“The Bad News Bears” (1976) dir. Michael Ritchie, scr. Bill Lancaster

It’s Little League season and what better time than to reexamine “The Bad News Bears.” I could be wrong, but I believe “Bears” is the first film of the genre where a group of young misfits and their flawed coach are thrown together on a sports team, and against all odds, achieve success and self-esteem. However, given the rather slipshod and crappy nature of most of the films in this genre since the release of “Bears” in 1976, it’s easy to discount what a remarkable … and frequently dark … film it truly is.

At the time “Bears” came out, it was controversial because the kids in the film casually use profanity. However, nowadays, the profanities seem positively “nuclear,” especially given the racial slurs uttered by the short and misanthropic Tanner Boyle, who at one point is noted for taking on the entire 7th grade in a fight. If you want a clear indication of how times have changed, just watch the trailer located above. Keep in mind, this is merely the TRAILER … for a PG-rated film! … and the racial slurs are just right out there like cheese on a burger. The words in the trailer alone would result in lawsuits these days. Back then, it was used as a “selling point.” The times have indeed changed. As a result, if you’re particularly sensitive about such things or are watching this work, do not watch this link.

Now that we’ve all acknowledged the elephant turd in the room, let’s move on and really examine what makes this film remarkable. First of all, “Bears” contains one of Walter Matthau’s greatest performances, playing the alcoholic, misanthropic former minor-league player Morris Buttermaker. Buttermaker is hired to coach the Bears, a team created as the result of a lawsuit because badly-skilled players were excluded from playing in a particular league. Matthau’s character may have a mild redemptive arc towards the end of the film, but he’s a crafty enough actor not to let it seem that obvious. In other words, you don’t get the sense Buttermaker becomes THAT much of a better person at the end, meaning he’ll probably continue to drink heavily and be a major SOB.

Sadly, you don’t get the sense Buttermaker will be the father figure to Tatum O’Neal’s character Amanda Whurlizer that she desperately needs.  Amanda is the daughter of one of Matthau’s former girlfriends and when they were together, Buttermaker trained her to be an amazing pitcher.  Buttermaker puts her on the team as a “ringer” to help the Bears start achieving wins.  Amanda has a tough, wise-ass exterior, but it’s obvious that it’s just a mask for a girl who wants a father.  During one heartbreaking scene (located at the clip below), Buttermaker spurns Amanda’s attempts to get closer to him.  In a Hollywood film of today, you expect him to come around at the end of the film.  But alas… it’s never clear what role Buttermaker will pay in her life at the end.

Also remarkable is the performance by Vic Morrow as the coach of the Bears’ chief rivals, the Yankees. Morrow positively nails the hyper-competitive type of person who lives vicariously through the achievements of their children, in this case, Morrow’s son, the pitcher. There’s a particularly disturbing scene where Morrow orders his son to walk a Bears player, because the player is the one hitter his son cannot overcome. His son wants to actually try and intentionally throws a beanball, which almost strikes the Bears player in the head. Morrow slaps his son and Morrow’s son retaliates by pitching an intentionally easy ball, catching it, and holding onto it while the Bears player scores a home run, even while his teammates tackle him to retrieve the ball. After the run is scored, Morrow’s son gets up, silently drops the ball at his father’s feet, and walks off the field. An immensely dark and powerful scene in a film that’s otherwise billed as a “comedy.”

“Bears” is not only THE best film of that disreputable “kids and sports” genre, but one of the best sports films ever made, period … even with the casual and unfortunate racial slurs mentioned earlier.

On a personal note, this was the first PG-rated film I ever saw.  My mom took my brother and me to see it the weekend it came out and after the first 5 minutes, I swear I saw my mom bury her head in her hands.  The beginning of many such moments …

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