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Anatomy of a Scene #6: Bull Durham

August 17, 2012

As I wrote in my obituary for and appreciation of Kathryn Joosten (specifically her performance as Mrs. Landingham), I have always been a fan of the character introduction, when a movie makes us take notice of a new character, or its major character, by the way they first appear. One could argue, I guess, this is nothing more than self-indulgence on the part of the star (or the director), and yes, I can see that in some cases. Also, of course, some characters are better introduced without those flourishes, like Matt Damon first appearing just as one of a platoon of soldiers walking down the road in Saving Private Ryan, or Clint Eastwood’s first appearance as a now-retired aerospace engineer trying to fix his garage door in Space Cowboys. But given how much I’m a fan of movie “moments”, I have to say this is one indulgence I don’t mind, and often, these little character introductions will say a lot about the character. Think, for example, of the first time we see Humphrey Bogart as Rick in Casablanca; after we see him sign a check, director Michael Curtiz cuts to Bogart’s face and then pulls back as we see him smoking a cigarette and playing chess against himself, which is a perfect way to express his then solitary nature. Or Lauren Bacall as Slim in To Have and Have Not; the way she asks Harry (Bogart again), “Anybody got a match?” sets up how she’s not ready to take crap from anybody (and how Harry is attracted to that). Perhaps the most famous of all is John Ford zooming in on Ringo’s (John Wayne) first appearance in Stagecoach; keeping us off-balance in how we feel about him. As I alluded to in the Joosten obit, this is announcing the character’s presence with authority, and since I’m paraphrasing Bull Durham, I should admit Kevin Costner’s first appearance as veteran catcher Crash Davis in that movie is one of my favorite character introductions, albeit for baseball reasons as much as movie reasons.

Ron Shelton’s film, his first as director (he had previously co-written Under Fire and written The Best of Times, both for director Roger Spottiswoode), is both a baseball film and a romantic comedy involving a love triangle, and by the time Crash shows up, Shelton has already introduced us to the other two parts of the triangle. Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is a minor league baseball groupie, albeit a special case; she picks one player a year who has potential and helps them in their technique on the field and in the bedroom (as she says, “There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career”). She treats baseball as a religion to be worshiped, and in her opening monologue, gives all sorts of metaphysical and spiritual reasons for loving the sport (“the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball”). Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) is the hot prospect on the Durham Bulls minor league team, and for Annie’s affections; he’s a pitcher with great speed but little control (or, as Larry Hockett (Robert Wuhl), the coach, puts it succinctly later, “He’s got a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head”). Shelton’s technique here is introducing both of these characters as stereotypes and then slowly undercutting or deepening them (Annie, for example, knows enough to avoid the locker room before the game – unlike her protege Millie (Jenny Robertson), who sleeps with Ebby there before the game starts – and she also sends a note to Ebby during the game pointing out what’s wrong with his throwing motion). As someone who was a veteran in the minor leagues, he’s also out to capture the details of the game without relying on the usual cliches of sports movies building towards “the big game”, and Crash’s introduction is further proof of that.

Nearly ten minutes into the movie, after we see brief glimpses of Ebby’s pitching, Shelton and editors Robert Leighton and Adam Weiss cut to a medium shot of Joe Riggins (Trey Wilson), the Durham Bulls’ manager, and Larry in Riggins’ office after the game; Joe is seated, while Larry is writing on a chalkboard. Joe mentions Ebby walked 18 batters, which Larry declares is a “new league record”. A little sharply, Joe reminds Larry Ebby also struck out 18, which Larry also declares is a new league record, along with “the sportswriter, the public address announcer, the Bull mascot twice”. As he’s saying this, he walks over to the seat opposite Joe at his desk, and says, “But Joe, (Ebby’s) got some serious shit.” They both chuckle at that, and cinematographer Bobby Byrne (Blue Collar) stays on Larry long enough to see him let air out of the seat cushion he uses during the game before Shelton quickly cuts to Joe grabbing a beer from the fridge. But almost immediately, we hear the door to the office open, and Crash walks in, closing the door behind him, carrying two bags in his left hand.

Larry, understandably confused, asks, “Who’s he?” Crash looks at him, and as Shelton cuts to a close-up of him, Crash deadpans in response, “I’m ‘the player to be named later.'” Shelton cuts back to Joe, who introduces himself to Crash and shakes his hand, and as he does that, Shelton cuts back to that medium shot of Crash and Larry. As Crash sits down, Shelton cuts back to a close-up on Crash as he tells an anecdote about having faced Larry five years earlier when Larry was a pitcher. Crash goes on to say, “You hung a curveball on an 0-2 pitch in a 3-2 game” – Shelton cuts to Larry and Joe at this part, as Larry strains to remember, before cutting back to Crash for the rest of the sentence – “in the bottom of the eighth, and I tattooed it (we hear Joe laugh at this) over the Michelin tire sign, beat you 4-3.” Shelton cuts back to the still chuckling Joe and Larry, who now remembers Crash (and that he should have thrown a slider) and greets him. Crash (Shelton cuts back to him here) had been smiling at the memory, but now his smile becomes forced, “I’m too old for this shit. Why the hell am I back in ‘A’ ball?”

