the testosterone-drenched world of the locker room. And it didn't hurt that Kevin Costner - who played high school (but not college) baseball - had a very sweet left-handed swing. (So did Robert Redford in The Natural.)

Jerry Maguire (1996) was pretty much tone-deaf to sports, and it only used the sports world as a backdrop. And it didn't matter how inept Ray Milland seemed in the 1949 fantasy It Happens Every Spring - in which a professor becomes a high-tech Gaylord Perry after discovering a foreign substance that causes baseballs to avoid wood - because that ineptness was partly the point.

But nothing takes some viewers out of a sports movie as quickly as the sight of an actor flailing around miserably trying to enact grace. Prime examples are John Goodman's washerwoman's swing in The Babe (1992) and Tony Perkins' dainty lobs to the only slightly more able Karl Malden in Fear Strikes Out (1957). Even the great Gary Cooper, a righty, was so awkward that when he was called on to imitate Lou Gehrig's left-handed stroke in The Pride of the Yankees (1942), director Sam Wood resorted to fitting him out in a special uniform with a reversed Yankee logo and numeral 4 and flipping the negative in the developing room. Even that didn't help much, though Cooper was better than William Bendix was in The Babe Ruth Story (1948).

The reason it's hard for actors to look like athletes is because it's impossible for anyone who isn't athletically gifted to feign it. That's why you never saw Geena Davis actually throw in A League of Their Own (1992). He Got Game may be the most sports-literate movie ever, but it relied heavily on the basketball talents of Ray Allen, who 10 years on is still an NBA star. Going up against Allen, Denzel Washington - who played college basketball - looked likewhat he was; an old guy who used to be able to play a little bit but never really had the gift.

Even Costner, who can rightfully be called the king of the sports movie, was only passable as a golfer in Tin Cup - though the swing he used on screen is better than the action he typically employs in televised proam rounds. But the golf swing is really hard - ask Matt Damon, who looked awkward in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), or Glenn Ford, who was painful to watch as Ben Hogan in Follow the Sun (1951).

All good sports movies are about more than sports; while Costner, Robert Wuhl and Tim Robbins all deliver wonderfully alert performances as baseball players in Bull Durham, the movie is ultimately stolen by Susan Sarandon as a devoted "Baseball Annie."

Bull Durham is really more a movie about relationships, about how grown men and women communicate and play than itis about Costner's career minor-leaguer deferring his dream one more time for the sake of the game. It's not about the impending "big game." It's about the characters, the very authentic feeling people constructed of the actors' performances and Shelton's dialogue. It's not perfect - Costner's famous "things I believe" speech deserves the parodies it inspired - but it's a well-crafted, three-hit shutout of a movie. No one's done better.

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

MovieStyle, Pages 37, 44 on 04/04/2008

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