Wednesday, February 13, 2013

#912. The Bad News Bears (1976)

Directed By: Michael Ritchie

Starring: Walter Matthau, Tatum O'Neal, Vic Morrow

Tag line: "The coach is waiting for his next beer. The pitcher is waiting for her first bra. The team is waiting for a miracle. Consider the possibilities"

Trivia: The film's poster art was by Jack Davis, one of the founding illustrators for MAD magazine

The year 1979 saw the emergence of two television sitcoms based on popular movies. One was Delta House, inspired by the 1978 John Landis film, Animal House. Needless to say, this show didn’t last long (I think it was gone after a few months). 

Nor, for that matter, did the series The Bad News Bears, in which Jack Warden assumed the role of Morris Buttermaker, the gruff little league coach played by Walter Matthau in Michael’ Ritchie’s 1976 comedy. 

Of the two shows, I enjoyed The Bad News Bears more, probably because: 

1. I was about the same age as most of its stars, and 

2. at the time, I, too, played little league baseball. 

Sure, the series wasn’t nearly as funny as the movie, but that would have been asking too much of it. At that young age, The Bad News Bears was one of my favorite comedies, and what’s really cool is that, seeing it again now, it still manages to make me laugh.

By court order, a California little league is forced to expand, adding one more team to their already jam-packed organization. The new club, nicknamed the Bears, has a roster full of kids not talented enough to play on any of the other teams. Among them are the pissed-off pipsqueak, Tanner (Chris Barnes), the overweight Englebert (Gary Lee Cavagnaro), the ultra-smart Ogilvie (Alfred W. Lutter), and a pair of Hispanic brothers (Jaime Escobedo and George Gonzales) who don’t speak a word of English. 

The Bears' coach is Morris Buttermaker (Matthau), an alcoholic former minor-league pitcher who now cleans swimming pools for a living. As expected, this new team isn’t very good, leading Roy Turner (Vic Morrow), coach of the rival Yankees, to recommend they voluntarily drop out of the league. 

Not ready to give up, Buttermaker instead recruits some new talent for the Bears, including Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), the daughter of an old flame who happens to be a top-notch pitcher, and Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), a juvenile delinquent with a terrific arm and a swing as powerful as Babe Ruth’s. 

With these additions to the roster, the Bears start winning, but as Buttermaker becomes more obsessed with the idea of taking the championship, he loses sight of why most of these kids joined up the first place: to have a good time.

The role of Morris Buttermaker, the beer-swilling, cigar-chomping coach of the Bears, seemed tailor-made for Walter Matthau, and sure enough, the actor is perfect in the part, bringing a special charm to what is essentially a
hapless, lazcharacter. In one scene, Buttermaker even drags the team along on a pool cleaning job, and, after putting the kids to work, has another member of the Bears, young Timmy Lupus (Quinn Smith), mix him a martini while he relaxes on a lounge chair. 

What’s truly impressive, though, is how well some of the child actors fare alongside the veteran. Chris Barnes doesn’t give what I would call a “strong” performance as Tanner (he rushes through his lines far too quickly), but brings plenty of personality to the part, rattling off obscenities and ethnic slurs in just about every scene. Cavagnaro’s Englebert is good for a few chuckles, especially when Buttermaker is trying to teach him the fundamentals of the game, and the scenes where Rudi Stein (David Pollack) is told to "lean into the pitches" are classic. 

As the team’s two best players, Jackie Earle Haley is a convincing hoodlum-in-training, but, oddly enough, Tatum O’Neal, who won an Oscar for Paper Moon several years earlier, doesn't do much with her part. Luckily, her teammates managed to pick up the slack, and are a key reason why this is a very funny movie.

Ultimately, though, The Bad News Bears is more than just laughs; it also gives us something to think about. 

Hidden beneath the comedy is the always-timely topic of adults living vicariously through their kids. Even Buttermaker, who never really wanted to be a coach in the first place, catches “the bug”, benching players who aren’t as talented to keep the Bears winning streak alive. After getting a taste of victory, Buttermaker becomes just like Roy Turner and all the other parent/coaches, to whom winning means everything. 

This reminds me of a story my father told me, from when he was an umpire for the local little league. He was behind the plate for a championship game. In the late innings, the East was leading the West by a run, and with the sun going down, there was a real chance the game would soon be called on account of darkness. 

As the East was batting, one of their coaches suffered an epileptic seizure along the third base line. My father, and coaches from both teams, ran over to see if he was OK, at which point the parents for the West players started angrily shouting from the stands that he was purposefully trying to delay the game, and that they should drag him off the field and get on with it.

The Bad News Bears is a hilarious motion picture, but it’s a little sad too, and that, I believe, is why it is still effective all these years later.

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