The Bad News Bears
People who think they know me well are often surprised when I tell them that one of my all-time favorite movies is the original Bad News Bears (1976). They look at me as if to say; “The Bad News Bears? A Family film?” I guess the surprise is because my taste as they know it, tends to run towards films like Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) and Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1967 etc). But yes it is true I absolutely love The Bad News Bears.
I love it for several reasons. First of all it deals entertainingly and mock truthfully with an aspect of “The Great American Pastime”, the Little League competition series in a way that I find both refreshing and sharply focused. In other words it isn’t a family film that is precious or cloying. Much of this is due to both the screenplay by Bill Lancaster and the relaxed direction by Michael Ritchie. Mr. Ritchie had made another film the year before that also poked fun at another venerable American institution: beauty contest. That film was Smile (1975). A film I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it.
The kids in both films (Smile and The Bad News Bears) act just like kids I see and know. In the latter film they swear, display all kinds of bigotry and are totally honest about who they are. They remind me of myself and the kids I knew when I was growing up. And the ensemble acting among them starting with Tatum O’Neal, Jackie Earl Haley and the rest of them is about the best I’ve seen in this kind of film. I also like the adult supporting cast including Ben Piazza, Joyce Van Patten and Vic Morrow too. Morrow was an actor who had been a favorite of mine since I saw him play the vicious kid Artie West in The Blackboard Jungle (1955). He also had a series (Combat, 1962-64) that I thought he was very good in. But this role in The Bears gave him a chance to play an ordinary guy who perhaps has his priorities a little bit screwed up. Morrow gives the role some very nice shadings.
But topping it all is Walter Matthau as Buttermaker, a drunken former professional ball player who is now reduced to cleaning pools and coaching Little League teams for a living. Now for years whenever I was asked who were my favorite movie actors I would always name the Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni and Walter Matthau. In another blog entry entitled Mastroianni! Mastroianni! Mastroianni I give my reasons for liking Marcello. With Matthau it was because to me he seemed to be the antithesis of anyone’s idea of a movie star. He wasn’t handsome in any conventional sense. He had a face that resembled a badly worn old shoe and physically he appeared to be graceless and downright clumsy. But behind it all in performance he had a slyly amused and cynical outlook that was both knowing and down to earth. He appeared to be an actor without any narcissistic self awareness. The kind of guy you would like to have a beer with anytime of the day or night. He had an everyman quality that allowed him to be able to play anyone from the sloppy Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple (1968) to the tricky gangster in Charley Varrick (1973).
Now I had been watching him since the early days of his career when he appeared mostly as a villain in things like The Kentuckian (1955), directed by Burt Lancaster father of the screenwriter of The Bad News Bears, or Strangers When We Meet (1960). Other films include Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (1964) and The Laughing Policeman (1973). He seemingly could play just about anything and in a career of over 100 films he seemed to have done just that. Then with films like The Fortune Cookie (1966) for which he won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor he became a box office star. This was followed by several collaborations with Jack Lemmon in the Grumpy Old men series in the 90s. By then Matthau had become that rare commodity in films, a character actor who was also a lead. This is what he was in The Bad News Bears. And in my estimation the main ingredient that makes the film special. In fact that film was so successful that it spawned two sequels and a TV series plus the 2005 remake. But none of them were particularly memorable because he wasn’t in them. They were missing the thing that would’ve set them apart: Mr. Walter Matthau.