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A 1997 Washington Post profile described Walter Matthau, fairly accurately many would agree, as resembling "a giant grumpy question mark with a three-pack-a-day habit, flecks of pastrami in his teeth and really bad clothes." It's hard to imagine that an actor who actually got his start understudying the role of an 83-year-old bishop in Rex Harrison's 1948 Broadway production of Anne of the Thousand Days would develop into such an unforgettable comic icon. But Matthau himself hated being called a comic actor, although he also acknowledged that comedy was far more difficult to play than drama or tragedy.
His early stage, film and TV career rarely tapped into his comic talents. He was most often cast as the heavy in Westerns and crime dramas. He didn't really get to show his comic chops until his first teaming with frequent screen partner Jack Lemmon in The Fortune Cookie (1966). As scheming shyster Fast Willie Gingrich, Matthau walked off with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and embarked on a whole new phase in his career. His reputation was further cemented by his portrayal of the gruff, slovenly sports writer Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple (1968), the second of nine movies he would make with Lemmon.
By the time of The Bad News Bears, Matthau's trademark look and curmudgeonly demeanor were well established, and well suited to the role of Morris Buttermaker, a lazy, beer-swilling former minor leaguer who's been reduced to cleaning swimming pools for a living. Given the chance to make some money as a Little League coach, Buttermaker takes on a team of misfit kids with virtually no athletic ability. He brings in two kids - a girl pitching wiz and a street-smart young punk - who prove to be not only the team's saviors but major handfuls on and off the field.
The inspired casting at work here matches up a crotchety loser (Matthau) with a headstrong young girl played by Tatum O'Neal, making her second picture after her Oscar-winning debut in Paper Moon (1973), with her father, Ryan O'Neal. Tatum was, for a time, America's foul-mouthed, cigarette-smoking sweetheart, an image that played her off perfectly against Matthau.
The Bad News Bears proved to be such a hit, it spawned two sequels - The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977) and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978). But without Matthau and O'Neal, the follow-ups fared poorly, both critically and commercially. They also lacked director Michael Ritchie, a master of sharp satires on contemporary life. As he proves in this film, Ritchie is at his best when he casts his rather jaundiced eye on such "All-American" themes as beauty pageants (Smile, 1975), professional sports (Semi-Tough, 1978) and competitive teens and their even more competitive parents (The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, 1993).
Directed: Michael Ritchie
Producer: Stanley R. Jaffe
Screenplay: Bill Lancaster
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Production Design: Polly Platt
Music: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Walter Matthau (Morris Buttermaker), Tatum O?Neal (Amanda Whurlitzer), Jackie Earle Haley (Kelly Leak), Vic Morrow (Coach Roy Turner), Ben Piazza (Councilman Whitewood).
C-102m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.
by Rob Nixon