Thursday, June 11, 2015

Film Friday: The Bad New Bears (1976)

One of my favorite films of the 1970’s is The Bad New Bears. The Bad New Bears more than any other film encapsulates the free spirit of what it was like to be a kid in the 1970’s. It’s also hilarious!


The Bad New Bears is the story of an odd-ball youth baseball team that rises up to challenge the perfect team. The story begins when a city councilman wins his lawsuit against the Southern California Little League challenging the exclusion of the least athletically skilled children. To settle the suit, the League allows the councilman to form another team, the Bears, for these less than gifted kids and they will get to play.

Naturally, the team is a mess. Their pitcher is near-sighted. Their catcher is the immobile fat kid. They have two Mexican kids who can’t speak English. Their shortstop is a small kid who is prone to violence against bigger kids. They even have a kid, Lupus, who is so withdrawn that it seems to be a mental condition; he's afraid to swing the bat. One player describes the team as “a bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies and a booger-eating moron.” Even worse, the coach who has been chosen to lead this team of misfits is former minor-league ball player and current alcoholic Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau).
Buttermaker is a bitter old man who works as a pool cleaner and has no sense at all how to deal with children. He is politically incorrect and liberally insults the kids. He drives the entire team around in his beater convertible with the top down and without seatbelts. He drinks beer as he drives and, at one point, he even lets the kids drink his beer. He even gets a bail bonds company to sponsor the team.

The team’s first game is a disaster and they are forced to forfeit after a humiliating beating. After this, Buttermaker decides to add some talent to the roster. Specifically, he finds Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), the eleven year old daughter of one of his former girlfriends, who is a pitching savant. She refuses at first because she wants to torture Buttermaker a bit, but eventually she agrees. He also adds Kelly, a motorcycle-riding, smoking troublemaker. Kelly can run rings around the rest of the team and Buttermaker wants him to do so. Unfortunately, this creates ill will and Buttermaker must learn to trust the kids to rise to the occasion rather than relying on Kelly. Naturally, the Bears begin to get better bit by bit and eventually they end up playing the evil Yankees and their even more evil coach (Vic Morrow) for the little league pennant.
What Makes This Movie So Great

This is a fantastic movie on many levels. First, Matthau puts in another excellent performance. He truly is an amazing actor at presenting unlikable characters and making them sympathetic. I would dare say that he is vastly underrated as an actor. The film is also very well written and delivers a great many surprising moments, something you really don’t expect from a sports film. Indeed, while this film is a formula sports film in many ways, it never feels like it because it diverges from the formula more than enough to feel like a genuine story.
It is heartwarming too, but without being saccharine as so many other heartwarming films are. These kids come to respect each other and with that comes a sense of camaraderie. They aren’t forced to present a fake love for each other as other similar films require. Indeed, they keep right on insulting each other right up through the end. And the comedic timing is excellent, especially as so many of the best lines are spoken by child actors. Modern kids films tend to be slicker than this one, but they never feel as real.

Further, this film is an amazing time capsule of a film. The 1970’s were a high-water mark for great times to grow up. By the 1980’s, kids became latchkey kids as divorce soared and yuppie parents had only single children and even then traded their time with them for that second BMW. This was also the beginning of the obsession with safety and childproofing childhood. The 1990’s were beset with the peak of hateful feminism and fringe religious nuttery. Little girls either became little boys or submissive sister-wives and boys were told to play with Barbie. At the same time, racial tensions and de facto segregation were stoked by things like the OJ trial. Anyone raised in the 2000’s grew up paranoid of terrorism. The 1970’s had none of that. We grew up eating sugared cereal, riding bikes without helmets, telling dirty and racist/sexist jokes with our minority friends, driving in convertibles without seatbelts and rocking out to a musical and cinematic golden age. This film captures that spirit like a time capsule. In fact, I can’t think of a film that better presents an era than this one.
Indeed, look at how little of what happens in this film would be acceptable today. An entire baseball team rides around in Buttermaker’s broken down convertible without seatbelts. Today, that would be a crime, but our pee wee football did that and no one complained. Buttermaker lets the kids drink beer. That happened to. No helmets on bikes? We didn't even own helmets! A twelve year old with cigarettes? The victory parties are held at Pizza Hut? They tell racial jokes and say cutting, nasty things to each other? Yeah... we did all of that, and not only did we live to talk about it, but we got along and we had a great time.

