The Bad News Bears (1976) is the second film Polly Platt designed after several years of working solely with Peter Bogdanovich. The film features Walter Matthau as Buttermaker, the coach of a ragtag bunch of foul-mouthed kids playing little league baseball in a summer league that doesn’t want them. Buttermaker once nearly made it to the big leagues (he struck out Ted Williams in the minors “a couple times”), and having missed out he now cleans swimming pools for a living. He’s sullen, cynical, and alcoholic; never seen without a can of beer in hand – even in the dugout – he often tops his cans off with a pull of whiskey.
The kids are mostly colorful individuals but awful players. The team gets shellacked in its early outings, so Buttermaker pulls in a couple of ringers in formidable pitcher Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) and top-notch hitter and fielder Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley).
The Bad News Bears was directed by Michael Ritchie, one of those unsung filmmakers of the 1970s who has a few classics to his name (in addition to Bears, there is Downhill Racer from ’69 and The Candidate from ’72). Ritchie continued working steadily through the late ‘90s, with mostly diminishing returns, but he did direct the Fletch films, and some of his later work is prime for critical re-evaluation. While Ritchie trafficked in a few, sometimes overlapping genres – sports films, rom-coms, horror – he never developed what the auteurists deemed an “individual style,” so he’s been mainly overlooked as an important filmmaker of the 1970s.
But Bears is a truly great film. It manages to be both cynical and heartwarming, uplifting and dreary, a kids’ film that’s highly adult. In short, it captures much of the essence of sports, and is rightly considered one of the best films about baseball ever made. Continue reading