You Lose: The Sports Films of Michael Ritchie

With sports back (albeit in a truncated and, frankly, very weird form) and an election around the corner, America’s obsession with winning and losing is in full swing. Thus, in the spirit of the day as well as anathema to it, I find myself being drawn back to the films of Michael Ritchie, particularly the handful of sports films he made over the course of his 30-year career. 

The director, who passed away in 2001 at the age of 62, was one of the sharpest satirists of the 1970s, particularly in his ability to use competitive contests as a way to explore any number of political and social issues—race, class, gender dynamics, sexuality, civics, nationalism, crime, exploitation, and so on. As he moved into the ‘80s and ‘90s, Ritchie’s films became more and more commercial, although they always managed, for better or worse, to reflect the tenor of their times.

After cutting his teeth in television throughout the 1960s, Ritchie transitioned into feature filmmaking with his sterling debut, an adaptation of James Salter’s Downhill Racer. That film stars Robert Redford as a hot-shot professional skier, whose single-minded pursuit of Olympic gold results in him becoming both a celebrated champion and a forever-haunted loner. Ritchie followed that minor masterpiece three years later with one of the most bizarre (and outright nightmarish) crime films of its era, Prime Cut, before reteaming with Redford later the same year for what would be the biggest critical success of his career: The Candidate.

One of the sharpest political satires ever made, as well as one of the most believable depictions of the American political machine, The Candidate is, for all intents and purposes, a sports film. In fact, the depiction of politics as a team sport—with Redman’s dashing Senate hopeful standing in as quarterback, Peter Boyle’s coolly manipulative campaign manager as coach, and the various strategists, speechwriters, aids and body men filling out the rest of the positions—is part of its slyly damning commentary on the state of politics at the time. While said politics seems downright quaint and gentle today, the close study of moral compromise and degradation remains extremely on point. 

Early on in the film, Boyle’s campaign manager promises Redford’s titular candidate that he can speak truth to power, gifting him a matchbook in which he’s scribbled: You Lose. By the end of the film, both men have broken their promises, and although they win the election, the message in the matchbook remains true. 

Ritchie’s next movie, Smile (1975), is similar to The Candidate in that it’s a sports film minus athletics, one which peaks behind the beaming facade of beauty pageants in order to reveal the rank hypocrisies, simmering anxieties, and faded dreams of small-town America. While the film, which would later become a Broadway musical, is much sillier than any of Ritchie’s other films up to that point, it also carries an undercurrent of real darkness and melancholy, both of which come to the fore in surprising manners, and for as great as the films that preceded it are, Smile is where Ritchie truly honed his style by balancing broad, often gleefully politically incorrect comedy and irony with just the right amount of pathos and tenderness. As a result, the film makes for an excellent companion piece to Nashville, Robert Altman’s similar ensemble satire of Americana from the same year. 

In fact, those two share a noticeably similar worldview and aesthetic: the third-act football game in M*A*S*H feels very Ritchie-esque, while the hand-held camerawork and overlapping dialog track of The Candidate are heavily indebted to Altman’s ground-breaking formalist technique. However, they differ in one key aspect: both men’s comic sensibilities often betray a noticeable mean streak, but whereas Altman sometimes seems to take pleasure in humiliating his characters, Ritchie never fails to convey an overriding empathy for his. 

This is most apparent in Ritchie’s fifth film, the one for which he is best remembered today: 1976’s The Bad News Bears. This story of  a washed up pro ballplayer turned alcoholic pool cleaner (Walter Matthau), who takes a low-paying gig coaching a little league squad made up of misfits and pipsqueaks and, almost against his will, turns them into a winning team, set the template for basically every underdog sports comedy to follow, as well as the subgenre of adult-oriented comedies about negligent guardians bonding with kids. But for as many films as have followed in its footsteps—from Major League to Bad Santa and beyond—few have ever matched it in either the heart or the spleen department. 

Ritchie’s next film, his second-to-last of the ‘70s, is the zany football-and-sex farce Semi-Tough, featuring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson as star players for a Super Bowl-bound Miami team who share an apartment with the owner’s free-spirited daughter (Jill Clayburgh). Semi-Tough exuberantly deploys all the two-fisted slapstick hijinks and coarse humor you expect to find in a Burt movie from that period, but it also contains a much more complex look of sexual mores and gender roles than its enjoyably crass marketing would lead you to believe. In fact, of all of Ritchie’s sports films, it’s the least concerned with sports, the big championship game playing out as an afterthought to both its romantic A-plot as well as it’s pointed and hilarious takedown of the burgeoning New Age self-help movement (specifically the then-popular EST program).

Each of Ritchie’s sports films from this decade looked askance at the idea of winning and losing, and even when his heroes did win—as in Downhill Racer and The Candidate—the victories ring hollow, coming at too great a personal cost and leaving the victor adrift and unfulfilled. Conversely, Ritchie’s ‘70’s oeuvre shows that the greater dignity actually lies in defeat, even if, as in The Bad News Bears, said dignity involves the losers telling the winners to take their trophy and shove it up straight their asses.

