Monday, September 19, 2022

The Church of Baseball: How to Work a Miracle

“Making a good and successful movie is a minor miracle every time.” – Ron Shelton, The Church of Baseball.

I love Ron Shelton’s movies the way I love those of the legendary 1940s filmmaker Preston Sturges. Both are quintessentially American writer-directors with a wild sense of humor and a gift for using language in astonishingly fresh ways. Both work intimately with hip, canny character actors to create small worlds that are somehow simultaneously wittily devised and vividly familiar. Sturges may be more off-kilter (though Shelton can be just as nutty) and Shelton less skittish about betraying emotion (though he’s never sentimental), but both come to their material with an attitude of wry amusement and sublime common sense   You can trace both men’s approach to the same master comic voice: Mark Twain’s.

Both men began in Hollywood as screenwriters – in Shelton’s case, after a brief career in minor league baseball, playing second base for the Baltimore Orioles organization – and moved into directing their own scripts by negotiating a scale deal (that is, for a rock-bottom fee). Sturges, a playwright with one Broadway hit under his belt before he decamped for Hollywood, received screenwriting credit on fourteen pictures, and contributed to many others without getting credit, before persuading Paramount to let him direct The Great McGinty in 1940. In Shelton’s case, he wrote two scripts, Under Fire (1983) and The Best of Times (1986), both directed by Roger Spottiswoode, before he graduated to writer-director on Bull Durham (1988), a job Spottiswoode had equipped him for by letting him direct the second unit for Under Fire. Both that picture about American journalists (played by Nick Nolte and Joanna Cassidy) who fall in love with the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua – and The Best of Times – about two buddies (Robin Williams and Kurt Russell) who maneuver the replay of a high school football game they lost twenty years earlier – are wonderful, though both tanked at the box office.

Shelton’s fantastically entertaining new book The Church of Baseball (Knopf), subtitled The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, and a Hit, is an account of how he made Bull Durham, one of the major critical and commercial triumphs of 1988. Bull Durham is a raucously funny and vertiginously sexy romantic comedy set in the world of minor-league ball in which the two not-quite-lovers, a veteran player named Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) and an unorthodox groupie named Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), have to get to each other through a freakishly talented but fiendishly green novice named Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), for whom both serve as mentors. Crash, who is on the verge of breaking the minor-league record for home runs – a piece of information he keeps private until Annie uncovers it – has been brought onto the Durham Bulls (in the Carolina League) to coach Nuke, smooth his rough edges and prep him for making the switch into the majors. Annie holds to a tradition of choosing a bright prospect at the beginning of every season and taking him into her bed, grooming him along the way to become a better player. She’s drawn to Crash right away, though he’s more worldly than her usual romantic targets and obviously doesn’t require professional training. And he’s drawn to her. But when she makes the mistake of setting the two men up against each other, intending to pick one over the other, Crash withdraws – and the rocky road to consummation traversed by every great romantic comedy veers into unpredictable territory.

Though Shelton reports that many people have insisted through the years that it isn’t really about baseball, Bull Durham is not only a classic screwball comedy but a great sports movie. For reasons that Shelton explains in the first chapter, “Forbidden Fruit,” that’s not as big a compliment as it sounds – and not as big a compliment as the film deserves – because most entries in this genre aren’t very good, especially the hackneyed, simplified and sappy ones that Hollywood turned out in the forties and fifties. Except for Robert Towne’s 1982 Personal Best (a coming-of-age picture whose protagonist, played by Mariel Hemingway, is a pentathlete training for the 1980 Moscow Olympics), Shelton has made just about all of the best ones, including White Men Can’t Jump (about basketball), Play It to the Bone (a boxing movie that I vastly prefer to the rigged, overheated Raging Bull) and his other, even more unconventional baseball film, Cobb, a biography of Ty Cobb (played by Tommy Lee Jones). I’d class the last of these as an American masterpiece, even though its reception when it opened in 1994 was shockingly dunderheaded and mean-spirited. 

Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner in Bull Durham.

