In honor of this weekend’s Academy Awards, The Flick is a new series of reviews looking back at the good, the bad and the ugly in tennis-related cinema. This first edition looks at Ida Lupino’s 1951 film, “Hard, Fast and Beautiful.”
“From the very moment you were born i knew you were different. I could see things in you that no one else could and I knew that somehow I was going to get the very best there was out of life for you. Listening to you drive that ball against the garage door used to drive me crazy. That’s because I always wanted something better for you. And I made my mind up to get it no matter what I had to do.“
And thus begins the story of young tennis prodigy Florence Farley, a small-town girl from Santa Monica, Calif., (if such a thing exists), who had never been on a plane or east of the San Bernardino Mountains before a chance encounter ushered her into big-time amateur tennis. Driven by an opportunistic and manipulative mother who sees her daughter as her ticket into the high-class life she believes she’s entitled to and surrounded by benefactors and agents who see her as nothing more than a cash cow, “Hard, Fast and Beautiful” is the classic story of an overly controlling stage parent who uses the “good parent” guise to mask her selfish ambitions.
In other words, it’s a tennis tale as old as time.
It’s a rare 1950s film written, directed and starring women. Lupino, a poor man’s Bette Davis, was one of the first women to transition to a seat behind the camera, the second woman to be admitted to the Director’s Guild of America. The screenplay was written by Martha Wilkerson and starred Sally Forrest as Farley, a perfect cross between a young Keri Russell and Katherine Hepburn, and Claire Trevor as her mother, Millie, a wonderful performance as a woman genuinely convinced that her selfish behavior is equivalent to doing the best by her daughter.
“My daughter is going to have everything that I missed,” Millie tells her husband, the grounded but powerless patriarch of the Farley family. “She’s going to go places. Maybe after today she won’t even have to play on those public courts.” Richard Williams scoffs in your general direction, Mrs. Farley.
It’s an enjoyable if not predictable watch. If you’re a tennis fan you’ll recognize the behavior of modern starlets and the nightmare parents attached at their hips (and wallet), all of whom picked up a racket years after young Florence, who rebels against her mother by coming home at 4 a.m. drunk and reeking of smoke. Teenage rebellion hasn’t changed much over the years.
Perhaps the most revealing and interesting aspect of “Hard, Fast and Beautiful” is the focus on the tension between amateur and professional tennis. In the pre-Open Era, amateurs were considered the pure form of player. The disgust and disdain with which the characters treated the idea of playing tennis for money is jarring to hear now. You’d think professional tennis players were engaged in the world’s oldest profession the way it gets spit on in this film.
When Florence wins a $50 bet by winning a friendly match against a benefactor, her boyfriend, Gordon, flips out and practically implies the money was left on a nightstand. “If you want to play tennis for money than get on the level about it,” he yells at her. And when she finally learns that her mother has funded their European tour by taking monetary advances, their relationship is irreparably damaged. “Beating my brains out on the tennis court while you were playing it dirty for money,” Florence seethes. Oh, how times have changed.
The actual tennis scenes are substantial and fun. To be honest I really didn’t know whether Florence would win her matches or not, so credit to the writer for creating a story that really could have gone anywhere while still making its point. There was a commitment to showing the tennis as a sport and not just a hit-and-giggle for girls in the park. I appreciated that Florence was shown sweating as she played, that she didn’t swing the racket like a ballerina. They may not have actually filmed the U.S. Open scenes at Forrest Hills or Wimbledon at the All England Club, but the points were protracted (thanks to some creative editing). There were well-placed low-angle shots to show the chalk kick up when the ball hit a line. Considering films were edited manually back then, the tennis scenes were cut quite meticulously with wide shots, close-ups and action shots spliced together.
I enjoyed the old tennis clips so much I actually found myself invested in the quality of play. One of the character details that never really panned out into a substantive plot point was that Florence had no backhand. Her boyfriend chalked it up to her spending years hitting her forehand against a garage door. Her agent mentioned how horrible it was, too. So why in the world are her opponents constantly hitting to her forehand, I caught myself yelling at the screen. No wonder she won the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in her first appearances. Everyone else was tactically deficient!
The film begins and ends with a shot of an empty stadium. Florence hands over a trophy to her mother. “This is yours,” she tells mom. “You’ve earned it.” Millie looks on in anguish when she sees the agent with whom she worked moved to another prodigy. The film ends with her sitting in the stands in the dark, clutching that trophy, as trash blows like tumbleweeds. Heavy-handed symbolism? Sure. But also a reminder that while the game of tennis has changed over the years, the people haven’t.
“Hard, Fast, and Beautiful” is currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.