“The sorrows of narrative immersion are the joys of Brechtian postmodernism …”
I love the films of Howard Hawks but I’ve always dismissed Man’s Favorite Sport as unwatchable, mainly because I could never get past the leaden opening gag of Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss fighting over a parking spot. Poor Hudson, after already being aggravated by her once that morning, finds his massive Cadillac cock-blocked when Prentiss — driving a tiny sports car — steals his “star salesman” parking spot right out from under him, right in front of the Abercrombie & Fitch store where he works, of all places! What would be a minor inconvenience for most Great White Hunks — and a surefire chance at a sale or date for any “real” star salesman — results in, for Hudson, a temper tantrum. When she won’t move he tries to lean down through her sun roof to unlock the emergency brake and push that little car out of his precious spot. He gets stuck! Up walks a cop! Uh-Oh! Click . . . I shut the DVD off in horror, put on His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby again, and wait for another chance.
One of the problems with the film right off is in imagining Hudson as the sort of immature cad who would fail to gladly give his personal parking spot to a lady in the first place. We’ve all argued over parking spots, sale items and places in line with petty, self-centered people before. We know them and despise them and we don’t want them in our movies. In fact, one of the main reasons we escape to movies in the first place is to get away from such riffraff. Hudson is supposed to set an example. He’s not supposed to be flailing around like Jerry Lewis or an over-caffeinated Dick Van Dyke.
So the movie starts out badly, bad enough that even a devout Hawksian will run the other way. But if one sticks with it, it turns out that below the service of this shrill farce is a vein of rich subtext and Brechtian postmodernism. Hudson’s character, one realizes, is defending not so much his parking spot, but the frail walls of his flagrantly false persona, the straight white male. Hawks the director falsifies the whole film around him, matching his fakery with a mise-en-scene as phony as a Sears-Roebuck showroom display.
Hawks hired Hudson only after Cary Grant turned down the part,1 and so Hudson has not only got to fake it as a gay man playing a straight actor in a straight role, he’s got to pretend to have comedic timing as good as Grant’s. He fails, but then again, he’s not really supposed to win, for this is really a comedy about the failure of artifice. It’s a screwball comedy where the whole film topples down around the audience like a high-society circus tent. Grant would have lent the fight over the parking spot some flirtatious élan . . . he’d be complaining but inside you knew he was having fun. By contrast, Hudson just acts irritable . . . and hung over. One thinks of the joke with the kid at the zoo asking, “Are those monkeys fighting?” Hudson thinks the monkeys are fighting and so he acts no more than a fighting monkey, whereas Grant could play a monkey that only looked like he was fighting. In the whirling chaos of a Hawks screwball farce one must have enough confidence in his sexual persona to cast it into the wind. Grant could do it, but Hudson clings to his like he clings to his parking spot . . . now that his homosexuality has been made public, the film suddenly makes sense.
You see, Roger Willoughby (Hudson’s character) turns out to be a complete sham! He’s supposed to be a star fisherman, author of a famous book on angling, but — whether as a result of nature or nurture — it turns out he actually can’t even bait a hook, and he really hates fish! Fish! Of all the symbols for the vagina in all the world, what could be more slyly Hawksian?
Hawks’ best comedies work as groovy meditations on man’s eternal struggle for authenticity and humanity as he battles between the poles of wild animal nature (leopards, Indians, Marilyn Monroe) and sterilized sell-outs (museums, academia). InMan’s Favorite Sport? these poles are represented quite literally via fishing: the actual lake and the fish (and the women) on one end and the prefabricated woodsman lifestyle sold at Abercrombie & Fitch. Hawks, a real outdoorsmen who shot and fished with the likes of Hemingway and Gary Cooper, uses real Abercrombie & Fitch product placement in the film, this being one of the first movies to employ the now ubiquitous marketing strategy.2) Intentional or not, it turns out that Hawks and Abercrombie found the perfect star salesman of prefab rugged outdoorsman authenticity in Hudson. I think here of the 1970s disco group The Village People, who dressed up like cowboys, Indians, bikers, and cops and in doing so captured the unassuming hearts of millions of gun-crazy 8-year old suburban straight boys like myself. If we’d a known these Village People were gay, we would have burned our “Macho Man” records just as Roger Willoughby’s readers would have burned their fishing manuals.
