FILMS: Borg v McEnroe vs Hepburn v Tracy

Within 24 hours, I hugely enjoyed a doublebill of sports films: “Borg vs McEnroe” (2017) and “Mike and Pat” (1952). Recommended separately or together.

Both films are very different to each other: the first, a colour film psychological dramatised version of a classic Wimbledon final, the other a black and white Oscar-winning comedy about an androgynous sportswoman (Katherine Hepburn) struggling with 1950s expectations of ‘the little woman’ ideal in society. Both of them were impulsive, late-night, streamed movie experiences, which made them even more engrossing, uninterrupted by other noises in the house or street.

Borg vs McEnroe (psychological)

I was only slightly intrigued when I first heard of this film title, because I am a lifetime Wimbledon watcher and saw the original match – so what could be new about watching it on film? Rather a lot. When I watched the original Final, live, Borg was impenetrably calm and unflustered, McEnroe was the exciting, unexploded one to watch; in the film, the reverse was true. From the opening scene, Borg is apparently on the edge of a nervous breakdown, due to burnout caused by nonstop pursuit of sporting excellence and hounded by fans and hunters of fame.

I don’t know how accurate this film is – like all good biographical films, it intrigues me to find out more – films like this should be delivered with a book token redeemable against the price of autobiographies. It is very watchable, genuinely enthralling and involving, even though you know the outcome of the featured match! (Which is quite the achievement.)

Outstanding:

  • the sound of this movie expresses the inner pressure of Borg – right from the start, the crisp sound of racquet against ball is an assualt on the ears – and the music keeps the energy of the character’s state of mind (and the viewer’s nerves) on the simmer
  • the actor playing Borg, Sverrir Gudnason, looks uncannily like Borg at the time, physically and as a man under duress
  • the Internationalism of world class tennis – you get an aural flavour of this through Borg’s native Swedish (with English subtitles), with interviews in English, the French of living in Monaco as a tax exile, plus a visiting film crew speaking Spanish

Underwhelming:

  • the actor Shia LaBoeuf is perhaps miscast as McEnroe – he’s a 30 year old smooth Californian playing the part of a 16 year old gravel voiced New Yorker with attitude – he’s tonally wrong. Also, he carries years of featuring in the “Transformers” epic series – so that the moment I saw his face on screen, I was waiting for Septimus Prime to emerge. Perhaps sensing this, the film makers minimised showing him onscreen with any car.
  • Shia’s wig. The McEnroe hairstyle of the time was quite something: frizzy and dry as the Centre Court in the Second Week of Wimbledon. The wig in the film was glossy and luxuriant and infinitely better looking. Whereas, Borg’s hair was mostly convincing, although occasionally in closeup you got the feeling that there were hair extensions going on.
  • Shia LaBeouf’s legs. In the one interview with McEnroe referring to the film which I tracked down, he dryly commented on the lack of consultation with him and that Shia LaBeouf’s legs had no real muscle. The athlete in him was outraged by the physical depiction of himself.
  • Central Court. I hope that the film production at least tried to get access to play on Centre Court – but what they came up with was a rather horrific substitution. It looked like a green carpet rather than grass. Worse, someone had noticed the pattern of wear and tear on the middle of the court in Wimbledon Finals – yellowing and sunbleached but replicated it with rust-brown staining; it looked like there had been bloodletting on court. The effect was more Tarantino than a lawn maintenance manual and must have had groundsmen the world over in paroxysms of mirth.

“Mike and Pat” (or Woman vs 1950s world)

Any film which is set 70 years ago is going to show a different type of society – but this film still has attitude and something to say, unfortunately, to the twenty-first century. Katherine Hepburn is a woman fighting to gain control of her own life from herself and society’s expectations. If you read any twenty-first century autobiography, you find people struggling to push themselves to be their best and not settle for low expectations.

It’s not necessary to consider the character name of the female protagonist, because Katherine Hepburn is playing her onscreen persona here: energetic, passionate and above all watchable. I had been interested in 1950s comedy recently, had yet to watch a Hepburn-Tracy black and white movie, and researching Ruth Gordon as a woman in the film world doubled my interest. (She wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay with her husband). So, on a thin pretext for research, I watched the film. It’s enjoyable and has energy and swing, although slightly dated in paces and places.

Outstanding

  • humorous script
  • lead actors: pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy
  • portrayal of a naturally energetic and physically fit woman (yet not in a sexualised way)
  • showing a range of women athletes appearing as themselves: golfers Babe Didrickson Zaharias, Betty Hicks, Helen Dettweiler and tennis stars Alice Marble, and Gussie Moran. (And to show how this compares to women’s sport coverage in 2020, name three women’s golf stars and which films they feature in.)
  • the scene in which she physically defends Spencer Tracy from mobsters (a scene decades ahead of its time)

Underwhelming

  • Katherine Hepburn’s overacting eyes
  • unnecessary repetition (to 21st century eyes) hints of how Katherine is thrown off her game by the presence of her condescending fiance – it’s telegraphed too many times

**Conclusion: a mixed but enjoyable double bill: recommended.**

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