Shelton has divided The Church of Baseball into four sections: “Development,” “Preproduction,” “Production” and “Postproduction.” The most fascinating is “Development,” which mostly focuses on the writing of the Bull Durham screenplay. Here he introduces ideas about structure, including the three-act rule, which he had faith in all the way until the end of the process, when he discovered that his movie had no third act. Since he could see that it worked anyway, he arrives at a modified rule:  scripts need three acts unless they don’t. He also underscores the importance of clarity:

If, early in my career, I wrote something that I planned to direct, I tended to shy away from excessive parenthetical clues, which seemed to be both insulting to the reader and an admission that if the text needed explaining, there must be something lacking in it. Many battles wiser, I tend to err on the side of clarity . . . The audience for a screenplay, after all, is varied in the extreme. Actors are the main people I’m trying to get a script to, but often the road to an actor is an obstacle course of land mines called agents, managers, financiers, producers, producer-girlfriends/boyfriends-trying-to-break-into-the business, middlemen, and an endless cabal of unnamed studio executives. Clarity matters.

He emphasizes the need for providing exposition, which he thinks has been undervalued, adding that the trick is to present it embedded in “anything that doesn’t feel expositional,” offering eloquent examples from Under Fire and Cobb in preparation for an analysis of Crash Davis’s entrance in Bull Durham. He argues, “Scenes in a screenplay need a turn, a moment when the scene suddenly isn’t about the same thing at its end as it was at the beginning.  He talks about how to keep a major character alive when she – in this case Annie – is off screen for a protracted period. Later, in “Postproduction,” he discourses on the tribulations of cutting material you love (the chapter that showcases this theme is called, appropriately, “Kill Your Darlings”), revealing that he wound up eliminating what he’d planned along as Annie’s big scene. And of course he discusses Crash’s celebrated speech about the things he believes in, beloved of all of the movie’s fans.

I was rapt throughout the extended section on how Shelton built the screenplay. In my mind it’s the best kind of backstage saga: a step-by-step explication of how a first-rate dramatic writer plies his craft. Other readers may revel in the accounts of the battles he fought and the bargains he agreed to in order to get the movie made, and these are certainly riveting – sometimes hilarious, more often gripping (and in the case of his being forced to having to fire his original cinematographer, Charles Minsky, upsetting and infuriating). Shelton also spins some ticklish stories about the meetings he had with actors who didn’t make it into the movie, for reasons that become obvious when you hear them. Strangely enough, he identifies one of them, Anthony Michael Hall, who didn’t bother reading the script before showing up to audition for Nuke. He doesn’t name the other candidate for the role of Nuke or the rising actress who lost her chance at Annie; I had fun guessing who they might have been over dinner with a friend who’d devoured the book shortly before I did.

In the afterword, Shelton mentions the stage musical he wrote based on Bull Durham, with a score by a talented young unknown named Susan Werner. When he and the producers mounted a showcase in Manhattan in early 2016 to attract backers, serendipitously a former student of mine worked on it as associate director and invited me to see one of the two performances. It was staged by Marc Bruni and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, and Scott Porter of the TV series Friday Night Lights played Crash. I loved it; I thought it captured the charm and boisterousness of the movie and looked forward to seeing it the following season on Broadway. But when the lead producing partner died suddenly the funding fell apart, and then COVID hit.  “The show,” writes Shelton, “is currently in purgatory, or the bullpen.”

In The Church of Baseball – the title quotes Susan Sarandon’s opening voice-over – Shelton characterizes Crash Davis as a man who loves something (baseball, of course) more than it loves him back, a line he borrows from Montgomery Clift’s Prewitt in From Here to Eternity. (Prew is talking about the army.)  Perhaps, Shelton theorizes, that’s one of the reason it’s stayed in the collective memory for three and a half decades. He adds:

It’s about reckoning. It’s about loss. It’s about men at work, trying to survive in the remote outposts of their chosen professions. It’s also about the women they fall for, and who fall for them. It cannot be dismissed that it’s also about the joy of playing a game for a living. It’s about team and connections and risk and reward. It’s about hitting the mascot with a fastball just because you want to, it’s about running and jumping and sliding around in the mud, it’s about interminable bus rides with a bunch of guys who are lost as you are, and feeling lucky you’re on that bus.

The movie is an uninterrupted lark. So is Shelton’s book.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

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