In Praise of Timeless Bears

One of the greatest baseball movies and American comedies of all time has been largely laying low in tall outfield grass for 38 years. Despite its commercial success, The Bad News Bears is rarely mentioned on critics' lists of classic movies.

It's high time it was put on the pedestal it deserves.

Recently, I attended a special American Cinematheque screening of Michael Ritchie's 1976 film at the legendary Aero Theater in Santa Monica. It was introduced lovingly by Cinematheque spokesman Grant Moninger and Dan Epstein (author of Stars and Strikes, about the '76 season), who were both seriously inspired by the work, praising its rebellious nature and honest depiction of painful adolescence. Moninger and Epstein also pointed out their disdain for the sentimental, Ken Burnsian approach to baseball, that the raw and quirky '70s reality of The Bad News Bears connected with them instantly.

While I'm not one to criticize Burns' Baseball--despite its occasional pomposity and East Coast-centric nature, it's still a gorgeous, heartfelt history of the game--I can see their point. The forced sentimentality of a lot of recent baseball cinema (42, Field of Dreams, and the When It Was a Game series, in which an overbearing, drippy score practically obliterates its rare and great color home movie footage) has become the unfortunate blueprint. A fresh, hilarious, honest film like The Bad News Bears probably couldn't even get made today.

I had seen the movie a few times on VHS or with TV commercials, but the Aero event was the first chance I had to experience it on the big screen. It remains an absolute marvel: a perfect symphony of excellent writing, acting and directing, making it not only a must-see baseball film, but a superb, hysterical human comedy about the values we place on achievement and personal relationships.

And every inch of it is embedded in Bill Lancaster's masterpiece of a script.

Who was Bill Lancaster, you ask? Well, for starters he was actor Burt Lancaster's son. Born in 1947 in L.A., and stricken with polio as a child, "Billy" nevertheless played Little League at the now re-named "Bad News Bears Field" in West L.A. in 1961. Wearing braces on his legs, they parked him at first base. His height and good looks soon steered him into his father's field, and in 1967 he had a part on The Big Valley, a popular ABC western show with Barbara Stanwyck. Seven years later he had a bit part in his father's forgotten B-thriller The Midnight Man. By that time he had already begun writing, and sold The Bad News Bears when he was in his mid-20s.

Lancaster died of cardiac arrest in 1997 when he was just 49, and aside from two of the Bad News Bears films his only other credit was for his adapted screenplay of John Carpenter's The Thing in 1982. In an interview with Starlog magazine in '82, he explained that "as a kid growing up in the 1950s, I was a freak for all the horror and science-fiction movies" and really wanted to work on The Thing. Judging from the seamless emotional perfection he put into his original Bad News Bears script, though, and knowing now of his brief but memorable life in Little League, it's hard to believe that Bears wasn't his real labor of love.

These are not cutesy kids on this team; they are lost nerds and diminutive thugs, most of them with potty mouths and attitudes and completely inept at playing baseball. Only a beer-drinking, broken down ex-ballplayer named Buttermaker (Walter Matthau in arguably his best role) can possibly coach them to their senses. Hired by a sleazy local official to help allow his son and other miscreants to play, Buttermaker's character fills the screen and gets us behind him from the get-go. His run-ins with uptight, by-the-book Yankees coach Roy Turner (the late Vic Morrow) are classic, and form the spine of conflict everything in the film hinges on.

Honestly, it's hard to name other American films in which kids are depicted this endearingly true, warts and all. There is no forced vulgarity that is so ever-present today; all of the "bad language" comes out of the kids' feeling of frustration and helplessness. When things turn around with the addition of curve-throwing pitcher Amanda Wurlitzer (Tatum O'Neal), daughter of a woman Buttermaker once dated, and Amanda's motorcycle-driving, homer-clubbing hood of a boyfriend Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), the Bears' growing confidence and success feels accurate and earned.

Structurally, Lancaster's script is a clinic in great screenwriting. Buttermaker fielding the team for the first time (and a 26-0 loss to the Yankees) is the inciting incident. Bringing in Amanda is the first turning point. Buttermaker chewing out Amanda and saying he doesn't want her company is the second turning point, and the crisis moment is clearer than a bell: Buttermaker falling silent after blowing up at the team for not wanting to win during the playoff game, pausing a very long time, then quietly telling them to do the best they can.

The resulting climax, when the Bears roar back against the Yankees after seemingly dead and buried, only to go down to defeat for real when their tying run is thrown at the plate, is one of the best movie endings ever because it is so unexpected. Today the "win or else' mentality has thankfully subsided from child sporting activities; everyone now gets a trophy. But back in 1976, having the heroes lose, followed by tough little Tanner Boyle telling the Yankees they can "stick their trophy up their ass", was revolutionary. The final pull-back image of the boys celebrating at home plate with beer showers because they've all learned to accept who they are (including their coach) is a vision of pure joy.

I would imagine being on the set for the making of this film was wonderful. Jackie Earle Haley has said in interviews that Matthau was a treasure, and after the last day of shooting presented every member of the team with a personalized silver chain from Tiffany's. Director Ritchie, who before this had made Downhill Racer and The Candidate with Robert Redford, Prime Cut with Lee Marvin, and Smile, an also-underrated comedy about beauty pageants with Bruce Dern, was obviously able to create a close, natural environment that produced the fine performances. Everything just flat-out works.

Leaving the Aero with my wife that night, we talked about how funny and genuinely touching the film was, and how it can be enjoyed by every generation. Can you imagine walking into a producer's office today and to try and pitch an idea that isn't targeted for a single demographic? The Bad News Bears is truly a timeless miracle, and it would not surprise me if we never see the likes of it again.

Jeff Polman writes about baseball for various Internet publications and creates "fictionalized" historical replay blogs. Ball Nuts, his newest novel based on the "Play That Funky Baseball" blog, has been published by Grassy Gutter Press and is available on Amazon.