My Favorite Movies – The Bad News Bears (1976)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

When I was a little kid, I watched a lot of children’s sports movies, such as “Little Giants,” “The Big Green,” the “Mighty Ducks” movies. I didn’t watch “The Bad News Bears” until I was a little older, at age 13. And even though I had seen its copycats many, many times and enjoyed them each time, there was still something about “The Bad News Bears” that just felt so fresh and new to me at that time. Why is that?

Well, for one, I knew it wasn’t talking down to me because I was a kid. This 1970s movie was made for adults AND kids, and director Michael Ritchie and screenwriter Bill Lancaster weren’t afraid to insert a little dark comedy and a lot of sardonic humor into what would’ve been your standard kid’s sport movie about an underdog Little League baseball team. The coach is an alcoholic grump. The kids are little big-mouthed smartasses. And the important lesson is more for the adults than the kids: don’t take out your frustrations associated with failure on those younger than you.

Oh, and it’s also…not very politically correct. I’m sure many people who have seen this movie remember a certain line of dialogue from a little tough-guy kid putting down his teammates which includes harsh racial slurs–damn, was that a different time!

Walter Matthau stars in one of his most iconic roles as Morris Buttermaker, a former minor-league baseball player who’s now a grumpy drunk. He’s been asked to coach a Little League team that has been formed as part of a lawsuit to allow all children to play. As you’d expect, the kids are not very skilled and Buttermaker isn’t an ideal coach–he even passes out due to drunkenness on the pitcher’s mound during practice.

When the kids’ spirits are broken during a disastrous first game, Buttermaker decides to take his job more seriously. Even though the team votes to opt out of the season, Buttermaker shouts that they have no choice and they’re gonna get better no matter what! (I love that scene–it’s even funnier in the remake.) They even recruit a couple other kids with their own skills: Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) and Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley). Soon enough, the team gains more confidence and starts winning games and make it to the championship game versus a team coached by the aggressive and competitive Roy Turner (Vic Morrow).

Mistakes are made, lessons are learned, a kid is even SLAPPED at one point (jeez, 1970s, you were HARSH), and I don’t even give a damn about the outcome of the game more than how everyone reacts to it. Because this movie is far more better-written than any of its copycats that came after.

Why does “The Bad News Bears” stand out even today? Because it’s not like those other movies–instead, it’s an interesting, unflinchingly honest look at competition in modern society. We get that in the way Buttermaker’s backstory about his old playing days and his personal life is given to us, as well as Buttermaker’s counter-rival Turner, who just wants to win because it’s probably the way he was coached as a young person and will do what it takes to achieve…well, ANYTHING in his life. The kids are portrayed as real kids and ones who need positive role models in their lives–Buttermaker may not be the best example they got, but he is the only one and it turns out he’s not too bad at it.

See? Both adults AND kids can get something out of this comedy, and that’s the reason I think it still holds up today.

I saw its first sequel, “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training”–it’s not very good, but it does have its funny moments here or there. I never watched “The Bad News Bears Go to Japan” in its entirety–I saw the first 10-15 minutes once and then changed the channel.

I do like the 2005 remake, directed by Richard Linklater, though I’m a little disappointed by how faithful Linklater was to the material–it’s pretty much the same script as the original, only updated. The best part about it, though, is Billy Bob Thornton as Buttermaker–Thornton goes beyond Matthau’s grumpy demeanor and instead plays Buttermaker as a guy who most likely has a body stashed in the trunk of his car. To me, that makes his scenes with the kids all the more hilarious.

What’s more important to us? To win or keep our self-respect? Well, maybe this will help–as the wise Bill Murray said in “Meatballs,” “IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER!”

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