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It’s a lazy tendency, but one that undeniably infects our cultural conversation, to conflate sports with maleness and romantic comedies with femaleness. “Rom-com” might be used as a shorthand for any glossy movie geared toward a female audience, even if the romance is confined to a subplot (see: “Legally Blonde”). Sports, meanwhile, are what men are watching on weekend afternoons while their wives and girlfriends head off to the cineplex to take in a chick flick.
Nothing destroys this simplistic binary more efficiently than the sports rom-com ― not a sports movie that ends with the quarterback getting the cute cheerleader, and not a rom-com with a couple scenes filmed at NBA games, but a movie that really cares about both love and athletics.
But when is a sports movie also a rom-com, and a rom-com also a sports movie? HuffPost culture writers Claire Fallon and Travis Waldron took a close look at the 1988 classic “Bull Durham” to figure out whether it’s a rom-com home run or merely a foul ball.
Claire Fallon: Sports and romance: In the great gendered entertainment wars of the last few decades, they have been cast as, essentially, opposing factions. Men watch the NFL, women watch “The Notebook.” Obviously this isn’t actually true, but it raises a specter of a question around “Bull Durham,” which is indisputably a sports movie. Can a sports movie also be a romantic comedy, or do the two genres repel each other like two feisty leads who instantly hate each other but will end up falling madly in love?
Travis, as the resident sports expert at HuffPost, what’s your take?
Travis Waldron: I am not sure I qualify as a sports expert, and I most definitely am not a movie expert, but I have watched my fair share of sports movies. So I feel confident in saying this: Sports movies, especially sports movies like “Bull Durham,” can also cross categories into romantic comedy territory. And “Bull Durham” is proof. While ostensibly a movie about a sport, it is also unquestionably a romantic comedy. It’s light-hearted, it’s funny, and its central plot ― or, even the majority of its comedy ― doesn’t center on the baseball, but rather the various romantic elements of the movie. Baseball is just the vehicle for the romantic story that’s being told.
Claire: I have to admit, I hadn’t seen “Bull Durham” until this weekend, and above all it just seems like a strange movie. It contains the arc of a romantic comedy ― boy meets girl, obstacles keep them apart, they ultimately find a way to be together ― but the delivery reads much more like a sex farce to me. Our heroine, Annie (Susan Sarandon) has devoted her adult life to picking one player annually from the local minor league baseball team, the Durham Bulls, to fuck into stardom. She commits to reading Walt Whitman to this promising player, to delivering gauzy speeches about chakras and breathing through the eyelids, and to sleeping with him, for the course of one season. That player, invariably, has the best season of his career.
It’s a kind of ludicrous premise, and mostly just sets up a number of goofy sex scenes. Sure, she and (spoiler!) catcher Crash (Kevin Costner) end up together at the end, but I didn’t really feel much of a romance develop between them. Without a real exploration of their emotional and intellectual connection, it’s hard for me to buy the “romantic” half of “romantic comedy.”
Am I being too rigid here?
Travis: It certainly has elements of a farce, but I think you are being a bit too rigid, yes. The movie might seem ludicrous and at times over the top, but it’s also based lightly on the ludicrous world of minor league baseball and the time director Ron Shelton actually spent toiling around the minor leagues. So parts of it are intentionally overstated ― I’d be somewhat surprised if, say, wedding gifts are a typical source of conversation during mound visits, as they are in one of the movie’s most famous scenes. But it’s probably not that far off, so I’m not sure it reaches all the way into farcical.
For me, it’s still the kind of comedy that fits well inside the parameters of rom-com ― there are absurd moments, sure, but the movie as a whole doesn’t spill over into completely ridiculous. I can see how it verges on sex farce territory, but I think the genuine efforts to capture romance are too strong and too central to push it all the way there.
And to that point, and the broader romantic story arc, I’m curious what you think of this passage my friend (and former boss) Alyssa Rosenberg wrote last year about “Bull Durham’s” approach to celebrate the movie’s 25th anniversary:
One of the central insights of “Bull Durham” is that baseball and sex and romance are of equal interest to men and women. This is not a movie where a woman blithely wanders into a male realm she knows nothing about and finds love, nor one where a hard-bitten professional man finds himself distracted by a woman who reminds him that domestic life has its charms. Instead, Annie and Crash are both deeply knowledgeable about baseball history and the technical aspects of the game, even if they disagree about the best way to improve Nuke’s performance. “Bull Durham” is a love triangle, with Nuke and Crash competing for Annie’s attention, but it’s also a triangle built around mentorship, with Crash and Annie jostling for preeminence in Nuke’s journey to the big leagues.
Claire: You’re right, the ludicrousness is mostly not accidental. The screwball-y elements are my favorite parts of the movie, though at certain points ― like when Crash passionately informs Annie that he believes in “opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and [...] in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days” ― I felt that it compromised my ability to care about whether they ever found love! No kiss merits that many adjectives, nor that many days. This speech actually felt like a mockery of rom-com conventions, or at minimum a loving spoof. I really wrestle with whether a spoof of a rom-com, like “They Came Together,” can itself be a rom-com; if the goal is entirely comedic, rather than a genuine engagement with love, that feels like a different animal to me.