Sadly, most critics failed to appreciate Hawks’ sly ribbing of corporate America’s yen for emblazoning logos on the great outdoors, probably because (a) that emblazoning was just getting underway and (b) a major player like Hawks was not the type to attack institutions straight out; some of his best golfing partners might be CEOs. So instead, the film was seen as an antiquated remake of Bringing Up Baby that stretched out and yawned like an old man in a beach chair. According to Hawks, the film tested well in its original, nearly three-hour running time, but the producers whittled it down to two hours and it flopped. Variety noted that the film “lumbers along tediously and repetitiously to a long overdue conclusion.”3 Even Robin Wood disses it in his book on Hawks, noting that “its very slow tempo draws attention to the weakness of some of the material.”4 That’s true, of course, but then again if the material Wood is discussing isn’t the film itself, but the material depicted — i.e., what’s used in Abercombie and Fitch products, or the moral (i.e., “straight”) fortitude of its square-jawed leading man — then the film excels as satire. In slowing down the tempo, Hawks ushers the film onto a postmodern pedestal, turning it this way and that until the tired old gags become positively Brechtian in their museum-light luster.
Admittedly, I am not the first writer to try and remove some of the tarnish from Sport‘s reputation. A 1971 re-examination by Molly Haskell caused her to be “moved by the reverberations of a whole substratum of meaning, of sexual antagonism, desire and despair.”5 I’d argue that Haskell is wrong for interpreting fish as being “an obvious phallic symbol” as she does, but I suppose she can be excused, perhaps because Hudson’s homosexuality was not yet an inescapable part of the cultural landscape. He was still quite closeted in Sport, but symbolically “outed” — as in brought kicking and screaming into the great outdoors by a pair of fast-talking, leggy dames. Prentiss’s character, Abigail, is a PR agent and loyal pal to Easy (Maria Perschy), a beautiful European blonde trying to save her father’s faltering fishing/camping lodge. Abigail and Easy terrify and annoy Hudson with their proposition to his boss that he enter their fishing tournament. They strut around the store like they own the place, shattering Hudson’s sense of superiority and comfort in the domain where “men can be men.” His insecurity and self-doubt flare up in huge waves of fear as this pair of sexy fish swim right into his fishing rod store, banging on his closet, stealing his parking space, and otherwise calling his big white male bluff.
There’s a direct link in all this gender deception to Shakespeare’s comedies. I’m thinking of As You Like It in particular, wherein intrepid young Rosalind and Celia flee to the Forest of Arden and Rosalind assumes male disguise so that the pair will not be harassed by lusty brigands. When they meet Orlando, a brooding prince in exile whom Rosalind adores, she keeps her male persona on in order to counsel him in the art of wooing (naturally Orlando doesn’t recognize her in her male attire). The similarity between Rosalind and Prentiss as Abigail is apparent throughout the film, as Abigail continually schools Roger in matters of fishing. As the film progresses, her manly and aggressive persona begins to weaken under the spell of love. Meanwhile, Easy provides friendship, comfort (open to interpret as lesbian), and sisterly support to Abigail in a manner a lot like that of Celia to Rosalind.
Hawks’ women characters are usually portrayed “one of the guys” and Easy and Abigail are no exception, but Sport is a rare example of a Hawksian pair bond of two women characters vs. the one male (usually it’s the other way around). So in this case, it’s more like Roger is trying to be accepted as “one of the girls” — who are themselves more comfortable with their masculinity than Roger seems to be with his. Prentiss in particular makes great comic use of her deep voice, making it extra low as if satirizing men in general as she talks to them. Abigail and Easy strut around with the cocky ease that seems to infuse women characters — in Shakespeare and elsewhere — when they adopt male dress. These women are not perky and forthright like a Doris Day, nor mature and gracious like Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows, nor blandly seductive, nor girlish and innocent. They wear many personas, changing voices and postures with each new seduction strategy. Hudson never evinces interest in either of them, at first, not even the foxy and Bond girlishly named Easy (assuming perhaps she is Abigail’s girl). He seems interested only in getting away from them, waving vague mentions of his fiancée (named Tex!) at them like a white flag.
