By Kevin Redding
For my money, two of the greatest sports movies ever made came out in 1976: Rocky and The Bad News Bears. They also happen to be the two most quintessential, and imitated, underdog stories put to screen. It’s hard to imagine a time when neither movies existed, not just because they’re so great and forever watchable but because they laid the foundation on which the next 40 years of cinematic cliches and tropes and moments stand. They’re also largely similar in their naturalistic depiction of life in the modern day, then the mid ‘70s, and by telling stories of down-on-their-luck “bums” who have an opportunity to redeem themselves through sport: Sly Stallone’s Rocky Balboa in the boxing ring and Walter Matthau’s Morris Buttermaker in the dugout. Both movies also end with characters we’ve been rooting for ultimately losing in the the big match/game. But, of course, they win in more important ways: overcoming the odds, becoming better people over the course of their respective journeys, and feeling less like losers because of who they’re surrounded by. These two movies also choke me up intensely, which is an embarrassing thing for anyone to witness.
They’re both masterpieces. But in the Balboa vs. Buttermaker title fight for favorite, my heart will always belong to Buttermaker and his Bears. As the drunk curmudgeon with a heart of gold, Matthau takes a ragtag little league team from a painful 26-0 loss in their first game to a raucous celebration via beer and newfound confidence in their last. It’s also the underdog between these two underdogs. Rocky took home three Oscars, including Best Picture, and has way more of a cultural presence, the most recent of its sequels making a critical splash just last year! The Bad News Bears is certainly loved by many, but it’s still a bit under the radar (with no help from two bummer sequels). It’s been one of my favorite movies for more than half my life and it’s a fitting time to bring it to people’s attention. The Bad News Bears is 40 years old! Released on April 7, about eight months before Rocky’s December 3 release, the Michael Ritchie-directed classic immediately struck a chord with audiences at the time, especially kids.
But don’t be fooled. This isn’t The Mighty Ducks, one of many movies that borrowed its whole structure but made sure to coat it with sugar. Even though it’s PG (what a different time), The Bad News Bears is a movie that’s “got balls”, as Tanner Boyle would say. What other PG movies deal bluntly with bullying, racism, sexism, and birth control, and do so without ever feeling heavy-handed or preachy? Here’s a quick scene early on in the movie:
On a hot spring day in California’s North Valley, boozehound ex minor league pitcher-turned-pool cleaner Morris Buttermaker and his newly assembled team of misfit ballplayers surround his convertible Cadillac, now sporting a big spiderweb-like crack on its windshield.
“Hey don’t blame me, I didn’t even know it was your car. It was a dumb thing parking it so close to the field anyway!” says portly catcher Mike Engelberg in perfect sass. Just moments before, in a fit of chocolate-fueled anger, he hurled a baseball in the direction of first base – only to hear glass shatter.
At this point, the Bears have only been a team for less than 10 minutes and if their first practice – a series of blunders and embarrassing incoordination – is any indicator for how their first game will go, it’s a safe bet that it won’t be pretty. Already outcasts within the savagely competitive league, as their existence is built solely on a lawsuit that allows every kid the right to play no matter how bad they may be, the melting pot of a team (which includes a black-Muslim kid, two Mexican brothers, several white kids, Jewish kids, a fat kid, skinny kids) aren’t too hopeful.
“If we keep playing like this, we’ll be the laughingstock of the league,” says goofy pitcher Rudi Stein.
Without missing a beat, the Bears’ pint-sized bigot/anarchist/loudmouth Tanner Boyle retorts “well, whaddaya expect? All we got on this team is a buncha Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eatin’ moron!”
After Tanner is confronted and threatened by team geek Ogilvie and the tension settles, Buttermaker addresses the accident at hand. “Now guys, somebody’s gonna have to pay for this windshield and I think, Engelberg, it’s gonna be your father.” Engelberg, leaning against the car, stares blankly at his coach. “Bullshit.”
