Sunday, April 13, 2008

Man's Favorite Sport?: A Rappaportian Reading

Having watched Mark Rappaport’s film essay Rock Hudson’s Home Movies before seeing Man’s Favorite Sport?, I confess I came to the latter work pre-disposed to view it, at least in part, as an allegory about suppressed homosexuality, an interpretation which the actual viewing did little to discredit. Rappaport’s film, a deconstructive reading of Hudson’s body of work, consists of dozens of isolated clips from the actor’s movies that, taken out of context, implicitly acknowledge his sexual orientation. If Rappaport devotes a disproportionate amount of screen time to clips of Howard Hawks' 1964 comedy, it’s because that film, rather than offering only occasional moments that seem to foreground the actor’s homosexuality, provides a coherent framework for a sustainable allegorical reading: as the efforts of a closeted gay man to conform to a social structure that only acknowledges a sole model of familial organization.

If we object to reading the film in such reductive terms (or to the fact that such a reading necessitates an essential reliance on extra-textual information, i.e. our knowledge of the actor’s sexual orientation), it nonetheless lends itself very easily to such an interpretation. If we prefer, it’s easy enough to look at the film in more general terms as playing out the implications of the fear that most of us have that, in one way or another, our life is a fraud and that sooner or later we’ll be found out. Hawks' picture is also certainly expressive of a more specific kind of male anxiety about living up to societal notions of masculinity. But, it’s worth looking at the film as explicit gay allegory, not only since the picture supports such a reading, but because it’s important to understand the subversive possibilities of the Hollywood system – even as by 1964, that system had largely disintegrated - that allowed for a much more radical, if subtextual critique, than has become possible in the more explicit, but far more conservative framework of the contemporary industry.

In the reading proposed by Rappaport, Hudson’s character, Roger Willoughby, an “expert” on fishing who makes his living selling fishing gear based on a false authority, represents a closeted gay man, while the act of fishing – which he’s never actually performed – stands in for heterosexual intercourse. (And the animal itself – for whose sliminess Roger has a particular aversion - is equated with female genitalia). That the two “sports” (fishing and “girls”) are implicitly linked is made clear through the figure of Abigail Page (Paula Prentiss), a young woman charged with teaching Roger how to fish so he can participate in an important tournament, and who seems to fill the role within the conventions of the genre (romantic comedy) of the love interest. As she instructs him in the ways of fishing, she also becomes attracted to him and repeatedly attempts to get him to kiss her. Thus the connection between Roger’s two forms of education are explicitly equated and, as the audience expects him to succeed in mastering fishing, so it’s understood that he’ll simultaneously wind up with Abigail. But, just as he never develops any aptitude for the sport (although he wins the tournament, it’s through sheer dumb luck), he never convincingly demonstrates an attraction for his romantic lead. Excluding the final scene, which seems a tacked on contrivance to bring the film in line with generic conventions, his two efforts to kiss her seem wholly unromantic – the first a perfunctory peck, the second a more spirited attempt, but one which Abigail dismisses as “terrible”, as if, having summoned up the resolve to perform a clearly distasteful activity, Roger was unable to wholly suppress the distaste. (That Abigail later claims to have been lying in her negative assessment of Roger's kiss doesn't negate the lackluster presentation of the act that we witness on screen. To say there's no chemistry between the two leads would be an understatement.)

Rappaport’s interpretation is bolstered by several additional screen elements that he doesn't have time to sufficiently elaborate on and which deserve a brief mention here. The film deliberately saddles Roger with a fiancée, but one who barely appears on screen and for whom he seems to have even less attraction than he does for Abigail (indeed he refers to her only as “Tex”, a nickname not commonly given to a woman, suggesting that Roger can only view a potential mate in masculine terms). One of Roger‘s fears is that his fiancée will discover his fraud and refuse to marry him, a fear that serves to further connect his inability to fish (the ostensible subject of his anxiety) with his disinclination for heterosexual union (the subtextual one). As Roger’s professional deception can no longer remain hidden (he must compete in the tournament), so his social deception must also come to light as he enters into marriage. This double fear highlights the dual nature of Roger's initiation; on the eve of his entry into domestic life, he must simultaneously master both forms of “masculine” behavior or forfeit his expected position as the privileged head of a fledgling household.

In addition, the film features two “coming-out” scenes in which Roger‘s secret is treated first as an object of shame and then as inescapable fact that can no longer be kept hidden. In the earlier scene, Roger takes Abigail and her friend to a "Piano Museum" where various coin-operated player pianos create the necessary din to prevent anyone from hearing the shameful admission that he’s never been fishing before. In the second scene, at the end of the film, Roger calls his boss and his clients together at a bar and confesses himself as a “fraud”. Predictably, he’s forced to concede his tournament championship and is immediately fired from his job. Notwithstanding the film’s positive final twist, in which Roger is re-hired and is allowed to win the girl, the consequences of his “transgression” are clear: in the patriarchal world in which he operates, there’s simply no room for alternate modes of behavior. Just as Rock Hudson was forced to assume the guise of Hollywood ladies' man, so too Roger Willoughby can only achieve success through a deliberately "fraudulent" identification. But, in a social order that often dictates an essential disconnect between public and private identities, the question of an "authentic" self becomes highly problematic indeed.

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