A problem most critics of the film notice is the unease with which the character interact. They lack the usual rapport one associates with Hawks. It’s as if each actor is trying to steer the scene toward a different tone. One also gets the impression that the cast were all drinking off camera in an effort to break the onscreen ice. Instead of breaking the ice, however, what is broken is the spell of the narrative. But to paraphrase John Barrymore in a different Hawks film, “the sorrows of narrative immersion are the joys of Brechtian postmodernism.” In the scene at the revolving bar, Hudson and Prentiss both slur their speech (Prentiss slurs throughout the film) and change complexion with each different angle or shot, and one gets the sickly thrill that comes with being witness to a drunken fistfight outside a bar. This sense of being “off” is true, though, of a lot of Shakespeare’s, as well as Hawks’, comedies, for unlike the Police Academy series, their comedies are inquiries into gender and human nature first, successions of mindless pratfalls second. When gags fall flat — as they usually do — in Man’s Favorite Sport?, Hawks doesn’t try to pick them back up, he watches them fall with an agog fascination, not unlike that of a child dropping all his utensils at the dinner table. It’s not exactly funny, but it’s fascinating. The flatness of the falling then becomes the thread of the inquiry. Why is this joke not funny? What has changed? Have people really changed or have they just changed clothes and upgraded their sexual personae?
For contrast, Blake Edwards’ much more successful (both comedy wise and box office wise) film A Shot in the Dark came out the same year as Sport and it’s interesting to compare Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau with Hudson as Roger Willoughby. Both play men who are phonies in the sense that they are grossly incompetent “professionals” — parodies of the already vanishing Entitled White Male Authority Figure. The key difference is in the way they handle their pratfalls: Sellers plays Closeau with deadpan seriousness; we may know he’s an idiot but Closeau has the utmost confidence in his skills as a detective. Hudson’s Roger, on the other hand, sees himself as a buffoon. Even when he’s alone at his campsite we sense him squirming under the lash of some unseen tormentor. And yet, despite his tantrums and pratfalls we don’t believe he’s incompetent at all. How can he be? He’s Rock Hudson!
As mentioned earlier, the camping and fishing gear Hudson wrestles with in the film are actual Abercrombie and Fitch products, supplied by the company, meant to inspire purchase. This showroom feel might have been a drawback in a better film, but here it lends the middle part of the movie a much-needed expressionist aura. When Hudson first arrives at the national park, he is assigned a campsite instead of a cabin, and the next series of scenes is set outdoors at his campsite but is clearly and completely shot on an indoor set, fake enough that it seems like some bizarre outdoorsman shopping window display. If seen as a male model hired to set up camp in the window — ignoring the gaping tourists and looking rugged and manly all the while — Hudson’s hung-over, self-conscious discomfort suddenly makes perfect sense. In this light, his slapstick incompetence takes on less of the hue of the Jerry Lewis spastic, or the Closeau-esque obliviousness, and more of the genuine surreal abstraction of Jacques Hulot (all he would need is a pipe) or Rene Clair but with a distinctly American, Sears-Roebuck twist. Call it “Consumerist Post-Modern Expressionism” if you want to sound haughty.
Furthering the sense of the outré, when Abigail and Easy spot Roger flailing with his tent pole, they swim across the lake from the lodge to his campsite, attired not in sexy swimwear but covered head-to-toe in specially form-fitted black wetsuits. Undulating like mermaids through the water, they then rush up to Hudson’s campsite and stand at the edge of the frame, looking around with mock sheepishness like a pair of Harpo Marxes. The sight of these two tall thin beauties in frogmen outfits teasing big manly Hudson as he labors to set up a tent in this stage-lit showroom representation of the outdoors, it’s as if the film finally opens up its sail and breaks wind. The girls take on the air of water spirits straight out of The Tempest or Midsummer Night’s Dream,fathomlessly competent and godlike, laughing at Hudson’s hopeless mortal strivings.