Needless to say, The Bad News Bears could not be made today*. Just in this short scene that includes Tanner’s infamous spewing of racial epithets and to a lesser degree, Engelberg’s unapologetic cursing, we see a movie that’s through and through pure ‘70s: authentic, raw, irreverent, and politically incorrect when seen through a modern lens. In fact, if this came out today, it would undoubtedly spark a social justice riot and protest labelling it the most hateful and ignorant movie ever made with hashtags a plenty (CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE, TANNER BOYLE! #BoycottTheBears). But Ritchie’s scathing glimpse at competition in America is far from hateful or ignorant; it’s one of the most hilarious, heartfelt, brutally honest, and yes, realistic movies of all time. Focusing on little league baseball teams, it says a lot about the kinds of unwarranted and outright disturbing pressure adults in our country put on kids when it comes to winning (I don’t think it’s unintentional that the movie ends with an American flag waving over the field), a concept that certainly doesn’t feel outdated today. If anything, this type of competitiveness has only gotten stronger/worse. At first, Buttermaker cares more about keeping his beers cold to even entertain the idea of getting ultra competitive, but eventually he too gets caught up in it. It beautifully depicts the joy and pain that comes with being a kid growing up, especially in a time when nobody had the sensitivity overload that’s been taking over our culture the last few years. I feel like this needs to be addressed, because this America we see (which isn’t really a “creative vision,” but a pretty truthful capture) will probably scare the shit out of millennials if they’re seeing it for the first time.
Honestly, if this were made today, the entire plot of the movie would center on the repercussions and consequences of Tanner’s blasé spout of the N-word (and understandably so), but in the context of the actual movie at the time, it’s far from a big moment of controversy and Ahmad Abdul-Rahim (the team’s black-Muslim kid) isn’t all that offended. Given the era, this implies that maybe it’s not the first time he’s had that word thrown his way before. And Tanner’s not singling out Ahmad; he’s tearing everybody down, equally bigoted towards every member of the team. However, Tanner gets his comeuppance immediately when Ogilvie reminds him “Tanner…you’re one of the few people on this team who’s not a Jew, spic, nigger, pansy or booger eating moron, so you better cool it or we may be disposed to beat the crap out of you” as Ahmad shouts, “right on!”
Speaking on the realism in a recent article published by the Daily News, actor Jackie Earle Haley (who played chain-smoking, motorcycle riding “bad motha” Kelly Leak) said:“To tell you the truth, to us kids, it was just true to life. I’m sure everyone was giggling, ‘Oh look, we get to cuss in front of everybody.’ At the same time, zero shock. This is exactly what it’s like at school. I’m sure it’s that and worse now.”
In the same article, when asked about this specific scene, Erin Blunt (who played Ahmad) says he wasn’t offended by it. “I heard a lot of stuff,” he said. “I was just shocked that my mother was going to allow me to use that language. I wasn’t offended, because I knew it was a job…I’m playing a part…it was a different deal. Plus, they paid me for it.”
The Bad News Bears wasn’t made with the mindset that some things might not be appropriate in 40 years; it was made to reflect its own modern times. The kids and adults in 1976. It has no idea that one day, there’d be a generation of young people who expect their hands to be held through life. In those days, just a quick exchange of “I love you” or a hug between a kid and their father was pretty rare. I mean, when you see Vic Morrow as hardass Yankees coach/antagonist Roy Turner, who has a very turbulent relationship with his son – on full display in the movie’s most intense moment – it’s easy to see that that was a reality for a lot of people back then. It’s so interesting how real Morrow is playing that role by the way. He’s not the mustache-twirling evil, opposing coach, the easy route that would become the norm in kids’ sports movies. He’s real. He has his set principles. He doesn’t see the harm in crossing the line to achieve what he wants.
Having seen The Bad News Bears for the first time when I was way younger than the Bears themselves, it may have had a bigger impact on me than others but damn, this is a really empowering movie for someone growing up. It teaches kids to be strong in the face of rejection and occasional misery. It shows that you don’t have to take shit from anyone, not even adults. It helps you understand that more likely than not, you’re gonna end up losing from time to time in life. We see that the adults are assholes, the kids curse, bullies are real, and even though they worked their asses off, the Bears don’t win. But it’s okay. They can handle it. To me, at least, this is a much more beneficial reality to be presented with as a kid. Makes it not as painful when things go wrong. It also helps that the kids in the movie are so realistic. They speak to those of us watching who are a bit on the outside, and we feel like we’re on that team. I identified with all of them in different ways, although I was probably way more of a Timmy “booger eatin’ moron” Lupus than I’d be happy to admit. But the movie never talks down to kids. It always feels like it’s on their level, giving it to them straight. Hanging out with them. Letting them in on the fun. It’s also infused with a satisfying rebellious attitude throughout – a certain toughness that a lot of people today can afford to embrace.
