Posted by: Judy M. Goodman | August 27, 2010

The Women (and Men) of “This Sporting Life”

What do you do when you tell someone to get out and they refuse? I have only faced that problem second hand, once in life and in the movies, but it’s certainly not a conflict I envy. Especially, if the lodger has a history of violence toward his landlady, as in the movie “This Sporting Life”–written by David Storey from his novel and directed by Lindsey Anderson. I saw it twice in once day, once for story and once

Don’t mistake it. “This Sporting Life” is a guy’s story. Possibly the first about an uncommunicative, blue-collar jock, mine worker, and rugby player Frank Machin (Richard Harris), who can’t express love in an effective way. He’s visceral and violent, unwise in the anger which is first, last, and always refuge. All other emotion, buried so deep, dazed him.

The women whom he encountered fell into three categories: Mrs. Weaver (Vanda Godsell) the wife of the owner of his rugby team, an upper class woman who, with her co-conspiring husband (Alan Badel) who championed him onto the team, made it quite clear Machin would pay for refusal to sleep–which by some weird logic had violated her husband’s trust; the fiancee his teammate Maurice Braithewaite (Colin Blakely), a working class woman who inspires a rough and tumble rugby player share his gentler nature; and his landlady Mrs. Hammond, (Rachel Roberts) an economically depressed widow whose husband’s death has damaged her ability to love.

The overprotective mother of a daughter and son, Mrs. Hammond is repressed, unable to open to love, despite her physical needs which she prefers to indulge reluctantly, feeling dirty and evil. When she gets around to telling that to Machin (his name chosen because of its similarity to the word “machine,”) she has already admitted to him that she feels responsible for her husband’s malaise, his insistence that he has no right to live. Machin receives her revelations about her first marriage with confusion because he has no emotional core other than anger. The other she flings at him as an accusation that he has made her feel dirty. At some point, Machin explains his response saying he didn’t understand why she would say that and the quickest way of stopping it was to hit her.

“This Sporting Life” is a hard movie to watch which make listening to the commentary very revealing. The scene above is only the first time he hits her, but he does a damned fine job of it. According to Storey, the scene had to be repeated multiple times and he found it increasingly difficult to watch. For no reason he could understand, the actress was not disposed to ask the actor to ease up and the actor was not disposed to pull his punches. By the end of the shoot, her cheek was burning red.

The uncompromising opinion of the classes landed on the men, too. A manipulative, dismissive man, the owner champion cools toward Machin when he refuses, none too gracefully, to sleep with his owner’s wife. Much like Machin, the working class men were physical and capable of frightening violence even if they limited to the rugby pitch.

The other owner Slomer (Arthur Lowe), a man clearly middle class, was an opportunistic little creep who had opposed hiring Machin because he was too violent and (ironically) opportunistic during his tryout. However, once he started winning and his original champion had lost his initial infatuation, Slomer was quick to champion Machin and claim him as his own. Though Machin had challenged the notion of being owned by Weaver, he acceded to Slomer’s claim. He was, by this time, getting old for a player and needed all the help he could get.

At least within the parameters of the film, the assertion that the solid middle class hangs onto the opportunism of the working class rings a clear note among the men, constantly at odds with each other either physically or metaphorically. The film implies that the differences between how the working class and middle class women have manifested for palpable reasons. Though it’s not made clear, the middle class woman either earns her keep or is cared for by husband or family. She exercises the liberty to be softer, less abrasive.

The notion of Hammond telling Machin who she is, even why she is so, is interesting comment about successful relationships. While Machin hasn’t chosen to “hear” what she’s told him, she’s as guilty at not listening to his wise counsel about coming out of her shell. Her husband is dead, yet initially she keeps his constantly maintained shoes on the hearth. Right up front, she tells Machin she can’t open up to him because he’s too self-reliant. We learn later from Weaver, who owned the factory where he worked, that he’d died on the job in a bizarre machinery accident which looked an awful lot like suicide. This revelation demands that we think about a woman who’d done war work and had previous affairs, then chose a man who could be mothered to the point where he was no longer self-reliant and felt the worse for it.

At the beginning of their lives together, the teammate and his fiancee are certainly talking with each other. It’s Braithewaite who, against the odds, tries to tell Machin he needs to take a softer approach to Hammond or find another woman. (No point is made why he is constantly sparring and roughhousing with his buddies, yet warm and charming with women, but, given this other cinematic depictions of the British life, his evolution would make an interesting story.) Also, the Weavers have an agreement: he pimps from his team for his wife’s enjoyment. Not a contract most happily married couples would enjoy, but one which requires either tacit or open communication–it requires listening or watching for clues.

The story implies that the verb “to love” is not so much synonymous with sex as with listening or attending. A happy sexual experience, it seems, is a perk inspired by an actively “loving,” which is to say listening or attentive, relationship.

No question about it: “This Sporting Life” is a very hard movie about two hard people who find life extremely hard to live to its fullest. It is also an essential film for people who love the art form. Everything from the adept casting (catch a young Glenda Jackson singing on a piano) to the musical score – perfect in its dissonant, and especially the powerful acting all around, combines to make a powerful, dramatic experience. Best advice: don’t watch it twice in one day–for any reason!

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