Oh the nostalgia!
The Bad News Bears was released in the spring of 1976, America’s Bicentennial. Everything that year was red-white-&-blue. Bears was a huge hit, spawning two sequels, a television series and eventually a remake in 2005. It hugely impacted my life as a kid. After having already seen it once or twice, I remember watching it with my brothers, sans sound, over the fence at a drive-in theater next to the city ball-fields where my dad was playing in a softball game, under-the-lights. The summer after I saw it I joined a little league team. The baseball diamond and surrounding area in the movie look similar to how Milwood Little League in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I played in the mid-70’s, looked. The fence, the dugout, the bleachers, the uniforms, the hair styles, the cars. Everything about this movie recalls the halcyon days of my childhood.
Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker a former minor league ball player now cleaning pools for a living. He is hired to coach a team of misfits for the local little league. He takes the job for the money but winds up bonding with the kids while crudely but effectively teaching them how to become a team. This is the original idea that has been copied to death over the past 30 plus years. Unlike nearly all of the imitations however, this one doesn’t cop-out with a phony feel-good ending. You do leave with a smile on your face but not for the usual clichéd reason underdog sports movies end with.
The thing that stands out the most about this movie today is its complete lack of Political Correctness. Tanner, the smart-ass kid always getting into fights describes his teammates thusly, and I quote, "All we got on this team are a buncha Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eatin' moron!" In another scene 11 year old Amanda, the pitching whiz played by Tatum O’Neal, tells Buttermaker that girls her age date, she even knows another 11 year old on the pill and she has every intention of going with Kelly to a Rolling Stones concert. Buttermaker drinks beer constantly, even in his car, and drives around with the entire team in his convertible. There isn’t a seat belt in sight. He also gives his team beer to celebrate after the championship game. You gotta love the 70’s. That kind of freedom just doesn’t exist anymore.
I thought Kelly Leak, with his long slicked back hair, his motorcycle, his constant cigarette smoking, his tuff-as-nails attitude, and his skills with a bat, was the coolest person on the planet when I was 9. Jackie Earle Haley created an original and memorable character.
This movie will make you laugh and also put a lump in your throat but without any aftertaste of saccharine. And that's no easy feat.
Walter Matthau breaks the old Hollywood rule of never starring with children.
Bad News Bears is one of those rare films that I loved as a child and I still love just as much as an adult. Sure part of that love is nostalgic, but at the same time it has aged very well.
When I first saw it as a kid I was more like Lupus but dreamed of being Kelly (although I would have been satisfied with being Tanner). The important thing being that I could relate to those kids. What I never noticed or appreciated then was Walter Matthau as Buttermaker. He really holds this movie together as the washed-up, alcoholic pool cleaner. The scene when he rejects Amanda and the scene where he suddenly sees just how much he's been caught up in the competition are two highlights of a great performance by an old Hollywood veteran. A big part of why the sequels never lived up to the original is because Matthau declined to appear in them.
The real secret to the success of the movie has to be the way it makes you care about the team without ever getting sappy. Buttermaker never makes some over-the-top sentimental speech and the kids seem like real kids and not Hollywood's version of them. The joy you feel at the end of the movie is genuine and not spoon fed to you.
And yes, as you mentioned Patrick, it's all gloriously non-PC. I love how Buttermaker pours whiskey into his beer can while at the little league field. Because, you know, it's okay if the coach is drinking beer around the kids, so long as it's not whiskey. The foul-mouthed kids are funny, but it's Buttermaker's inappropriate behavior around them that seems most shocking today.
The styles and the attitudes might be dated, but the spirit of the Bears is eternal. It's been imitated by other films, but never equaled.
If little league had only been this fun.
I was on a little league team the summer this movie opened. I was on a team that never won a single game. We were nicknamed, "The Bad News Bears." After every game, the other teams chanted condescendingly , "Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate..." just as they do in the movie to The Bears.
Like my brothers I love this film's lack of political correctness. However, I have to clarify something. Patrick praises the freedom of the 70's, but was there really any more then, than now? We were not allowed to swear as kids, like Tanner does. No one at our little league ever drank beer in the open during a game, as Buttermaker does. I do no think society has changed all that much. I think Hollywood is what has changed. They no longer have the balls they once did to make politically incorrect characters.
The one scene that really struck me is when a coach gets mad at his son during a game. I have had two sons play little league, and any parent who has, knows that the real drama does not come from the kids, but the parents. I recall thinking that scene was over the top when I first saw it as a child. Now I know it to be all too realistic. I have seen a parent run onto the field to fight a coach. I have heard a dad yell to his son, "IF A BALL GETS BY YOU, YOUR GROUNDED!" Almost all Little League fields now have signs warning parents, not children, on how to behave during games.
I sincerely agree with my brothers that the writing is perfect. The movie exaggerates for humourous sake. Amanda dating at 11 was as wrong then as it is now. The brilliance though, is the scene Scott mentioned, where Buttermaker gets caught up in winning. Like parents in real life, he learns more from coaching than the kids do from playing.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1976)