When the Bears lose against the Yankees, who have been putting them through so much hell from the beginning, one of the Yankees kinda-sorta compliments their spirit, but through a thinly veiled “you guys still suck though.” Rather than let that happen, my man Tanner keeps it real. “HEY YANKEES! You can take your apology and your trophy, and shove it straight up your ass!” Yeah, you bastards!
Probably the finest “politically incorrect” moment is when all 11 members of the Bears are piled up in Buttermaker’s open-top convertible (windshield still shattered). Most of them are sitting up on the car and not one seatbelt is buckled. Buttermaker, buzzed from his morning blend of beer and whiskey, puffs away at a cigar, drives down the road and recounts the story of when he struck out Ted Williams. Engelberg, in the passenger’s seat, pulls a bottle of Jim Beam out from the glove compartment and taunts him: “You’re not supposed to have open liquor in the car, it’s against the laaawww!” Buttermaker swats it away. “So is murder, Engelberg. Now put that away before you get me into real trouble.” So great.
One of the many beautiful things in the movie is that despite all the differences among the kids, they quickly form a bond that can’t be broken, no matter how many grades they have beating them up. In fact, it’s because they’re different that they gel so well. None of their peers like them, the league itself doesn’t want them and some of their own parents abandon them (Whitewood, the dad who gets the whole thing rolling by suing the league, bolts as soon as the first game starts). Two years before Animal House and eight years before Revenge of the Nerds, the concept of a group of geeks, freaks, and outcasts rallying against the “bad bullies” is, again, new here. It’s also done way sweeter than its imitators, due in large part to the movie’s overall authenticity.
The ultimate presentation of this is when tiny Lupus, the easiest target for bullies on the team, is sitting down at a bench next to Tanner just trying to eat a hot dog in peace. After only a few bites, Tanner lets him have it. “Lupus, can you sit somewhere else while I’m eating?…You make me sick!” Lupus submits, and slides over. Tanner notices that Joey Turner, the main Yankees bully, and a pal, also on the Yankees, are coming over to torment their easy target.
“Hey Lupus man, how’s it goin’?” Joey swipes Lupus’ hat off his head and holds it behind his back, while his pal douses the inside with ketchup.
“Give it!” Lupus yelps back.
“What do you need it for? You hardly ever play anyway.”
“Aw, we was only kidding anyways.”
Joey plops the ketchup-coated hat back on Lupus’ head and walks away, laughing. Lupus is frozen and looks devastated.
“Did you see that? That was neat, man. Hey, if we had to do that to all the Bears, they might play better.”
Tanner watches the whole thing happen. He looks at Lupus, who looks back with sad eyes. Tanner gets up, burrito in hand, approaching the two bullies.
“Hey Joey, ya hungry? Ya want my burrito?”
“I wouldn’t eat your burrito if you paid me to,” Joey scoffs.
“Aw, go on!” Tanner holds the burrito up and grinds it into Joey’s cheek. “Take it, it’s the best way to eat it!”
Joey goes into full attack, punching, wrestling, cursing, until he eventually shoves Tanner into a garbage can, and deserts the two defeated Bears.
Lupus grabs Tanner’s hat, which flew off mid battle, and hands it to him. “Thanks, no one ever stook up for me before.”
“Well, Lupus, if ya wiped your nose once in a while, people wouldn’t give you so much crud all the time.”
Lupus stares back, hurt. And for the first time in the whole movie, Tanner seems sorry, realizing that he’s been a complete jerk to him, when really, they should be rallying together against the real enemies. Tanner doesn’t have to outright say this. It’s all clear in a single look he gives. Subtle and really sweet.
It’s incredible just how natural everything feels, almost as if it’s a documentary, from the lighting (which feels a little too dark when we’re inside the equipment room, the dugout and a Pizza Hut) to the dialogue (some of it getting lost on account of the kids yelling and talking over one another). I can’t even wrap my head around the reality of the baseball scenes, all of which are games being played by these kids. When Engelberg smacks a home run over the fence in a single shot, that’s really the actor who played Engelberg smacking a home run over the fence. When Rudi Stein throws a pitch and the ball’s hit right back at his shin, that ball really had to hit the actor who played Rudi Stein in the shin. It’s all natural and just can’t be faked. Even the moments that use a bit of trickery are impressive. When star pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer pitches a fastball to Kelly Leak at the plate ready to hit, he catches said fastball and throws it back, requesting that she throw it a little harder. Apparently it was a rubber ball instead of an actual baseball, but come on. That would still hurt!
