Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Bill Lancaster in "Bad News Bears" (1976)

Scene from Bad News Bears
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Bill Lancaster
Film: Bad News Bears (1976)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Original Screenplay category (1976):
-Network *WINNER
-Cousin Cousine
-The Front
-Seven Beauties

If there has been one thing that has consumed the previous week of news, it's the Olympics. Whether it's Michael Phelps' pouting face or the mystery of the green pool, it has consumed most conversations. That is for good reason, as this is a competition featuring the best of the best trying to determine which is the best. In keeping with the sports theme that was also present last week, it only feels right to tackle another sports movie. This one isn't about the winners, but the losers who have no choice but to sit on the sidelines and watch other people celebrate. This is never better embodied than the dark comedy from director Michael Ritchie called Bad News Bears. It may not have a conventional sports narrative, but it does say more about the American climate of competition than any other "better" sports movie released, possibly ever.

Yes, it would seem misguided to say this when 1976 was the year of Rocky: the ultimate underdog movie. It's another story where the protagonist didn't win despite rigorous training. There's nothing wrong with Rocky, as it recreated the sports film as we now perceive it 40 years later. From the montage to the basic arc, Rocky is a film that captures a unifying sense of competition. It's a more preferable one, even if the protagonist's face ends up a bloody pulp by the end. To call Bad News Bears antithetical to Rocky is both accurate and a bit misleading. Yes, the baseball flick has more children drinking and swearing, but it also captures that longing to be the best - only to lose the big match. There's the optimism going into the third act that makes any blow seem more tolerable. Yet it's hard to not come away from it with a more connecting sensibility than Rocky. The boxing film was about the individual who could. The baseball film was about the group who couldn't no matter how hard they tried.

To understand why Bad News Bears works is to understand its intentions. It may play like your "bad kids" movie with all of the antagonistic nature to spare. Among the more provocative is the Oscar-winning Tatum O'Neal, who plays the neglected daughter of a coach/pool cleaner/failed major leaguer (Walter Matthau) who trains The Bears to fulfill a bet. There's a sense of reluctance going into this that makes the simple idea of cooperation into a massive undertaking. If the group that cannot stand each other can at least play together, there is a chance that maybe things will work out. Nobody really has any faith in their chances, which almost makes the idea of being an underdog nonexistent. This is about having pride in your work, and there is a lot that isn't spoken in Matthau's character specifically that takes this from a simple riff to a perverse commentary on being a literal runner up in life.

While the children's behavior is excusable to an extent, one has to wonder what Matthau had to do to end up in his state. He was on the right track before being demoted. Now he drinks beer and drives a rundown car. Thankfully, the actor's performance adds enough subtext to make it work in places missing from the dialogue. There's a lot that can be read into being humiliated for following your dream. To watch the next generation fall victim to your doing is equally humiliating. It is in Matthau's choice to let the team eventually play to have fun that the story becomes clear and throws the biggest middle finger to pretentious sports fans focused on the gold. It's not about winning. It's about how you play the game.

It's a concept that doesn't get explored enough in sports films. They're usually packed with emotional drives or overcoming adversity stories. For some people (like myself), sports are tough because the physicality is just not in our nature. It may be inspiring to see Rocky and think that we could put our lives together. However, Bad News Bears better fits the likely chances that we have at winning, which is never. The choice to be rambunctious and accept your status is an inspiring message, and one that defines the ultimate underdog story. Many have tried to imitate (even within the Bad News Bears franchise), but few have captured what it sincerely feels like to not quite be a winner. Rocky at least got the girl. All that Matthau got was a loss for a game that didn't mean anything.

For an unassuming comedy, Bad News Bears sure has a lot to say about the idea of competition. What is a healthy amount, and how do you deal with defeat? It's not usually that glamorous, and to see kids do it often feels reminiscent on more professional sports players who cry foul during wrong moves. Matthau is the middle finger to that logic, and it is such a splendid experience. It could just be that 1976's film releases is too impressive to logically give Bill Lancaster a shot. That's a testament to how great the year was, though also an unfortunate continuation of comedies being ignored at The Oscars. Still, Bad News Bears proves that comedies can be just as rich with subtext as any major drama. It may seem unfortunate that this is grittier and edgier than Rocky, but it definitely had more to offer in the script department and should've stood more of a chance at getting a nomination.

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