Notice what’s missing too. There are no “hockey dads” who are ready to shoot each other dead over playing time. The kids throw punches without the cops being called. Nobody’s taking growth hormones or steroids. No one is whining about safety or peanut allergies or the fairness of keeping score. The “villain” is an opposing coach who is pushing his own son too hard... not a sniveling businessman trying to destroy the environment by sabotaging the Bears somehow. This film presents a time when people enjoyed life without worrying about the most hypersensitive prick and/or prickette in the room.
Even more importantly, there is on more thing missing: cynicism. Let me repeat that... there is a total lack of cynicism. This film revels in the joys these kids get when they realize that they can succeed if they try hard enough as a team. That makes this such a fun and happy film. Kids sports films today exist largely to send messages. Those messages are cynical stories declaring that girls are just as good as boys athletically or even more cynical stories about blacks and whites coming together in total harmony if the white racists just learn to do a little hip hop (Remember the Titans... cough cough). They are stories that push trendy theories about how children must act in a supposedly perfect world and which warn everyone to be terrified of causing offense. Bears wasn’t selling any of that crap. What Bears told us was that these losers didn’t have to be losers if they could learn to trust and respect each other. It didn’t ask any more of them. They didn’t have to solve the world’s problems or save the environment or find a way for people of all colors, genders and religions (except Islam) to coexist. They just had to learn to work together to play baseball, that’s it. And because of that, this feels like a fun and happy and genuine story rather than a political message acted out in a motion picture.

Finally, perhaps the most important thing this film has going for it is that it’s just a fun film. So many films today, especially formula films like Bears, just aren’t very fun. In fact, check the remake which is full of cruelty and spite, but entirely devoid of fun.


Rustbelt said...

OT: Christopher Lee has passed away at the age of 93.


Kenn Christenson said...

The other thing that has struck me about this film is the natural lighting - very little "fill." Shadows are allowed to go dark - unlike the "overlit" sequel. The lighting adds a documentary sense to the film. There are also lots of hand-held shots - again, adding to the realism. Having grown up in the '70's (and playing little league) this film nails that period - as you said, the high-water mark for kids growing up.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I saw that. RIP

AndrewPrice said...

Kenn, Great point! Between the natural lighting, the handheld shots and the natural distances the cameraman uses, it all feels very "real"... like you are there rather than just watching a movie.

I love how this film nails that period. It can make you very nostalgic for that period. It was great to grow up without having to worry about things like offending everyone and terrorism. :D

Anonymous said...

Great review. Your description of the 70's vs. the 80's seems spot on to me (I was born in 72). I read a similar article a while ago about The Rockford Files - another show that portrays the 70's as a time when individuals could actually do what they want without fear that the local busybody or half-brained government bureaucrat will do their best to spoil your fun and toss you in jail. Both The Bad News Bears and Rockford Files show California right before everything in the US began to be franchised and standardized. Now, from California to Missouri to Maine, everything looks the same - the same restaurants, same gas stations, same strip malls, and so on and so forth. The 70's pre-dated that homogenization, but just barely. The 70's, as rotten as they were politically and economically, wasn't a bad time to grow up.

(I must say that I have no idea why you characterize the the 90's as a time of "fringe religious nuttery" and "sister-wives." I understand waco was a 90's thing, but that sort of thing didn't seem to happen any more frequently in the 90's than any other decade. And the 90's ain't got nothing on the "hateful feminism" of today).

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Anon.

Agreed on the franchising and homogenization. It's depressing to drive across country these days and see that every single city looks the same, except for downtown, and that they have all become a sea of the identical strip malls.

In terms of feminism, modern feminism is angrier, stupider and more hateful, but it is also without influence. In the 1990s, feminists controlled Hollywood, the newsrooms, Madison Avenue, the publishing world, college education and K-12 education. They even had a lot of sway with the government and with NGOs. Basically, every corner of the culture kowtowed to them and their causes. Today, all of that is gone. All they have left is the most liberal colleges (which is now imploding because of the false rape allegations) and a smattering of holdover female journalists. Every other corner of the culture has basically abandoned them.

What's more, in the 1990s, people (especially women) were afraid to say they weren't feminists. Today, few have that fear and most people openly express values that fly in the face of feminism. The openness of so many women to embrace Fifty Shades of Grey being a prime example of how much views have shifted. That never would have happened in the 1990s... not that movie could even have been made at the time.

On the religious nuttery, I say that because that is what the conservative world was offering as the alternative. The women the conservative world was holding up as a counter to the feminists were the types who went on television to explain why they were "submissive to their husbands" and how that was the natural state of things. That's why Ann Coulter was such a breath of fresh air when she finally became nationally known because she was more like a normal woman.