Absolutely nobody comes across as actors reading lines, which is so impressive given that a good chunk of the lead cast is all kids 14 and under, and most of them, aside from Tatum O’Neal as Amanda and some sparse TV actors, were unknowns plucked by Ritchie simply because they looked and talked like real kids. None of the lines/jokes/laughs seem forced at all, either. Nowadays, it’s so commonplace for a lot of funny moments in a movie feeling like their only purpose is to be in the trailer. The modern American movie comedy is more or less boiled down to that desperate last laugh in the trailer right before the title reads “COMING SOON” when the music halts and we laugh because the funny guy falls, gets hit by a car, or does a funny dance or whatever. To quote Haley’s future Rorschach: “Good joke. Everybody laughs. Roll on snare drum.” A generalization, sure, but you get the idea.
Here, it’s so refreshing to see a comedy that has such natural humor that’s not written to be in a trailer but just to be true to the characters and the situations. Nothing in this feels in the slightest bit like Ritchie was saying to the audience, “okay…everyone lauuugh….NOW!” But that’s probably also because most of the most hilarious moments in the movie are not in-your-face and beating you over the head with the joke. It’s all subtle. The little things. When Buttermaker is tasked with finding a sponsor for the team, whose uniforms would proudly sport the sponsor’s logo on the back, we see him on his search. But then we move on to other scenes and more practices. By the time we get to opening day of the season, and get nice long shots of the other teams’ sponsors (Denny’s, Pizza Hut, etc.), we eventually get to our Bears, whose uniforms sport the logo of Chico’s Bail Bonds, their tagline being: “let freedom ring!” Fucking genius.
Not everything is subtle. There’s even a person-getting-hit-in-the-balls joke in this (actually two, because Tanner kicks a Yankees square in the danger zone to cause a bench-clearing brawl in the last game) but it’s done so convincingly and real that you stop and wonder if it was planned or not. Of course it was, though. Just a few scenes beforehand, Buttermaker brings in a box of protective cups and advises that everyone has to wear them, to which the team groans. Jose Aguilar, one of the two Mexican brothers who doesn’t speak English, protests in his fluent language. Buttermaker asks “What? What are you saying?” Ogilvie jumps in, having brushed up on his Spanish lately, explaining that since Jose is a Catholic, wearing one would be a sin. Buttermaker, full deadpan, hands him a cup and mutters, “Oh, for Christ’s sake.”
And that brings us to our reigning champ. No, not Buttermaker. The guy behind Buttermaker. Maybe it’s because he shares a likeness and a few mannerisms to my grandpa, but I love Walter Matthau with all my heart and always will, rest his sweet soul. As a kid, this, Dennis the Menace and The Odd Couple II forever preserved him in my all-time list. But bias aside… cripes, he’s remarkable in this movie. If there ever was an actor born to play Morris Buttermaker, it’s certainly Matthau (which is why it’s crazy to think he was the studio’s third choice, behind Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty. What?!). He has this rare ability to have the grumpiest face in the entire world but still be the most lovable person in the entire world. With the wrong actor, Buttermaker isn’t all that likable. Matthau really brings something special to the role that’s crucial and makes him the greatest cinematic coach – a whole lotta heart. At the start, he’s the sad drunk, the one end of the bar who has to be coaxed out by the bartender at closing time. We don’t have to be told a dramatic backstory, or see where he lives, but we know this guy. He had two or three glory years as a minor league pitcher and probably showed some promise but somewhere something went awry and that promise is deep in the past. He’s been living in a bottle of booze, and cleaning pools in the valley, ever since. Bribed by Whitewood to coach these kids a couple hours a day, he takes the opportunity for money to (most likely)buy booze. He never expects to really put much effort into the whole coaching thing. During the last practice before opening day, he passes out cold on the mound, surrounding by empty beer cans.
But he’s immediately great with the kids, as an actor and a character. The chemistry between Matthau and these boys is inspired (and from everything I’ve read about the making of the movie, every single one of them adored him behind the scenes). That spark is there the very first time they’re all together on screen. As the kids are talking over each other to introduce themselves and tell him what positions they want to play, Matthau is a couple miles behind all of them (“What?” “Okay, good.” “just shut up” “What?”) and it’s a beautiful mess. So damn real. While Buttermaker’s drunkenness is a problem, when he’s not passed out on the mound, he’s very patient and sweet and helpful, albeit a curmudgeon. He might not even realize it yet, but we can see that he’s taken a quick liking to them. Lupus shaking up, pouring, and handing him a martini (with toothpick through olive) while Buttermaker regales the kids with an old Ted Williams story is amazing.