Following this incredible run of films, Ritchie spent the 1980s carving out a more workmanlike career, helming a number of films across genres, but with a particular focus on broad comedy. His output for the decade is one of peaks (1985’s Fletch) and valleys (1988’s The Couch Trip), with, surprisingly, only one film centered on sports. Wildcats (1986) stars Goldie Hawn as a girls’ track coach who dreams of coaching men’s football and gets her chance–and much more than she bargained for–when a position opens up at notoriously rough inner-city Chicago high school. 

The film hits many of the same beats as The Bad News Bears, while scrubbing most of that film’s rough edges or transgressive charm (the change being readily apparent in the switching out of the shambolic, sour Matthau for the beautiful, peppy Hawn). Because Ritchie is so good at maintaining a breezy tone, and because he’s so adept at casting (Wildcats boasts a great ensemble, including Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes as slick jocks a full six years prior to White Men Can’t Jump), it makes for a fitfully enjoyable, if instantly forgettable, bit of entertainment, albeit one hampered by its white savior trappings and rote plotting.

Wildcats pays lip service to the subject of sexism and gender dynamics, but without actually saying anything about either. But most disappointing of all, at least for fans of Ritchie’s work, is its utter lack of nuance or ambiguity. Here, the good guys simply win the big game and celebrate. Roll credits, the end. However, as disappointing as this is, it’s also interesting in the way it contrasts against his earlier sports films. Whereas those ‘70’s efforts reflected the moral morass of their decade, in which a collective sense of loss and aimlessness was prevalent, Wildcats is very much in line with the Reagan era’s bullshit optimism, which liked to present America as an even playing field. 

This isn’t to accuse Ritchie of personally selling out, although it’s clear by the studio-centric films he signed onto that he was definitely cashing in. This is even more apparent when you again compare him to  Altman, who, for all of his setbacks and disappointments in the immediate post-New Hollywood years, remained admirably faithful to his personal vision.

The lack of personal connection is doubly evident in the final sports film Ritchie made. At the risk of hyperbole, I dare say that The Scout (1994), which Ritchie directed from star Albert Brooks’ script, may well be the slightest movie ever made. The story—which sees Brooks’s down-on-his-luck professional scout discover and befriend Brendan Fraser’s possibly insane, possibly amnesiac baseball prodigy—feels like a discarded B-plot from a season six episode of Seinfeld, on that completely drops a number of moving story points before rushing through a wildly over-the-top climax. (How do you go from The Bad News Bears, where the catharsis comes by way of a lonely little boy simply catching a fly ball, to The Scout, where the hero pitches literally the most perfect game of all time in the World Series?)

But for as disappointing as Wildcats and The Scout are, Ritchie’s career saw a short, glorious rebound between those films, thanks to a pair of back-to-back comedy crime films centered around sports, both of which saw the filmmaker working at the top of his game. The first of these was 1992’s Diggstown, about dueling gamblers (James Woods and Bruce Dern) who wage a war of attrition against one another revolving around a middle-aged boxer’s (Louis Gossett Jr) attempt to fight ten men over the course of 24 hours.

More often than not in discussions of Ritchie’s work, Diggstown is given short shrift, which I find baffling, since it may well be his true greatest film–or at least, his most purely entertaining. Relentlessly quotable and endlessly rewatchable, the film boasts career best work from its three leads: Woods is as charming in Diggstown as he is repulsive in real life, and vice-versa for Dern. Gossett Jr., meanwhile, comes off as a greater and more inspirational boxing hero than Rocky Balboa at his most superheroic. The last 15 minutes of Diggstown are as rousing as any to be found in the pantheon of sports films, and the same can be said of the film’s final twist when it comes to con artist narratives.

Speaking of that twist (SPOILERS), which sees Wood’s benevolent conman cheat in order to defeat Dern’s slimy small-town despot, it is simultaneously the most crowd-pleasing moment in all of Ritchie’s filmography and one of the most cynical. Coming as it did toward the tail end of the first Bush presidency—amidst, among other catastrophes, a recession and rising racial strife, both of which are subtly alluded to in the film—Diggstown conveys a tangible anger at the smiling plutocrats who took control of the American dream and stripped it for parts. In the end, the film makes no bones about it: the only way to win in America is to out-cheat the bastards.

Ritchie returned to television the following year with The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. This HBO original movie, based on the real-life case of an obsessive Texas mother (Holly Hunter) who tried to ensure her daughter a spot on the high school cheerleading squad by hiring a hitman to knock off her competition, takes a less approving stance on cheating, while effectively arguing such extreme measures are the logical endpoint of America’s obsession with victory at all costs.

Even though The Scout was technically Ritchie’s last sports film, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (frustratingly unavailable at current) is his true final statement on the grand theme of his work, as well as prescient picture of the tabloid society in which we currently find ourselves lost (and, ironically enough, losing in).

That Ritchie’s work contains a grand unifying theme in the first place makes him worthy of the same high regard many of his better-known peers enjoy, to say nothing of how effectively he explored it throughout the years. However, I would like to think that, had anyone attempted to bestow any auteurist renown upon Michael Ritchie, he’d have told them where they could stick it.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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