If you want to understand America, you need to understand Americans’ attitudes toward politics and baseball.
More to the point, you need to understand how Hollywood reveres the former and romanticizes the latter—one notable exception notwithstanding.
In the case of the late Michael Ritchie, director of “The Candidate” and “The Bad News Bears,” he is the exception that breaks the rules. His films are more relevant today than when they first premiered, respectively, in 1972 and 1976; revealing the truth about the cynicism that governs those who govern us, as the system—with its consultants, aides, groupies, and concubines—has more to do with the rights of primogeniture than with civil rights or the rights of man.
They also reveal the lamentable truth that there remains no innocence left to shatter, not when Little League Baseball is a corruption of children by coaches seeking to recapture their own elusive youth.
Each film is a warning, which rings louder with each passing election and season of the national pastime.
A Hollow Way
In “The Candidate,” warnings abound. Ritchie gives us Robert Redford as Bill McKay who, by way of artistic liberties, is a lawyer and the estranged son of the widowed or divorced former governor of California, played by Melvyn Douglas.
Douglas deserves a posthumous Oscar for his appearance in this film. With his black-rimmed glasses and gray mustache, in addition to his three-button tweed field jacket and tartan scarf, Douglas looks like a hunter’s version of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, holding a shotgun in his right hand. Thus does he honor Sophocles and Sigmund Freud, when he takes Redford into the woods for a father-son talk. That they return alive—and smiling—ruins any sense of tragedy or need for psychotherapy.
The true tragedy is how the Fates set upon this politician. From a one-room building, where he lawyers on behalf of minorities and the poor, to a seat within the office of the men who decide who will hold seats in the House and Senate, Bill McKay begins to decay.
He goes from participant to product, when he hears the order to “cut the hair and 86 the sideburns.”
He goes from husband to philanderer without knowing he is prey. We watch a woman whisper in his ear, as we see this huntress with glasses—and a gorgeous body—do nothing more than telling McKay where to be, so they may do the deed. We watch him leave her room, his shirt undone and his tie askew, as the sight renders Marvin (Peter Boyle), his campaign manager, speechless; as if some things are too unimaginable for this mercenary to see; as if, instead of being in Washington, D.C., Kennedy (take your pick) were, in fact, kissing Marilyn Monroe’s dead body goodbye before rendezvousing at a safe house prior to returning to the White House.
McKay is a candidate with a slogan, but no content. “For a better way,” his surrogates say, “Bill McKay.” Alternating between the indefinite article and the definite, “The Better Way,” McKay does not know the way, either. He is, instead, a vessel: He is a copy of a copy of Robert F. Kennedy, a character based on the real-life John Tunney, the one-term Democratic senator from California.
A Kennedy by politics and physical proximity, as well as physical appearance, Tunney was also Ted Kennedy’s former law school classmate and roommate.
The screenwriter of “The Candidate” is Jeremy Larner, whose credits include a stint as Eugene McCarthy’s chief speechwriter.
“The Candidate,” then, is The Candidate: A film that has that rarest of qualities—verisimilitude. It seems real; it is real, when McKay, with all the self-righteousness he can marshal and all the self-loathing he can muster, enters the Watts section of Los Angeles like the Great White Hope, recognizing later he is, from the perspective of the blacks he meets, yet another dope; a doll, with a pull string and an action grip, who breaks down from too much wear and tear.
And then, when he mistakes sincerity for profundity delivering his closing remarks in a televised debate against his opponent, the incumbent Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), McKay, the Captain Renault of the obvious, discovers racism exists. He all but threatens to unleash his discovery not just on California but the entire nation, saying fear, hatred, and violence will send this country up in flames.
Thus does “The Better Way” become “The Only Way”: Elect Bill McKay, or suffer the consequences, because your refusal to vote makes you an accomplice to murder. Never mind the fact that the revolution McKay prophesies is one he wants, an expiation of Caucasian blood (except his own) for the crimes of slavery and segregation; for injustices his policies, to the extent he has any, would worsen; for the thrill he would experience looking into the eyepiece of his telescope, a trophy on a tripod, as this half-naked voyeur accelerates his eye-hand coordination to match the speed of the fire on the horizon.
McKay’s opponent, Jarmon, may as well be a stand-in for Spiro Agnew, though the comparison is superficial because Jarmon is less tame and more guarded than Agnew, a fighter who could land a punch and take one, too. The win against Jarmon is as empty as McKay’s campaign, ending with him asking Marvin: “What do we do now?” How fitting a conclusion for the story of a film within a film—for such campaigns are productions no less than films are.
Delusions About Winning
That false victory also applies to baseball in “The Bad News Bears.”
Billed and marketed as a comedy, that description is inaccurate and unfair. The classification owes more, I suspect, to the casting of Walter Matthau as Morris Buttermaker, the manager of the Bears, as well this summation of the team by a fellow player.
The film is a 40-year-old time capsule sent by and to ourselves, whose lessons we have yet to learn, whose truths we have yet to teach, whose rules we have yet to respect.
Start with a lawsuit, which leads to the creation of a new Little League team, the Bears, whose players (because of their infelicity at the plate or in the field) no one wants. To repeat: It takes a court order to let children play baseball because Roy Turner (Vic Morrow) and his Yankees want nothing to do with these kids. Ditto for the other parents and their delusions about winning.
It is Turner who is the perfect foil for Buttermaker. One manages a team whose name alone connotes the most joyless kind of victory. (I tip my cap to Ritchie for casting the Yankees as the villains, because this team is wrong for all the right reasons. He gets right what makes any Yankee franchise wrong. In other words, he knows why it is right to hate the Yankees.)
Minus longevity, there is nothing conservative about the Yankees. They represent bigness. They institutionalize the individual, trading his name for a number, his prison stripes for pinstripes, his cuffs for golden handcuffs.
Buttermaker, in contrast, is a patriot but no Yankee. An ex-Minor League pitcher, he knows enough about baseball to know the difference between the big leagues and Little League. He is an alcoholic, but he is not drunk on power.
He is staff, hired by the city councilman who filed the lawsuit. He is, for all intents and purposes, the part-time father of the councilman’s son; because the councilman is a politician by nature and only a parent out of necessity. The councilman never attends the games until the Bears play the Yankees for the championship; until Turner renews our hatred for the Yankees.
In the film’s ultimate act of bad parenting, Turner strikes his own son. The boy falls onto the rubber of the pitcher’s mound, while Turner returns to the dugout.
The cheap and dirty win, Ritchie shows us, costs the world as much it costs a man’s soul; profiting the men on the sidelines—enriching others with power—while the man in the arena forfeits his integrity and loses his life of independence.
By making the major minor, and the minor major, by making a sport of politics—by having us root for teams based on letters—while we rob sports of sportsmanship, we have a government as heartless as the Yankees and as hapless as the Bears.
The bad news is very bad, indeed.