“Look, Buttermaker, you’re not my father and I’ll not move an inch to play baseball for you anymore. So why don’t you get back into that sardine can of yours and go, go vacuum the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. I’ve got business to take care of. You’re blocking my customers with your car.”
Written by Bill Lancaster (Burt’s son) and directed by Michael Ritchie (who had helmed adult fare like The Candidate and Smile), The Bad News Bears worked on a lot of levels-and not just the “hey, those naughty kids are cussing” level either. There was the underdog triumph story at the 1976 movie’s core; there was the satire of the uniquely American institution of Little League and its overly-involved bench parents (in the year of our country’s bicentennial, no less). There was also a redemptive character piece at work, as Buttermaker, via his group of misfits, tried to get his shambled life together once and for all.
Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) is a former minor league baseball player, and currently, a disheveled drunk and a not-so-devoted pool-cleaner. And if you think he’s mastered the fine art of uncouth and offensive language, wait until you meet the kids on his future Little League Team.
Morris takes the eager dollars of local parents who are tired of watching their kids lose. The only chance he’s got at winning are two very un-Stepford new additions: Amanda Whurlitzer, wonder-pitcher and wiseacre tomboy kid of an ex-girlfriend, and Kelly Leak, a cigarette-smoking, motorcycle-riding all-star athlete. The Cubs start winning but are consumed by priorities not quite as noble as just the joy of the game. Despite their less-than-stellar sportsmanship, they get to the Championships and face-off against the impressively outfitted Yankees, who are coached by the comedically intense Roy Turner.
The Bad News Bears definitely paved the way for a slew of other kids’ sports team movies in the 80′s and 90′s. But none of what of followed spoofed our national obsession with sports and winning as effectively, or had the eccentric audacity to have kids who talked like sailors and still endeared themselves to us. Though Amanda talks a lot of trash, she’s pained by not having a dad and yearns for someone to fill the void. Coach Buttermaker is clearly trying to drown his demons, demons of the bad relationship and bad career choice variety, in the copious beer that he drinks (which he’s known to lace with the stronger stuff). It’s also fair to say there will probably never be another sports movie to use actual music from Bizet’s Carmen throughout.
Two Bears sequels followed. The Bad News Bear in Breaking Training, in 1977, gave the kids a chance to play in the Houston Astrodome under coach Mike Leak (William Devane). This movie takes a step back from the first movie’s patented cussing and takes one big step forward into the world of scatological humor instead. It also boasted a handful of real-baseball-player cameos. Next came The Bad News Bears Go To Japan in 1978. In this final feature installment, Marvin Lazar (Tony Curtis) is a money-hungry manager who brings his team to Tokyo for the Little League World Series. A TV show based on the film ran from 1979 to 1980, and a remake, starring Billy Bob Thorton was released in 2005.
The Bad News Bears has become a much used model over the years for kids sports films but never have the imitators gotten anywhere near the original. Bears had a quality consistent with the culturally wild nature of 1970′s that allowed it to roam free of today’s more restrictive kiddie content, ultimately painting an unflinching, complicated, boisterous and, most importantly, authentic portrait of childhood. It’s a reasonable certainty that if it had been filmed in French with subtitles, The Bad News Bears would have been called an art film.
Were you allowed to see this film in the theaters as a kid? Was it anything like your own Little League? We’d love to hear your reflections in our comments section, as we pay tribute to this unforgettable baseball film.