The Daily Stream: The Bad News Bears Is Simultaneously Vulgar And Sweet

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "The Bad News Bears" (1976)

Where You Can Stream It: Amazon Prime

The Pitch: Foul-mouthed kids? Check. Enormous amounts of heart? Check. Walther Matthau as a sloppy drunk? Check. "The Bad News Bears" is not just an all-timer comedy, it's also an all-timer sports film that walked so "Ted Lasso" could run.

Why It's Essential Viewing

Let's run with this "Ted Lasso" comparison for a minute, shall we? It might be a liiiiittle bit of a stretch, but hear me out. Both stories are about a guy coming in to coach a team he's ill-equipped to handle and while Buttermaker and Lasso are complete opposites as people (one a grouchy drunk, the other an eternal optimist) their coaching style isn't all that different in that they both end up caring more about bringing the best out of their players than winning their games. Also, both creative endeavors are ultimately wholesome entertainment filled with naughty words.

It's not a 1:1 comparison, but there's no question in my mind that the "Ted Lasso" team took copious notes from "The Bad News Bears" while developing their series.

If you've never had the pleasure of seeing "The Bad News Bears," either the original or the perfectly fine 2005 remake starring Billy Bob Thornton and directed by Richard Linklater, let me fill you in on the plot. Walter Matthau plays Buttermaker, an ex-Minor League coach at rock bottom who grudgingly takes a little league coaching job with the most ragtag batch of kids imaginable. These are the rejects that no other team wanted. You know, the kids that would be picked last when the 6th grade PE teacher divides up the class into Dodgeball teams.

That makes the Bears underdogs, though, and who doesn't love to cheer for a scrappy underdog? Even grumpy ol' Buttermaker, who starts the gig solely to collect a check, gets invested in these kids and pushes them to ignore the haters, believe in themselves and work as a team. A clumsy, foul-mouthed, scrappy team, but a team nonetheless.

A Thoroughly '70s Film

Buttermaker brings in the tween daughter of an ex-flame, a girl he's been training to pitch since she was nine, in a move that further makes the Bears a joke in the eyes of the rest of the teams. A girl! Playing little league!

Of course, it turns out Amanda is the best pitcher in the league and when a hell-raising, dirt bike-riding delinquent (a young Jackie Earle Haley) also signs up it's just the right amount of juice to put the Bears in contention for the big trophy.

Tatum O'Neal, hot off her Oscar-winning debut in "Paper Moon," plays the pitching superstar and is a perfect match for Matthau's Buttermaker. Both have a tough exterior that, once cracked, reveals a real beating heart beneath.

Revisiting this movie in the year 2021 it's easy to see it as a perfect product of its time: a family comedy that is about a drunk a**hole who chucks equipment at preteens while smoking a cigar and screaming obscenities. This movie could not have been made in the 1960s. The '70s marked a change in the Hollywood system and the audience's appetites for entertainment. It was okay to make an edgy kids movie that also has a downer ending. Not only okay, but mainstream!

1976 saw both "The Bad News Bears" and "Rocky" hit screens. Both were huge successes and set the template for sports movies going forward. In fact, both movies ultimately being about the journey rather than the trophy established a new normal in the sports film subgenre. We know going into these kinds of movies now that it's not a guarantee that you're going to get a happy ending, or at least a happy ending the way you expect.

The Value of a 'Downer' Ending

The bad sportsmanship at the end of "The Bad News Bears" is a defiant "F*** you," not to the sport or even the kids on the other team, but to the bigoted adults who are doing their damndest to wring all the fun out of the sport and put too much pressure on the "successful" kids playing the sport.

Sports movies and horror movies are two genres where the audience goes in expecting an unhappy ending. Most of the time that's not how it turns out, but because of movies like "The Bad News Bears" and "Rocky," you're not wholly sure if the team you're watching onscreen will win the big game. That gives every movie in this genre stakes.

I'm not sure there's much room in today's entertainment landscape for a new "Bad News Bears." I mean, we saw a remake in 2005 and I wouldn't doubt the power of IP could mean we'll see a new "Bad News Bears" streaming show sometime down the line, but I'm talking about the next envelope-pushing story like this.

"The Bad News Bears" is a confrontational movie. It's aggressive, it's vulgar, it's unflinching in its examination of how the world can shun people to the side even at a young age. But it's also heartwarming, a tale of found family and believing in yourself. Most importantly, it's about embracing the joy you can find, to hell with whether or not anybody else approves.

That mixture of cynicism and optimism is what I'm talking about. How this movie can be realistically cynical and so optimistic at the same time is a great mystery to me and that kind of complexity isn't usually embraced by audiences. But the '70s was a different time and we got one of our best sports movies out of that decade.