Prentiss is an amazing comedienne — the missing link between Kate Hepburn and Diane Keaton. It’s easy to understand why Hawks wanted her so badly that he was willing to switch studios to have her. It’s also easy to understand why she wasn’t a big hit with audiences of the day. Even critics who consider themselves feminists recoil in modernist shock when they see a woman being truly and totally herself (and nothing angers a liberal critic more than being reminded they aren’t really that liberal). Covering up her character’s emotional vulnerability with quirky bits of business, Prentiss picks from an array of vocal timbres and tonalities, sometimes braying low like a man, or twirling sentences around the way another girl might spin a telephone cord key chain. She speaks oddly and darts around the screen with devious energy, capable and cocksure, like a bantamweight prizefighter, like Bugs Bunny crossed with Hawkeye Pierce.
It’s interesting to speculate whether Hawks was aware of Hudson’s orientation, unconsciously sensed it, or was totally oblivious; interesting, but ultimately unimportant. I don’t think Hawks really would care anyway. Hawks’ comedies deliberately mock “macho” trimmings, like football, fighting, jeeps, fishing, etc., stripping them away to reveal what Hawks does believe makes someone “good” as a man, or a human — which is bravery manifested in the ability to be emotionally honest and worthy of one’s own self-esteem. When Hudson finally wins the fishing trophy — his destiny! — he’s the least happy he’s been in the whole movie because this recognition is the last straw that breaks his phony persona’s back; he will have to come clean about his inability to fish; he will have to truly earn the trophy via his confession; he will in effect have to emerge from the closet, to out himself, to unfurl his freak flag and wave it in all its rainbow-colored glory. It’s the only way he can get the fish to stop leaping into his trousers.
Conversely, Prentiss’s Abigail finds her cool is blown when she sees “trains collide” after kissing Hudson (thus effectively bringing her back to the hetero fold, where it’s okay to get weak in the knees around a man). A knee-jerk feminist reading might be that she becomes a real woman only after surrendering to the power of the masculine, but that’s hardly the case with any Hawks heroine; Abigail too needs to get honest, to stop trying on masks and poses long enough to find her real self. In Shakespeare’s plays this is where defeat also turns into triumph; Rosalind gives up the trappings of male power and assumes the female role with the understanding that she’s not losing her pantaloons; she’s getting a man to wear them for her. It’s a Jungian merger of two archetypes. Such a happy union occurs at the end of the film, where Prentiss and Hudson wind up in bed together but not talking or touching. The difficulty lies in the fact that neither one gets what they were expecting with the other, and yet here they are, bonded by some invisible magnet. To truly succeed in a couple it’s not just the typical gender strait-jacket that must be transcended, but one’s own notion of who one is, or who one wants to be. Instead, one must learn to incorporate an inner instinct, to let go of old scripts, so to speak, and old ideas about themselves, to be always open to the moment.
The big fear of coming out of the fishing closet may be the realization that you are not really gay or straight, but stranded in that least understood and most maligned by both sides section, the bisexual. Is the bisexual afraid to make up his/her mind? Or are most straights and gays really lying to themselves, hiding out in one closet or another, afraid of being open to everything and everyone? Perhaps one may oscillate back and forth between one camp and the other, forever and ever — gay in the fall, straight in the summer. It doesn’t matter. Sex is never the point in a Hawks comedy any more than in Shakespeare’s. This is the world of myth, where marriage represents unifying halves of the soul, a process of becoming “whole” and merging the unconscious with the conscious and attaining true enlightenment, which marriage symbolizes. Just as Rosalind didn’t give up her pantaloons but gained a man to wear them, so too does Roger Willoughby not have to pull fish out of the water, for he’s gained a whole wide river to keep them in. One comes away realizing that Man’s Favorite Sport? shares more than just character and setting similarities to Shakespeare’s plays. Like them, the superficial trappings and comedic elements of the story may be dated to the point of antiquity, but the underlying themes are still too progressive for most of society to recognize.
- Joseph McBride, ed. Hawks on Hawks. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. [↩]
- Universal Pictures, Co., Inc (1963). Showman’s Manual: Man’s Favorite Sport? Universal Pictures, Co., Inc. (Studio pressbook [↩]
- Variety. January 1, 1964. [↩]
- Robin Wood, Howard Hawks. London: Secker and Warburg, 2006, p. 132. [↩]
- Molly Haskell, “Man’s Favorite Sport? (Revisited),” in Joseph McBride, Focus on Howard Hawks.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972. [↩]