As Opening Day of our national pastime has just dawned upon us, what a perfect time to relive a classic sports comedy that coincidentally was released 40 years ago today, The Bad News Bears. The movie is about a bunch of hapless misfits who do more damage than good on the little league field.
With a naturalistic quality that director Michael Ritchie, who had helmed the similarly styled 1975 underrated comedy Smile in which the action is set at a high school beauty pageant, employs throughout but still with the same sharp eye for the kind of middle of the road, middle class America that was perfectly rendered on the screen in The Bad News Bears, Ritchie’s flair for the San Fernando Valley and this kind of mid-1970s quintessential America, where much of the action in The Bad News Bears is set, is prevalent, constant, and throughout the picture.
Starring the late, legendary Walter Matthau, who plays a grizzled, burnt out ex-ballplayer of some capacity (he tells tall tales about his playing with famous and legendary ballplayers of his generation), and who is already soused to the gills by sun up. Matthau’s character of Morris Buttermaker is a wobbly figure who cleans pools for a living and turns out to be more motley than the motley crew he’s been reluctantly hired to manage. Matthau plays him with that wonderful hangdog and weary yet full of dime store wryness that has been like a bloodline throughout almost all of Matthau’s memorable characters throughout his multiple decades career as an actor.
The Bears themselves are of every kind of color and stripe and speak with a freshness, indicative of their ages, but also manifested like a color wheel of shades. Some characters are aggressive and big-mouthed, like the portly catcher Engelberg, who is more interested in noshing down candy bars one at a time than making plays at the plate; and Tanner, who has the moxie of Samson and a racist and brash mouth which gets him into trouble often with his own teammates and rival clubs (especially the New York Yankees little league club, managed by an obsessive and ultimately dangerously impulsive Vic Morrow, whose son is the star pitcher of that team and gets into regular pseudo-alpha male scrapes with Tanner); or criminally shy like little blond-haired Timmy Lupus; or people in between like the fact ridden Ogilvie or Rudi Stein, the bespectacled and bewildered young man. The character of Ahmad Abdul-Rahim, who has a deep passion for baseball mandarin Hank Aaron, and 2 non speaking Mexican boys round out this United Nations of America essentially by way of these child characters. Clad in uniforms from a Bail Bonds House (the only business in town who would sponsor The Bears), there’s already a scrappy dog kind of even-though-they-suck-we-are-still-on-their-side as soon as the caps and gloves are donned kind of feeling from almost the first frames that we see them on screen.
Jerry Fielding, who also did the music for the Sam Peckinpah 1969 Western masterpiece The Wild Bunch, uses Bizet’s “Carmen” wondrously, in which an entire generation of kids who saw this film originally in 1976 believed that the music came from this picture and it’s used to perfect comedic effect. The way the well-known score rises and plummets, by way of oboes and strings and full orchestra and done with much zip by Fielding, and is choreographed with the action on screen perfectly, accompanying each botched play after play by The Bears, is a character in itself in many ways, and is one of the elements that immediately comes to mind when one first thinks of this movie.
It’s interesting how the perception of The Bad News Bears is that it might be a kid’s film, but it’s in a way anything but. Yes, it was kept to a PG rating and pushes that envelope slightly just enough at times with the honest yet abrasive dialogue the kids spew, but it’s a film that is like a sports film cum growing pains cum slice of life cum open-ended resolution kind of film and certainly transcends any kind of like-minded film that might have come out from the studios of The Walt Disney Company.
Bill Lancaster’s script keeps things level with the sports action, which is directed realistically and kind of in a Game of the Week fashion, to the comedy, which borderlines on one-liners and visual gags that are pretty much kept on the field for the most part.
Tatum O’Neal is charming and endearing instantly as the team’s unexpected star pitcher, and Matthau’s ex’s daughter, who still retains the glow of an acting high from what would in hindsight be her peak years, years that netted her an Academy Award three years earlier for Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon. Unlike many child stars in roles who sometimes unknowingly sabotage a film by inadvertently acting too cute and way out of their juvenile element by spouting sharp dialogue at every clip, O’Neal’s performance, aided by Lancaster’s script and Ritchie’s direction, is dazzling, fun, intelligent but not too intelligent, confident, and ultimately sensitive, full of the kind of energy that rightfully made her the mid 1970s star she was in Tinseltown.
Jackie Earle Haley as Kelly Leak ultimately is the center of the film and the one everyone rotates towards in one way or another, positive or negative. It’s easy to see why, Leak is a star slugger on the field who also unexpectedly becomes the catalyst to propel the Bears from the basement in the league standings to the top and into the championship game. Haley’s character is like the ’50s Marlon Brando and James Dean rolled into one, just a pint-sized version of the genuine articles. Chain smoking at 13, wearing mirrored glasses, hitting on girls almost twice his age and driving a motorbike, Leak was in a way the coolest kid of the cinematic mid-’70s, at least here, and his character is another constant that still reverberates instantly when one is reminded of the film.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since The Bad News Bears first hit theaters, which would mean that there would be no child from the film who isn’t in their late 40s to 50s in the present day and age. Matthau of course continued a stellar career until he passed away in 2000, and O’Neal has had a bumpy career and personal life in many ways since this film. The biggest surprise is the arrival of Jackie Earle Haley as a legitimate and consummate actor in recent years, appearing in diverse films as Watchmen, Little Children, in which his portrayal as a creepy pedophile garnered him an Oscar nomination, and as the second incarnation of Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series.
So here’s a tip of the dusty old little league cap to The Bad News Bears as it celebrates 40 years since its theatrical debut on April 7th, 1976. Like Bull Durham or Caddyshack, it remains a consummate and rabidly cult sports film that still (pun intended and how can I refuse?) “knocks it out of the park,” even if that’s something the Bears themselves could never actually do on the field or even in their cinematic sequels like the botched 1977 Breaking Training, with William Devane replacing Matthau; and the even more botched 1978 The Bad News Bears Go To Japan, with Tony Curtis replacing Devane; or on a short-lived 1979 TV show with Jack Warden helming the team; or a 2005 remake with Richard Linklater directing Billy Bob Thornton playing a take on the Matthau character.
All those aforementioned projects tried to catch the overall lightning-in-a-bottle that the original film manifested in so many ways, but the fact that none of them could recapture the magic, energy, wit, and pathos that the first film had in spades, just solidifies and proves why The Bad News Bears remains and always will, in a “higher league.”