There is a reason why I haven’t tried to put together my passion for cinema and my interest in tennis until now. There are simply not many films about tennis. And, to be completely honest, there are no good films about tennis whatsoever. Films that have tennis as background, or a main character as tennis player, yes, there have been, and some of them are very good movies – these are the ones that are the subject of this very article. But the reality is that filmmakers have shied away from taking on the challenge to portray the world of tennis and add cinematic drama to the game. I doubt this is a sport any less geared towards providing plenty of excitement of its own than other sports which have been themes for some great cinema pieces, like, for example, baseball (The Natural, 1984), boxing (Raging Bull, 1980), skiing (The Downhill Racer, 1969), basketball (Hoosiers, 1986), American football (Any Given Sunday, 1999).
With Wimbledon starting today, here are my five picks of tennis depictions on film.
Hard, Fast & Beautiful, 1951, directed by Ida Lupino
Ida Lupino’s films (I love her noir work) were all made by her own production company for less than $160,000 each. Her films are remarkable for their complexity (Roberto Rossellini inspired her production aesthetic and she cited the neo-realist film making of Vittorio de Sica’s Sciuscià (Shoeshine), 1946, and Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta, 1945, as models). Hard, Fast and Beautiful is one of the greatest dramas about teenage stars, a sports star, and the only one from my selection that comes close to qualifying as a sports movie. Millie Farley (Claire Trevor) devotes herself to making sure her talented daughter’s tennis exploits are well paid. As the movie advances, it becomes clear that Millie uses her daughter’s sporting prowess to gain access to a life of luxury, travel, and freedom from the domestic life for herself, and that she plots to keep Florence (Sally Forrest) athletically and economically productive. Set first in a small town, then in fancy hotels and European locations, Hard, Fast and Beautiful ends with Millie sitting alone, rejected by daughter and husband, in an empty stadium.
The Royal Tenenbaums, 2002, directed by Wes Anderson
Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) is a former tennis prodigy whose career has spectacularly flopped – his meltdown on court, when he finishes the match in tears at the US Nationals, after 72 unforced errors, underhand serves, and the removal of his shoes, is a moment to remember – but he is still clinging to the prime of his success. It is a Wes Anderson movie, so the characters all wear their personalities on the outside. In the case of Richie, he still sports a retro band, arms bands and Fila logo t-shirts, his style taking direct cue from Björn Borg’s 1970s and 1980s tennis-court attire (beard and lustrous locks included), even when his tennis whites grow into a camel toned suit. I also particularly liked how Richie’s clothes are interconnected with Margo’s (Gwyneth Paltrow’s) tennis dresses, suggesting their mutual affection.
Pat and Mike, 1952, directed by George Cukor
What I like the most about this George Cukor classic is the spontaneous comedic elegance and the relaxed yet precise performances of both Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Katharine plays a sporting heroine, whose tennis and golfing (a ‘sport’ I don’t quite understand, to be honest) skills matched her own. Hepburn was a gifted athlete, which made her 100% believable in her role. It’s a light comedy that allows the audience to enjoy the stars’ chemistry on screen.
Match Point, 2005, directed by Woody Allen
Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a young tennis player, recently retired from the professional activity, trying to make a new living for himself as a tennis coach. Match Point is a rich psychological thriller and is not at all a stereotype Woody Allen movie that you are prone to recognize from the very first scenes, which makes it one of my favourites from the director’s filmography. Hunger, lust, ambition and greed are the aspirations of the main character, and even from the beginning of the movie we feel a rising tension regarding his moral status. It is such a dark film that pulls you in and revolts you at the same time, keeping you on the edge of your seat.
Strangers on A Train, 1957, directed by Alfred Hitchcock
One of the best films from the Master. On a train, there is a chance encounter between social-climbing tennis champion Guy (Farley Granger) and sardonic playboy Bruno (Robert Walker), who is a fan of Guy’s and who seems to know all about his personal life. Bruno suggests the perfect crime by switching murders. Alfred Hitchcock once again demonstrates his virtuosity in the area of suspense thrillers, as the film is shot with all his usual invention and style, and a couple of scenes rank among the director’s most visually memorable. One such sequence involves a tennis match, when Guy scans the crowd and observes that all of the heads are swiveling back and forth to follow the game, except for one head, Bruno’s, whose focus remains relentlessly set on Guy. It literally gives you the shivers.
photos: movie stills from Hard, Fast and Beautiful (Everett Collection/Rex Features), The Royal Tenenbaums (Buena Vista Pictures/ Everett Collection) Pat and Mike / Match Point (BBC Films/Thema Production/ (as Thema Production/Jada Productions/Kudu Films) / Strangers on A Train (Warner Brothers)