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Appreciation: The Bad News Bears

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Appreciation: <em>The Bad News Bears</em>

“All baseball pictures are about redemption of some sort” - Odienator

During these hot days of summer, a man will look for relief in baseball and beer, and no movie delivers baseball and beer better than The Bad News Bears. That’s the real beer of director Michael Ritchie’s 1976 original I’m talking about, not the nonalcoholic equivalent served up in last year’s remake. Bears is one of the finest American films of the 70s, and watching the remake only adds to my appreciation of its glory. Richard Linklater’s version follows the first one closely, yet still manages to go wrong at every turn—it even muffs some baseball fundamentals, like how to field a grounder down on one knee. The original never commits such errors. It is funny, tight and triumphant, and it clocks in at a brisk 102 minutes. Here then are nine reasons—enough to field a team—that make The Bad News Bears endlessly watchable 30 years later. Play ball:

1. Walter Matthau - Matthau gives one of his finest performances as Coach Morris Buttermaker, the boozy ex-minor league pitcher who’s had too many losses in life. He says he once struck out Ted Williams, “...1947, Vero Beach, Florida… spring training, around March 15.” But now Buttermaker could use a good win, and when the win comes tantalizingly close, he quickly degenerates into a man no better than his nemesis, Roy Turner (Vic Morrow), coach of the Yankees. Buttermaker’s realization that he’s gone too far is a wonderful moment of dugout drama; the camera lingers on the bloodshot eyes set in Matthau’s bulldog face, as the reality of his actions sinks in. It is a “there and back again” moment, and in this remarkably subtle movie it serves as a major character arc.

Billy Bob Thornton’s coach, on the other hand, is more of a bad boy than a loser. He’s a sexy ladies man who dresses… well, like Billy Bob Thornton out for a hip night in Hollywood. Linklater’s Bears makes Buttermaker an ex-major league who now works as an exterminator. I don’t know why—extermination is an active job that makes decent money. The 70s Buttermaker was a pool cleaner, a low rent job you can get drunk and still muddle through. Plus, Matthau’s a less affected curmudgeon; who else could sell a line like, “Now get back to the stands before I shave off half your mustache and shove it up your left nostril”?

2. Michael Ritchie - Ritchie is one of those directors I keep in my private collection of favorites—an unsung master whose inventive but appropriate camera angles and invisible editing are evident even in crap like The Island. Back in 1976, he was coming off a string of successes—Downhill Racer, Prime Cut, and The Candidate. He was the kind of director that creates a reality and then positions himself around that reality and transforms it into art. His easygoing subtlety makes Linklater, a subtle director himself, look clumsy. It takes Linklater three or four shots to achieve effects that Ritchie—working with cinematographer John A. Alonzo and regular editor Richard A. Harris—manages in one laconic take. On top of that, Ritchie’s film is a definitive sketch of California in the 70’s, from its opening crane shot of sprinklers watering a baseball diamond to its parting long shot of our underdogs celebrating their championship loss with beer on a field flanked by an American flag.

3. Tatum O’Neal - If I didn’t realize that I had a crush on O’Neal when I was seven, I should have. Now, watching her 30 years later my affection is as strong as ever. Amanda Whurlitzer is the perfect tomboy—watch her throw curveballs from the mound—and a total doll, too. Anxious to leave her tomboy days behind and jump into womanhood, Amanda wears espadrilles and runs her own business—selling star maps to tourists. The remake’s Amanda is a mushy nonentity; she sells clothes with other people. Ritchie’s Amanda had spunk back when the nation’s skyrocketing divorce rate was fresh news. Linklater’s remake compounds this offense by omitting touches that deepened the character. Gone is that lovely shot following Amanda leaving the dugout after Buttermaker throws beer on her, telling her that if he wanted her company he would’ve looked her up, he “wouldn’t have waited two goddamn years.” She walks across the field and the camera swirls around to catch her face in closeup, Bizet’s beautiful music playing, her warm tears shining; it’s a defining moment, merging realism and lyrical grace.

4. Jackie Earle Haley - Before he was Breaking Away and Losing It, Haley was bad news in the best way. As live-wire bad boy Kelly Leak, the actor is funny, sensitive, and tough as hell, sporting a premature wisdom that seems to have been beaten into him. He’s a total badass who catches Amanda’s fastball with his bare hand. The image of Kelly riding his motorcycle along a fence on opening day while chatting up a teenage girl in a white T-shirt and impossibly short cutoffs encapsulates most of my nostalgia for the 70’s. In Linklater’s version, Leak—played by Jeffrey Davies—is a mushy nonentity who doesn’t even smoke or ride a Harley; if the filmmakers were trying to go the teen idol route, they failed; their Leak wouldn’t earn a tiny photo in the back pages of Tigerbeat. Haley’s incarnation of Leak has a layered charisma; the actor is so astute that he can convey Kelly’s shattered vulnerability, and the tough facade that hides it, with a single look. One wonders what his home life must have been like, or if he even had one. “I got a Harley-Davidson,” he says, then adds hopefully, “does that turn you on? Harley-Davidson?”

