Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ursa Major: The Brilliance of The Bad News Bears

This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face... 

In a random line of dialogue from an episode of Cheers that has stuck in my mind Ted Danson says “Life is full of disappointments, I remember when we were all excited about The Bad News Bears, but all that was was Tatum O’Neal throwing a ball around.”
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That might not be a direct quote but the gist is there. I don’t know who wrote that line but clearly it is an ironic commentary on the dim relief pitcher Sam Malone not a reflection on The Bad News Bears. Last night we watched The Bad News Bears as one of our family movie nights. It was only the second time I’d seen the film and the first time since I was a kid. You don’t need me to tell you what a wonderfully crafted picture it is (just read the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes). What I want to talk about here is the script written by Bill Lancaster (Burt Lancaster’s talented screenwriting son) and in particular one scene that sums up everything good film-making should be.
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Lancaster’s screenplay is masterful. There are at least eight or nine characters who are fully rounded individuals with their own completely believable idiosyncrasies and who all somehow have characters arcs i.e. they change and grow as the film progresses. Most Hollywood films have 1 male and 1 female lead  with fake character traits and an utterly phony arc. The Bad News Bears I will stress again has 8 or maybe 9 real characters who all grow and all change in convincing and logical ways. Even the villains grow (the scene where the pitcher hangs onto the ball at the end is dazzling). The story is strong and dialogue is snappy and quotable “You didn’t come into this life just to sit on a dugout bench, didya Lupus? Now get out there and do the best you can!”
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The particular scene I want to talk about is the air hockey game. Tatum O’Neal is trying to convince bad boy Kelly Leak to play for the Bears. As she’s talking him into it they’re casually playing air hockey and she’s kicking his ass. He’s not trying to lose in an obvious way - she’s just better. Leak makes her a proposition, he’ll play for the Bears if she beats him at a new game of air hockey and if he wins she has to come to the Rolling Stones concert with him. Cut to Walter Matthau waiting in the parking lot outside the amusement arcade. We all know how these movies are set up and we all know that eventually Leak is going to play for the Bears so we're thinking that this is how she's going to get him on the team. Instead a dejected Tatum O’Neal comes out of the arcade and tells Matthau that she’s going to go to the Rolling Stones concert with Leak and he is not going to play for the team. We, the audience are never told that Leak hustled her. That would be an insult to our intelligence. Lancaster trusts us so much we don't even get to see the game. This, of course, was the 70’s. In most Hollywood films today the hustling would be seen and then underlined with a corny bit of dialogue. In a scene we never actually witness we learn that Leak is not only a gifted sportsman and an angry punk kid but he’s also smart. Pretty good huh? That’s just one scene and in fact the whole film is like that: witty, well crafted and above all intelligent.