When did the message stop being, “it’s not whether you win or lose it’s how you play the game” and turn into “everybody’s a winner”? I’ll tell you when. When money started being the primary reason for making kids films at all. They have become so narrowly focused grouped, so formulaic that a hard lesson, like the one learned in the Bad News Bears, would be deemed a “bummer ending” today. And it would probably never get made (even if it did get made into a respectable remake with the Billy Bob).
I forced my daughter to watch The Bad News Bears yesterday against her will. I almost had to tie her down. No, just kidding. Just kidding. I did bribe her, though, telling her she can play her weird online wizard social networking fantasy roleplaying game “all morning.”
I had to explain a few things to her, like why Boilermaker (Walter Matthau) gave the kids beer, and why he was so mean to Tatum O’Neil and why it was okay subject matter to talk about jock straps, and why Jackie Earle Haley could smoke cigarettes as a twelve year-old juvenile deliquent. I surprised myself by how many times I said “It was the SEVENTIES!”
But really, it kinda was. It was before the McMartin preschool thing, before Therapy Nation, before Oprah. Things were different then. When Tatum O’Neil tells Walter Matthau that she knows some 11 year-olds who are on the pill, well, yeah. It was kinda like that. Not all 11 year-olds, of course, but some of them grew up fast, especially in Southern Cal.
Things were very very different. Now, Boilermaker would be a local scandal and never would be allowed to hang around kids.
I write all of this expecting that you, my three readers, will know what the Bad News Bears was. It was a 1976 film about a loser Little League team, the bears, with kids who want to play ball but have no business playing ball. Boilermaker (Buttermaker, aka Matthau) is hired on as coach. But this is a guy who drives around in a beater with a smashed windsheild and a cooler full of beer in the backseat.
Things are looking really bad for the Bears, their only sponsor being a Bail Bonds company. They keep losing and losing. When it comes time for them to give up, Boilermaker decides that they should keep playing because it will be good for them. Deep down, he’s kind of a softy.
So he finds Tatum O’Neil, his ex-stepdaughter who is now, tube top and all, selling “maps for the stars homes” in Beverly Hills. He convinces her to come and be a pitcher because he taught her how to be a whiz at the age of nine. After some hemming and hawing, Amanda (O’Neil) decides to join the team.
I’ll stop here to note that Tatum O’Neil in this role was my dream persona. I wanted to BE HER. I thought she was the coolest of the cool. I was 11 when the film came out so naturally, it would be a big deal that she was also 11. My best friend Clara kind of looked like her — at least people always said she did, and she kind of did. But me – not so much.
The other thing Boilermaker does is get Jackie Earle Haley to play. Or, rather, Amanda gets him to play by losing a bet and having to go to a Rolling Stones concert with him. They’re so young, so cute.
The Bears do well. They do so well that they make it all the way to championships. Turns out that Boilermaker’s rival, the dad of the Yankees Little League team (Vic Morrow), is the kind of guy to whom winning means everything. And Boilermaker threatens to become that guy. When he finally figures out that it’s not about winning, but about PLAYING, the Bears do their best. Every last losing one of them plays the game. They PLAY THE GAME. They drop the ball, they miss good hits. It’s a disaster. But, you know what? It’s life.