The Bad News Bears (1976)
In the 1970s, a golden era in American film making was taking place. This era was sandwiched between the musicals and glamour films of the sixties and the blockbuster action/adventure hits of the 1980s. While Spielberg was first tinkering with his mechanical shark, and Lucas constructing the Death Star, the last few gritty dramas and dark comedies were being made. The Bad News Bears is one such film; a movie that is in my pantheon of great ones.
This was a time for actors; actors who could really make a character their own. Enter Walter Matthau. He’s not good in this, he’s great. Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, an alcoholic pool cleaner who was once a minor league pitcher. Boilermaker, as he is known, has a passion for beer and baseball, in that order. At the tail end of his middle-years and his life going nowhere, Boilermaker agrees to coach a little league baseball team. You see, this team was added to the little league via a lawsuit. Matthau’s character is hired to lead this talentless group of boys by the attorney who filed the lawsuit. A disastrous season begins, and the Bears turn losing into an art-form. Then, Boilermaker reaches bottom, and decides he won’t go out like this. His solution to this horrible baseball team? An eleven-year-old girl, played by Tatum O’Neal, who can throw a killer breaking ball.
O’Neal’s perforrmance equals that of Matthau. In fact, Tatum O’Neal, who is the youngest recipient ever of the Oscar for Best Actress, gives her career performance in this film. She is street-wise with the other kids, but naïve when it comes to Boilermaker. She sees Boilermaker as a father figure, making her oblivious to the fact that he is using her to build a winning team. And win, they do. In fact, the Bears go from the worst team in the league to playing in the championship game.
The supporting cast in The Bad News Bears knocks it out of the park (sorry). My dad always says that the villain makes the movie. Vic Morrow, as Yankee’s manager Roy Turner, proves his point. Roy Turner is that little league coach that we shake our head at. In his mind, every game is the seventh game of the World Series. And one day, if he wins enough little league championships, maybe his high school coach will adequately appreciate his baseball talent. However, this villain is not cookie-cutter. Morrow gives his character depth through an honest performance. Watch for any dialog between him and Matthau: excellent tension.
Who are the Bears? While the other little league teams have respectable sponsors such as Pizza Hut, the Bears are backed by Chico’s Bail Bonds. It’s your classic group of Misfit Toys; a formula which has been replicated in countless sports films. However, these characters are authentic and interesting. One of my favorite scenes is a dialog between Boilermaker and the Bear’s catcher; an overweight and opinionated kid named Engelberg. Engelberg gets chocolate on a ball he hands to Boilermaker. When the coach complains, Engelberg goes on an outrageously funny tirade. Also, look for Tanner: a pint-size, blonde kid with a foul mouth and no fear. While the kids are awesome, my favorite supporting character is the music. A year before John Williams gave Star Wars a musical pulse, Jerry fielding brought passion and intensity to The Bad News Bears through his adaptation of Carmen. Carmen is an opera written by Bizet in 1875. Why would a baseball film set in the 1970s have a 19th century, french score? Because it’s awesome!
While these performances make the movie great, the movie’s feel keeps bringing me back for more. This film is special because it is a portal to life as a suburban boy in the 1970s. There were no play-dates. Our parents drove station wagons and all of our phones had dials and cords. Fast food wasn’t very fast, people only drank diet soda if they were actually on a diet, and beers were macro rather than micro brewed. Life was fundamentally different from our society today. My generation did not have helicopter parents. They were more like long-range bombers. No hovering; they showed up when needed and dealt with the issue at hand. Our parents let life teach us lessons, and they were simply there to referee.
Therefore, there were two Americas: one for kids and one for adults, and rarely did the two intersect. That’s what makes this film interesting; these previously disparate groups collide under the backdrop of our nation’s favorite pastime. Even if you don’t think you like baseball, this film will grab you and take you on an intense ride. Does boilermaker find redemption? Do the Bears beat all odds and win the championship? Grab a Tab, or your favorite mass-produced brew, and find out.
Film: The Bad News Bears
Director: Michael Ritchie
Year of Release: 1976
Rating: 4 out of 4 Minivans