by Heath Holland
The Bad News Bears is a classic any way you look at it. Everyone’s heard of it, and even if they haven’t seen it, they know it by reputation. The movie tells the story of Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau, sporting one of the greatest names in movie history), a former minor-league baseball player who now cleans pools for a living. Within seconds of meeting him, we’ve read his mail and know exactly who he is. He keeps a cooler of beer on the back seat of his car, chain smokes cigars, and seems to be sleepwalking through his entire life. He’s taken a job coaching a Little League team that makes the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys look like productive, well-functioning members of society. The kids on the team are foul-mouthed, racist, misogynistic, and not very interested in playing baseball. Matthau’s task is to get The Bears into competitive shape to take on rival teams and maybe actually win some games.
I love that this movie is a PG-rated family film that has a cast almost entirely populated by children, and yet it’s totally raw. Adults curse at adults, adults curse at kids, kids curse at kids, and then kids curse at the adults. Jackie Earle Haley flicks a lit cigarette at someone. We hear every racial slur you can imagine, and the movie even drops the F-word…not that one; the OTHER F-word that’s usually said by homophobes. And yet, in traditional seventies fashion, everyone in this film refuses to be offended because being offended doesn’t actually get anyone anywhere. There’s a part in the film where Matthau is sitting in a tree with an African American kid (did I mention that The Bears are multi-cultural and have a female pitcher?) and the kid angrily calls Matthau a honky. Instead of being outraged or flabbergasted, Matthau just raises his eyebrows and quietly deadpans the line “Don’t bring race into this, we’ve got enough problems.” Then he goes on like it never happened. I love this so much.
It strikes me that this movie is over forty years old, but the ugliness on screen looks a lot like the ugliness that’s still around. All the faults and foibles of these characters still apply to us today. All the racial slurs and bickering in this movie? The name calling and the low blows? Yeah, that’s what my Twitter looks like. #EVERYDAY. We are fundamentally-flawed creatures. Instead of pretending that we aren’t, here’s a movie that says “Okay, we’re all messed up and we all have some horrible qualities. But we have some good ones, too.” Our culture today loves to tear people down. We even like to see people get built up so that we can watch them fall farther when they mess up. This movie knows we’re all messed up but says we can do good things anyway. It’s a grimier kind of morality, but one that we can all recognize.
Maybe the reason I connect so deeply with this movie is because it reminds me of my own childhood, which is why I identify it as an early Generation X movie. Generation Xers are traditionally defined as being born between the years from 1961 to 1981, and that makes every single kid in this movie a member of Generation X. The Bad News Bears offers us an entire cast of latchkey kids who are not being raised by helicopter parents and must fend for themselves during the daytime. The reason Buttermaker is coaching these kids is presumably because there were no parents willing to take the job. Each kid is coping in his or her own way: some turn to food, some to work, and some lash out against the system that made them. Though it’s slightly before my time, the world in this movie is the one I grew up in. This is my childhood, with the bad snuggled right up alongside the good. Other kids movies at the time couched reality inside fantasy (like Freaky Friday), but this one is shows it like it was, and those of us who saw this when we were young appreciated that it felt like real life. The Boomers had Rebel Without a Cause and The Graduate. My generation had The Bad News Bears.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!