(NOTE: I have never seen the remake of this film, nor do I ever intend to. The remake has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on this post. For my intents and purposes, the remake does not exist.)
I'm often asked what my favorite baseball movie is. Most people assume that it's something like FIELD OF DREAMS, or THE NATURAL. When I answer that my pick for the greatest baseball movie of all time is THE BAD NEWS BEARS, the reaction is usually one of surprise. THE BAD NEWS BEARS is looked upon as more of a goofy comedy than a "real" baseball picture. But I think it has more truth in it about baseball, and about America, than just about any movie I've ever seen.
I first need to explain why I feel such a connection to TBNB. I played Little League in the late 70s--literally walking distance from the house I now live in--and I would have fit in pretty well with the Bears. The Bears' player I was most like was Ogilvie--I could tell you all sorts of MLB trivia, but I couldn't hit a ball to save my life. Even though TBNB was set in Southern California, and I grew up in Northern Indiana, the movie has a ton of details that reflect my extremely modest ball-playing experience. (I do have to say that I certainly didn't have any Little League coaches that were drunks.)THE BAD NEWS BEARS is probably the only film that gives me an accurate sense of my childhood.
Just about everybody knows the film's plot. Former Minor League pitcher Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) is hired by a city councilman to manage a Little League team made up of kids who the other League teams don't want. Nearly everyone expects the team to be lousy, and they are....until Buttermaker is so ticked off at all the low expectations of his players (and of himself) that he decides to actually try to get his team to win.
The genius of an actor like Walter Matthau is that he's playing a guy who is, as Buttermaker calls himself, a "bum", but still able to make him likable to the audience. Matthau also does this without making Buttermaker a hero, or making him different at the end of the story. Morris Buttermaker is the kind of guy who drives around with a cooler full of beer in his car. He may have been a pro ballplayer, but now he's just a pool cleaner, and obviously not a very successful one. The only reason Buttermaker takes the job of coaching the Bears is to pick up a little cash--but as the story progresses we see how Buttermaker slowly changes, and Matthau does this in a natural manner, without the character suddenly "reforming" in an instant. At the end of the film we just assume that Buttermaker is going to just go on cleaning pools and drinking a lot of beer. I realize that Matthau made more "important" movies, but to me Morris Buttermaker is his signature role. If any other actor had played it TBNB would not have worked.
As for the Bears themselves, they don't act like adults (a mistake made by several child actors), they act just like real kids. In other words, they're mean, cruel, obnoxious, and anti-social. I know that a big deal was made about all the cursing done by the kids in TBNB, and I have to admit that a lot of it in this movie was more than likely done for effect. But for the most part the kids are absolutely real. I KNEW kids like these. I knew kids like Tanner--the short kid with the big mouth who always wants to fight someone. I knew kids like Kelly Leak--kids who smoked cigarettes, drove around on mini-bikes, and tried to act like teenage bad-asses. I knew kids like Engelberg, Ahmad, Timmy Lupus...these aren't typical Hollywood cute model-type kids, these are kids you can imagine seeing on the nearest playground. Most child actors are too polished, too perfect in their line readings and mannerisms. You don't see that with the cast of TBNB.
Of course Tatum O'Neal was a polished professional child actor, but she's very good as Amanda, the Bears' star pitcher. Amanda is the daughter of one of Buttermaker's former girlfriends, and he basically cons her into playing for the team. Amanda is someone desperately in need of a father figure (we never see her mother, and one assumes her mother doesn't care about her too much), and she tries to make an emotional connection with Buttermaker. In a very painful scene later on in the film, Buttermaker goes out of his way to tell her he's just using her....but he's doing it not because he's mean, he's doing it because he has enough sense to know that a growing girl like her doesn't need guidance from someone like Morris Buttermaker. It's a surprising moment for a so-called goofy comedy, and it's played to perfection by both Matthau and O' Neal.
Also surprising is how the character of Kelly Leak is handled. Leak is the neighborhood bad boy who also happens to be the neighborhood's best ballplayer. At first he just seems to be nothing more than a punk--but the viewer finds out there's a lot more to him. Leak is played by Jackie Earle Haley, who in the 21st Century became an acclaimed character actor. Haley would eventually wind up being the real star of the Bad News Bears movie franchise.
One actor that never gets any credit for his work in TBNB is Vic Morrow. That's hardly surprising, considering that Morrow had to compete with cussing kids and a drunken Walter Matthau. But the next time you watch TBNB pay attention to Morrow. He plays Roy Turner, coach of the league powerhouse Yankees, the team destined to play the Bears in the League Championship game. I don't know if Morrow did any research for the role, but he is absolutely spot on. His body language, the way he dresses, the way he reacts to things--if you go to any Little League complex, you'll find guys exactly like Morrow's character. I knew coaches exactly like that when I played ball. Morrow was a fine actor who unfortunately is now remembered for his tragic death. His Roy Turner may be considered the "bad guy".....but is he? You may not like his methods, but Turner is not a cliche comic villain. In the 21st Century movie world, Turner would be portrayed as a fool, or an over-the-top jerk, but Morrow makes him a real human being.
That's another thing that makes TBNB great: the movie is believable. Everything in the movie could very well happen in real life. Most of today's "comedies" have more fantastic elements than LORD OF THE RINGS. TBNB is truly funny, without being farfetched. As I've said before, there are so many details the movie gets right about Little League baseball (and America) in the late 1970s: the Little League "den mother" (played by Joyce Van Patten) who actually runs the show; the League meeting at the local Pizza Hut; the excitement the kids have over getting their uniforms; all the pomp & circumstance involving the League's Opening Day; and several other little things that may not seem important, but give TBNB an authentic atmosphere. If you want to know what America was like in the late 1970s, forget about Robert Altman...watch THE BAD NEWS BEARS instead.
The most believable thing about TBNB is the climax, where the Bears (SPOILER ALERT) actually lose. No, this isn't one of those "uplifting" sports movies where the hero clinches victory in slow-motion. The Bears don't win the championship, but Buttermaker and his team of misfits gain some self-respect. I've laid out a number of personal reasons why I love TBNB, but it needs to be said that this is a great film, period. Michael Ritchie's direction is so assured you don't even notice it, and Bill Lancaster's script is perfect. THE BAD NEWS BEARS is more than just a movie about foul-mouthed runts and a drunken coach--it's a honest look at baseball, the game that defines America more than any other. When one watches TBNB again today, it's amazing how understated it really is, especially compared to the ridiculous Will Ferrell-HANGOVER style comedies filling modern theaters. THE BAD NEWS BEARS is one of the best American films of the 1970s.