5. The Kids - Seldom have kids been so natural on screen. They talk over each other, curse and fight, yet they still seem like kids, not miniature adults. Ritchie renders all his characters in quick, memorable strokes. There is Engelberg the fat catcher who bites into his candy bar for sustenance (“Couldn’t you have at least unwrapped it first?”); Ogilvie the statistician who, with the possible exception of Lupus, is the worst player in the league; Rudi Stein, the geeky wannabe pitcher on puberty’s cusp; Tanner Boyle, the preternaturally wiry scrapper whose cause is usually righteous (Tanner in the remake looks like an overstuffed Hanson); and Timmy Lupus, whose timidity and reluctance to get off the bench is heartwrenching, which makes his spectacular catch of a fly ball feel triumphant. (In the remake, Timmy doesn’t catch the fly ; an unconvincing CGI ball bounces out of his glove, to be caught by an additional character I refuse to mention.) Then there’s Miguel Agilar, whose diminutive stature translates into a nonexistent strike zone, and Ahmad Abdul-Rahim, the lone black player who is so hard on himself after the Bear’s first pummeling that he strips down to his underwear and climbs a tree. There’s even one kid actor who is the grandson of Gummo Marx. Can you guess which one? (I’ll give you a hint: he has curly blonde hair and hardly speaks.) In the remake, nearly every casting decision rings untrue, and as an ensemble, their energy could not be more awkward. Linklater’s facility for drawing out naturalistic performances is usually impressive, though this time he may have pushed too hard. Gary Cavagnaro, who played the original Engelberg, said in an interview that, “Everyone talks about the way we were able to ’act’. The reality was, we were a bunch of kids who were told ’pretend that your parents are not there and act like you would normally under that circumstance’. We were all just being ourselves.”

6. Vic Morrow - Testosterone-fueled Coach Roy Turner of the Yankees is a fine antagonist for Buttermaker. He is the Great Santini of coaches, but while Morrow’s performance is often scary, it’s never less than human.Though he’s an asshole, he’s more of an antagonist than a villain. Turner doesn’t want to talk about winning during a pep talk, but about losing, and how you have to live with it for the rest of your life. When he walks out to the mound and slaps his son down for trying to bean a batter, his anger flares at realization that anyone dared defy his authority; but there’s also genuine concern about the injury that might have happened. The remake re-conceives Turner as a comic weasel; luckily, Greg Kinnear makes the best of a bad situation and ends up coming off better than his costars.

7. Bill Lancaster - Burt Lancaster’s son got two screenplays produced—this one and John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing. That’s only two times at the plate, but he batted a thousand. It’s been said that Lancaster based Buttermaker on his father and Amanda on himself. I don’t know about that, but his script catches the tension between adults, who often try to live their unfulfilled aspirations through their children, and the kids who just want to play ball. Lancaster doesn’t go for any emotional home runs, just a line drive up the middle. Only two characters verge on caricature, Cleveland and Councilman Whitewood, but all in all, they don’t seem much more cartoony than some real people I know. Linklater gave Lancaster a screen credit for his original story, but unfortunately, credited screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa needlessly mangle many of his finer accomplishments. They cherry-pick a brief line about class-action lawsuits and embellish the scene with many more of the same; they alter good scenes with changes that miss the entire point—such switching an after-game celebration from a Pizza Hut to a German restaurant; they even try to explain the victory-in-defeat ending as if the first movie was over our heads. And in one interview, the writers freely admitted to knowing almost nothing about baseball; talk about a fact worth keeping to yourself.

8. Jerry Fielding - Rewatching Bears, I was delighted to learn that Jerry Fielding was responsible for the inspired raid on George Bizet’s opera Carmen that’s used for the score. While scoring several of Sam Peckinpah’s best pictures—The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner—Fielding took a full-blown orchestra and made it sound subdued and ironic; he also scored a lot of television, including some of the most famous episodes of Star Trek (including the surreal western riff “Spectre of the Gun”). His excavation of Carmen provides each ballgame with its own dynamic of humor, suspense, and drama, and best of all, he knows when to keep silent; his work here might qualify as the best use of classical music in a Hollywood movie since 2001. The remake excises most of Fielding’s choices, and what it keeps it misuses.

9. It’s so quintessentially American - When I saw The Bad News Bears for the first time, I was younger than the kids who played the Bears. Those kids had a special allure because I lived in Japan and I wanted to know what was happening in America. A couple years later I moved to California and played little league ball myself, and everything was just as it was portrayed—the team chants, the Pizza Hut parties, the suicide soft drinks. It’s such an American story, and the movie captures so well that peculiar American attitude—an ingrained identification with the underdog that is patriotic and “fuck you” at the same time. It tapped a spirit that flowed on through National Lampoon’s Animal House and Bill Murray’s American Mutt speech from Stripes. For a truly American experience, find a copy of The Bad News Bears this summer and watch it. It will deliver on moms and baseball. The only thing missing will be the apple pie, but Pizza Hut works just as well.