That was also the height/end of the televangelist, the Promise Keeper movement was roaming stadiums everywhere, and the Religious Right was moving into politics in response to Bill Clinton. Groups like Focus on the Family started their anti-gay war in Colorado in the 1990s, which would destroy the GOP. The Creationist movement was trying to impose their dogma on public schools (and succeeding in a handful of states). And religious-based home schooling was becoming a thing.

None of that was on the radar in the 1970's, except for Billy Graham. In the 1980's you had some of it in the form of televangelists, Operation Rescue, and the effective birth of the Religious Right with the prayer in schools issue, but none of that really had much of an effect on the public. The 1990's was when it became prominent.

Kit said...

"Anyone raised in the 2000’s grew up paranoid of terrorism."
And school shootings. Pointing a toy gun at someone? THERAPY STAT! THAT KID MIGHT GUN DOWN EVERYONE!

Oh, and my Friday's Thoughts is up:

ScottDS said...

Not only would this movie never be made today, but they say even movies we enjoyed in the 90s like The Sandlot would never be made today. Why? For starters, we live in a world where parents get arrested for letting their kids play alone in the park. Every kid has a cell phone so no one is ever really "independent." And kids' lives are monitored and scheduled to within an inch of their lives.

...which would destroy the GOP.

They still seem to be around. They're a thorn in that Obama kid's side. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That is the problem these days. In the 1970s, people didn't react that way. In the 1970s, people wrote it off as a tragedy and let life go on as before. It wasn't until the 1980s and 1990s that they decided we should shield everyone from everything.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I meant the Colorado GOP. They went from the majority in a conservative state to permanent minorities.

On making the film today, the problem is really the whole change in mentality. Even if you wanted to make this movie, people would scream about you "giving people bad ideas!!! Oooooh, think of the children! Someone might copy this and think it was all right to give kids beer!!!" Pathetic.

Kit said...


"On making the film today, the problem is really the whole change in mentality. Even if you wanted to make this movie, people would scream about you "giving people bad ideas!!! Oooooh, think of the children! Someone might copy this and think it was all right to give kids beer!!!" Pathetic."

Animaniacs was probably the last children's show that actively flipped the bird at the "Think of the Children" crowd. Heck, in the opening theme they bragged about how they "crack up all the censors."

Especially with the "Wheel of Morality" segment, which "adds boring educational value to what would otherwise be an almost entirely entertaining program."

"Early to rise and early to bed makes and man healthy but socially dead."

I don't think you could do that today.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I doubt you could... not in a show for kids. And it's worse in the whiny old UK, where apparently the TV authorities get flooded after every television program with complaints about the things that offended the viewers. It's time to start ignoring those losers again.

... the whiners, not the UK.

Kit said...

"It's time to start ignoring those losers again."

Yep. They are killing comedy.

AndrewPrice said...

Yes, they are. And they are generally making life less pleasant and interesting.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Walter Mathau is definitely one of the most underrated actors of all time. Plus, he was one of those rare actors who could literaaly pull off anything, from comedy to gritty cop, drama and musicals, and Broadway plays.
He had a rough life, surviviving three heart attacks, the first one in 1966.
Sadly, he was also a compulsive gambler, and lost more than five million dollars.

Great review, Andrew. I concur, there's little chance a film like The Bad News Bears would get the green light today.
Look at how many pansies freaked out over Tropic Thunder for not being PC.

It's astonishing to me, having grown up in the 60's and 70's to know that the vast majority of parents from back then would be arrested for child abuse today for not constantly watching their kids 24/7/365, and for letting their kids be kids and use their imaginations to play cops n' robbers.

It's absurd that so many kids nowadays are on leashes and taught to fear everything. Many colleges even try to indoctrinate young adults and convince them they need trigger warnings to protect them from words and language that isn't approved by blooming idiots.

It's so absurd I need a snigger warning everytime some retard dreams up new trigger word or phrase to be terrified of. Seriously, you guys!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

This would be a good time for enterprising comedians to make fun of all this PC crap. Some already do, but it would be nice to see more comedians pushing back against the thought and speech gestapos.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben!

It is sad to me how much times have changed, and I'm glad I grew up in that era where I had actual freedom. :)

Anonymous said...

I don't think most kids today worry about terrorism, it's just not part of their daily experience. I was a kid in the 60's when we had the "Duck and Cover" drills in school once a month, and the local Air Raid sirens went off about 10 am on the last Friday of every month. We actually grew up with a fear of Nuclear attack by the godless Russian Commies.

Koshcat said...

Great movie and just watched it again with my kids. It's a little rougher than I remembered it but I haven't seen the kids getting into the beer yet.

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