That’s when Joe and Larry tell Crash about Ebby, and how the “big club” has a lot of money invested in him (this is where Larry says the “million dollar arm” line). As Crash starts to nod in realization, Joe (in a close-up) continues by telling Crash how Ebby’s last five pitches were faster than his first five, and how Ebby has the best young arm he’s seen in 30 years (Larry nods at this). On a close-up of an even more disgusted Crash, Joe compliments Crash on how he’s smart, experienced, and professional, and how they (Joe and the club) want Crash to mature Ebby and stay on his case all year so he can go all the way. Shelton has been cutting back between Joe and Crash during this speech, and when Joe finishes, we cut back to Crash, who gives a long sigh, and asks, “Where can I go?” Shelton cuts back to Joe, who reasonably points out, “You can keep going to the ball park and keep getting paid to do it. Beats the hell out of working at Sears.” At this, Larry interjects, and on his close-up, reminisces about how he had to sell Lady Kenmores at Sears, and how much he hated it. In a reaction shot, we see Crash is still not taking this well, and we cut back to Joe, who finishes, “Even if it is the Carolina League, this is still a chance to play every day.”

Finally, Crash has had enough. On a close-up of him, he says in disgust, “You don’t want a player, you want a stable pony.” Joe, in a quick medium-shot back to him, demurs, but Crash is having none of it, “Well, my AAA contract gets bought out so I can hold the flavor-of-the-month’s dick in the bus leagues, is that it?” After a quick cut back to Joe listening to this, Shelton goes to a medium shot of all three of them for the first time as Crash continues his tirade, “Well, fuck this fucking game!” He then gets up and walks up towards the camera (though not facing it), fumes for a second, and then concludes, “I fucking quit, all right? I quit.” As he says this, he turns around, throws up his hands, walks towards the bench he was sitting on, grabs his bags, opens the door, walks out of the room, and slams the door behind him, all in one shot. Shelton then cuts back to Joe and Larry nonchalantly sitting at the desk, drinking a beer (Larry) and smoking a cigarette (Joe) – though Larry does give Joe a quick glance – as if they’ve seen this before. Sure enough, after a few seconds of that, Shelton then cuts back to Crash, whom we see through the office window, still fuming, but then he walks back to the office, opens the door, and asks, “Who we play tomorrow?” Cut back to Joe, who tells him the team (Winston-Salem), and as we cut back to see Crash close the door and go back to the locker room, we hear Joe tell him batting practice is scheduled for 11:30.

Shelton shows a lot of ways in this scene how he trusts the audience. The way Joe and Larry are talking at the beginning about Ebby’s pitching performance shows not only the rapport between the two characters (also illustrated in how Joe never gets upset if Larry interrupts, because it’s always a meaningful interruption), but also, without ever telling a score, shows the Bulls happened to win that game (confirmed in the next scene when a reporter asks Ebby how it feels to get his first win); after all, they wouldn’t be in such a good mood if the team lost. Though this scene may not be a visual showcase, there is care in how Shelton and Byrne shoot the scene; the back-and-forth between Crash and Joe is always focused on them (except whenever Larry interjects), because a new player would only focus on the manager. And we always see the goings-on in the locker room through the office window behind Crash, as if to emphasize no matter what he may say about the job, he’ll end up taking it (while, at the same time, emphasizing how distanced Crash, the perennial newcomer, is going to feel from his teammates). Finally, the directness of Crash’s speech shows his distinction from Annie’s philosophizing and Ebby’s airhead nature. But mostly, it’s how Shelton presents the baseball details that emphasizes his trust for the audience.

I mentioned earlier how Annie and Ebby were, at first, stereotypes. Crash fits that bill as well, right from his first line “I’m the player to be named later.” Later in the film, we’ll see Crash instructing Ebby on the cliches he’ll need to know when he’s doing interviews (“You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends”), and this line is certainly a cliche (and, as we find out, arguably not true), but it also tells us Crash has been around. The story Crash tells about homering off Larry when they played each other is another detail; hitters, especially power hitters, never forget a pitcher they got a good hit off of, especially a home run. After that speech comes cliched line number two; “I’m too old for this shit.” But then again, he is; Crash has bounced around the minors for a long time, with only a brief trip to the majors (or as he and the other players call it, the Show), and going from AAA (the highest level of minor leagues before the majors) to A league (the lowest) is definitely a step backwards.  And being told that he’s a “professional” and has been around is not what a minor league player wants to hear, especially if he’s aging and is still trying to make it to the majors (as Annie finds out when she wants to publicize the fact Crash is on the verge of setting the career minor league home run record, and Crash says no). So of course he doesn’t take too kindly to the reasons Joe gives him. But even though Crash says he’s quitting, he comes right back and asks who’s playing, which is an illustration of two more cliches. One is, a real player can always be counted on to play. Two, as Annie says late in the movie, “Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.”

One last thing should be mentioned here. The part of Crash Davis was apparently written with Kurt Russell in mind, as he played minor league baseball for a time before injuring his rotator cuff; he even helped Shelton develop the script. Reportedly, Orion, the studio, insisted on Costner instead, since he was a rising star, having appeared in the hit films The Untouchables and No Way Out. Given the fact Costner was younger, and looked younger, than the character was supposed to be, and given the fact he was a rising star (that would peak in the next couple of years with Field of Dreams and Dances with Wolves), he could have easily told everybody to take a hike. Instead, he took the job and gave one of his very best and most convincing performances, and showed a gift for comedy he’d rarely show in the coming years. And while there are other great Costner scenes in Bull Durham – his first lesson to Ebby, his speech to Annie about what he believes in, his instructing Ebby about cliches, and the scenes when he and Annie finally get together among them – it’s when he announces his presence with authority that still makes the biggest impression.

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