And he’s just as fed up with the authoritative power and bullying the Bears are constantly falling victim to, immediately taking a disliking to Morrow’s Turner and Whitewood. He instills his own brand of rebellion on them any chance he gets. Whitewood orders that the team disband after they lose the first game. Buttermaker thinks of the boys. “Well, what if they don’t wanna quit?” After Turner tells him to do the league a favor and quit during that first game, the next time they see each other, Buttermaker tell him that they intend to win the pennant and it’d be a lot of fun if they got to play the Yankees in the championship.
He knows the Bears can’t get there without some much needed help, though, and so he enlists the help of O’Neal’s Amanda, a pitcher with a rocket for an arm who turns out to be the team’s savior. Matthau and O’Neal are so sweet and endearing together and the Buttermaker/Amanda relationship is truly the heart at the center of the movie. She’s great; tough-as-nails. Like a spunky 30 year old woman trapped in a 12 year old’s body. She can take care of herself and we never doubt it for a second (“blow it out your bunghole!” is a good line). This movie’s super cool on that front too: where else was anybody seeing a girl character like this? Self-reliant, independent, career-driven (“I’m….I’m gonna be a model”), mature, and very sweet. We don’t get too much explanation into their closeness, but just enough. Years ago, Buttermaker loved and dated Amanda’s mother, things didn’t work out (because of his drinking), and they went their separate ways. It’s clear that Amanda still thinks of him as a father and he still thinks of her as a daughter, but this movie’s a little too realistic to have him wind up adopting her or something at the end.
In a really emotional scene, while Buttermaker is icing her arm in the dugout after practice, Amanda keeps ‘pitching’ things that she and Buttermaker can do together (she offers to help him clean pools), things she, and Buttermaker and her mother could all together – go to the movies, go out to a restaurant, go horseback riding. She’s so desperate to rekindle the romance her mother and Buttermaker had, make him a part of the family again. Buttermaker balks. “Look, Amanda, you’re a terrific kid. You shouldn’t be hanging around with me…I like to drink too much, I like to smoke my cigars without anybody bothering me, including you. I’m happy that way. I’m a bum!” Before Amanda has a chance to tell him why he’s not, Buttermaker snaps, throws beer in her face and gets furious. “Goddamnit, can’t you get it through your thick head that I don’t want your company? If I did, I would have looked you up two years ago. I wouldn’t have waited two goddamn years!” Amanda, sad, looks at him the way Lupus looked at Tanner and says “if that’s the way you feel, fine. No big deal.” She keeps it together until she gets to the field. She wipes tears from her face. In the dugout, Buttermaker takes a swig, tears swelling in his eyes.
The redemption of Morris Buttermaker is awesome and really needs to be watched to fully appreciate. After getting greedy and pushing these kids to win! win! win! by any means necessary (demanding Stein voluntarily gets hit by a pitched ball twice to get on base), and getting angry with the kids for him see he’s taken things too far. And he’s no better than Turner.”Don’t you wanna beat those bastards?!” Buttermaker scans the dugout and it sinks in that all the kids are, well, just kids. They don’t wanna win to the extent that the adults do; they just wanna have fun and play a game. Buttermaker takes a moment and puts his ugly competitiveness to rest once and for all. Matthau plays it beautifully: all in the face. That grumpy, lovable face. “Alright…just get out there and do the best you can.” In the last inning, he even takes out some of the key players and replaces them with the bench warmers who haven’t played all season. The movie is a celebration of trying. You might not win or take home the big trophy, but as long as you get your ass out there and do the best you can, you can be damn proud of yourselves.
Happy Birthday to The Bad News Bears! Thank you for showing me that it’s okay to be on the outside, that I don’t have to take shit from anybody, and that when Engelberg eats chocolate, he doesn’t bother unwrapping it.
*Yes, I’m aware that in 2005, Richard Linklater directed a remake of The Bad News Bears. It was awful. It was the complete opposite of the original: sugarcoated, felt like a movie at all times, featured absolutely cringeworthy kid actors, Billy Bob Thornton, and in one game scene, there’s very clearly a CGI ball. Fuck off. I do like Linklater a lot, and he seemed perfectly suited to helm a remake; most of his movies have that super authentic, documentary, hanging out sort of vibe but it was completely absent here. Slacker is actually more similar in spirit to The Bad News Bears (76)