That said, I love Rosenberg’s assessment of the love triangle-meets-mentorship triangle, which is spot on. Crash and Annie don’t spend that much time together, but they’re immediately intrigued by each other’s knowledge of the game, and even carry out much of their courtship by bombarding green pitcher Nuke (Tim Robbins), Annie’s chosen lover for the season, with conflicting advice. Often in rom-coms, sports are positioned as a barrier to romantic bliss; in this movie, it’s the basis for it.
This is more of a general critique than an argument about its genre classification, but I felt distinctly unimpressed with the gender politics of “Bull Durham,” despite this point. For Crash and Nuke, baseball is a career. Annie has equal insight to share, but she’s relegated to groupie status. At one point, Crash asks what she even does for work ― sexually mentoring young minor leaguers doesn’t seem like it pays anything ― and it turns out she adjuncts part time, but it feels jammed in to compensate for how glaringly absent her own career is from the baseball narrative.
Here’s a question that may require speculation: Do you think some people might think “Bull Durham” isn’t a rom-com because it seems more geared toward male audiences rather than being positioned as a chick flick?
'Bull Durham,' I have to concede, is all about Crash and Annie’s crackling chemistry even as the baseball plot remains fundamental to the movie. Claire Fallon
Travis: I think it’s more than fair to offer that critique of the film’s gender politics, especially the standards we’d require now, a quarter-century later. At the same time, and feel free to tell me I’m 100 percent wrong here, I feel like it broke some ground by centering Annie as the narrator and, essentially, the linchpin character, and while it didn’t hit every note, it also didn’t treat her love and knowledge of baseball as weird just because she’s a woman.
Which leads me to the context surrounding my first viewing of “Bull Durham,” which I will provide before I answer your question: I first came across the movie, released in 1988, among the collection of VHS tapes my parents had stored away near our television, when I was too young for Rated-R flicks. I knew it was about baseball, and I knew it was one of my mom’s all-time favorite movies, so I couldn’t wait to finally get to watch it once she decided I was old enough to do so. My mom’s singular love of “Bull Durham” may not be the best indicator of whether it’s geared toward male audiences or not. But she’s been a huge baseball fan for as long as I can remember, and though we’ve never really talked about it, I wonder if there was a part of her that enjoyed the movie not just because it was a Kevin Costner baseball flick, but because it made an effort ― even if it was a flawed one ― to center a woman who loved baseball as much as she did.
Back to your point, by virtue of being a sports movie, “Bull Durham” is always going to feel geared toward a male audience, more so than a typical rom-com. And yet, the movie also sort of flips all the normal stereotypes on their head, because the reason it’s so clearly a rom-com isn’t just a result of the love triangle’s complicated dynamics. It’s also a result of the romantic approach Annie takes toward baseball. This isn’t new: The idea that loving baseball is a romantic endeavor is as old as the game itself ― there are all the quotes about Honus Wagner staring out the window and longing for the return of spring, about how “other sports are just sports, baseball is a love.” But with the exception of a brief period of time during World War II (as portrayed in “A League of Their Own,” which came out four years after “Bull Durham”) the metaphorical power of baseball has always been reserved for guys.
“Bull Durham” flips that: It’s Annie who has the most passionate and romantic ― and comedic ― relationship with baseball, and it’s Annie who tries so hard to get Crash to rediscover that he can actually enjoy how much he loves baseball, as opposed to being embarrassed by his inability to give it up. So maybe it makes sense that even if it started out as a sports movie aimed at dudes, it also proves that rom-coms can of course arrive inside the sports movie packaging, and maybe in a way breaks down what we think of when we think of a more typical rom-com audience.
Claire: I can imagine why your parents would want to hide this from impressionable eyes: There is a LOT of sex in it, and I stand by the “sex farce” label I used earlier. Still, you’ve convinced me that Crash and Annie do have a genuine, substantive romantic connection that develops over the course of the movie, and that separates it from mere sex romp status.
I was born in 1988, so I can’t exactly speak to how it was marketed ― whether it was positioned as a classic rom-com, or a dudely movie about balls and bats. And as we’ve touched on throughout, a gender divide based on sports vs. romance is specious. Women love sports, men love romance. “A League of Their Own,” another movie that centers women who love baseball on its own terms, is actually a clarifying example for me: It includes romance, but it’s not a rom-com. The sports narrative is its central premise.
“Bull Durham,” I have to concede, is all about Crash and Annie’s crackling chemistry ― which culminates in them dancing in her living room, happily ever after ― even as the baseball plot remains fundamental to the movie. When I really think about it, there are lots of sports movies I also see as rom-coms, like “Bend It Like Beckham” ― which, as a huge soccer fan, made me feel very seen as an adolescent girl.
I’m a “Bull Durham” newb, but as a longtime fan, where would you rank this movie in your personal pantheon of rom-coms?
Travis: Yeah, I don’t really recall the marketing around it either ― I was only a few months old when it came out. And I’m almost ashamed to admit that I didn’t have to re-watch it to prepare for this chat, because there are multiple parts of the movie I can recite almost by heart, and pulling up a few quick clips on YouTube was more than enough to feel like I’d re-watched it again. So it’s up near the top of my rom-com list, for sure, along with “10 Things I Hate About You” and “You’ve Got Mail,” which I appreciate primarily for weird sentimental reasons.
And it’s certainly my favorite sports-centered rom-com ever made, with “White Men Can’t Jump” being the only possible contender for that crown. But that might spark a debate that’s best saved for another day.
This is Part 1 of a four-part debate series, including conversations around “Pretty Woman,” “Clueless” and “The Break-Up.”