by Gerald Peary
Cut, no. 14, 1977, p. 35
It’s the Jewish-American Dream gone helter-skelter. After forty years of escaping the desert, there is Wandering Walter Matthau, a wrinkled and bulbous potato, slowly burning in the Southern California sun. He’s back in arid exile, in Ronald Reagan country, cleaning out swimming pools for the blonde and beautiful newly rich. His own eyelids barely crack open in the heat and boredom, his eyes stare unfeelingly, his mouth drones bad thoughts and swigs beer. If W.C. Fields had a secretly Semitic cousin, this is he.
In his heyday this boozy mess of a man, Buttermaker alias Boilermaker, was supposed to have been a ballplayer, though never a great ballplayer—no Sandy Koufax, with a kosher left curve and marriage to Richard Widmark’s daughter, no Hank Greenberg, fifty-eight home runs in a single season and bonafide Hall of Fame. Instead, Buttermaker languished in the minor leagues, growing grizzled and over the hill, uttering wry acerbic comments from his proper place on the bench.
Is there a chance for a dry dugout comic such as this, away from employ in the Catskills? Seriously, ladies and gentlemen, Little League builds sound character, even in those too old and gone to play. Inexplicably, Buttermaker finds himself signed on as manager of a pickup, falldown team of tiny tots, runts of the Litter League, as motley and hapless a bunch as ever took the field—and the very mirror image of Buttermaker’s own cracked, convulsed melting pot soul. The fat kid is obviously the catcher, but everyone else is a utility right fielder. It’s the seventeenth team in a sixteen-team league. The opponents are endowed with correct names, like the Yankees and Athletics. But this expansion team is labeled with the terribly unbaseball-like appellative of The Bears.
The Michael Ritchie movie, however, is called potently THE BAD NEWS BEARS. And how Matthau turns his vagabond band into a team of little league (temporary) winners, with pride in themselves and guts, is the predictable story—as is the concomitant “comeback” of Buttermaker. The movie is all so easy to do and yet so deeply appreciated by audiences thirsting for a bring-the-whole-family evening in this 1970’s famine of oldtime bijou entertainment.
Not that THE BAD NEWS BEARS is a throwback to late Disney studio treacle. Ritchie’s picture is a children’s version of THE LONGEST YARD (in places, such as the ritualized recruitment of the “bad” element to the team, a direct steal from the 1974 super hit). And it includes for youngsters heaps of dirty LONGEST YARD language and the swift kicks to the balls. Still scriptwriter Bill Lancaster (son of actor Burt) avoids the forced and stale bathroom jokes, the “Bullshit” at every turn, which plagues the Mel Brooks movies. He writes dialogue of accurate and natural schoolyard swearing. That’s what the kids really love: to have their secret language exposed, to show their naive parents how “good” children really talk:
What children also love (and the only way to see this movie is surrounded by a noisy crowd of neighborhood rowdies—avoid art houses) is that the Bears are such incorrigibles and total foul balls—Jerry Lewis, Lou Costello, the Three Stooges at every base, without the bothersome (adult world) intrusion of Dean Martin and Bud Abbott. They are all smartasses. They all talk back. Some of them pick their noses. Some flip their middle fingers with abandon. But none of them can catch or hit a baseball.
To see the Bears “come through” is a communal thrill. It’s the championship game. When Alfred Lutter, the bespectacled quiz kid intellectual from ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE, walks on four pitches, he and we beam happily. When diminutive, tomato-cheeked Jose, a three foot papoose, also walks, we begin to hope for victory. And then Lupes, a dwarfish, blonde goy nightmare, a blanket head with boogers swimming in his nostrils, races back, back, back in the outfield and makes a magnificent over-the-fence catch, he blinks in unbelieving shock—actor and character, illusion and reality, swirl together. His teammates applaud wildly and so do we. It’s a silly moment yet almost moves us to quick tears. For those comparing baseball movie to baseball movie, the effect is achieved without need of the slow motion balletic orchestration of “the last catch” by Robert DeNiro’s cancer-ridden catcher in John Hancock’s BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY.
Obviously this material is delicate in its sentiments; a rain cloud of bleeding-heart liberalism hovers about, threatening to dilute the anarchic joy. For a while, all goes well. When Amanda (Tatum O'Neal) joins the team as a fierce strike-out pitcher. Bill Lancaster avoids the scenario preachments about the need for equal opportunity in Little League. To watch Tatum toss that hardball, to see how she brings solidarity and leadership and purpose to the team is proof enough that little girls must play alongside little boys in our neighborhood leagues. And that the Bears include blacks and chicanos on their roster, while the enemy teams are notably all-WASP and all-male, makes the point. In fact, director Michael Ritchie has given us for heroes and heroines the perfect microcosm of the disenfranchised: poor blacks and third world, a female, several upstart working class white kids, and some alienated upper middle class intellectuals—that is the Bears’ opening lineup for the revolution!
Unfortunately, the urge to switch from upsurge to liberal message gets too strong. The pitcher for the Athletics disobeys orders from the coach, his father (Vic Morrow), so papa comes out on the field and slaps his kid. THE BAD NEWS BEARS takes a seventh inning stretch while the boy allows Bear runs to score unheeded, tosses the now defiled baseball at his father’s feet, and walks off the field with his mother’s arm around his shoulder.
The moral: adults ruin children’s fun by insisting that winning is everything. The idea is a correct one, but the setup is damned contrived. Besides, the scene is sexist—Father is macho, warlike, but Mother is peaceful, non-competitive, non-violent, a regular Mary. Besides, the scene is a lie. Screwed up values or not, no young boy has ever allowed his mother to place her arm around him before his teammates in the history of Little League. Check the record books.
Luckily THE BAD NEWS BEARS recovers its momentum and catchy spirit for the finale. To explain exactly what happens is unfair to those who haven't seen it. Suffice it to say, the Bears lose AND win, and win big. Thumbing their nose at good sportsmanship and WASP manners, these heterogeneous little kids dance around the field, pouring beer on their heads as if they had just swept four in a row at Yankee Stadium.
Like the eruption of the schoolchildren in Jean Vigo’s immortal 1930 ZERO DE CONDUITE, here is a spontaneous dance of life. It is anarchy under the stolid American flag—an ironic patriotic presence which dominates Michael Ritchie’s parting shot. It is almost enough to make an old stone face like Walter Matthau let slip a creaky smile and mutter “Mazel Tov.”