I was partly sad because Omar Epps and Tyra Banks loved each other, dammit, and now their love would never be. But mostly I was sad because Tyra was a promising young athlete who had worked very hard to get to college and now she would never go the Olympics and set world track records. She would have to be a model instead. So sad.
But seriously, I think it’s because in movies where the lady lead is an athlete, she is necessarily shown coming up against brutal physical and emotional barricades and doggedly bursting through them. She is allowed to be tough in a way that women rarely are in movies but often are in real life. Watching lady athletes in movies inspires me to be just as tough as they are (even if I’m just being tough about jogging for 20 minutes instead of sitting on my couch). Here is a list of movies about ladies doing sports that are much better than Higher Learning and made me cry even harder.
My very first lady sports movie (unless you count Flashdance). This movie was a genuine cultural moment, due to its all-star cast—Gina Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell—and director—Penny Marshall. The topic of the movie—the women’s baseball league that started during World War II—is rich, but the heart of the movie is the relationship between two ball-playing sisters, as the younger, played by Lori Petty, tries to come out from beneath her all-star older sister’s shadow, and the older, played by Gina Davis, struggles to let her.
The Cutting Edge
Although previews presented this as both a fish-out-of-water (hockey player tries to figure skate) and a taming-of-the-shrew (uncouth hockey player tames snobby rich girl) story, the reality is deeper and more enjoyable. D.B. Sweeney’s Doug Dorsey is an athlete forced into early retirement by an injury who so misses physical exertion and competition that he is willing to become a figure skater—a sport he considered beneath his contempt—in order to get back to it. Moira Kelly’s Kate Moseley is a woman who, with her talent, training, and drive, should have won many gold medals by now, but her unhappiness and self-doubt have gotten in the way. The Cutting Edge is about both characters learning to be humble and to let go of their fear. Plus, figure skating!
There may not be a professional league for riding whales, but this wonderful movie has all the hallmarks of a lady sports movie nonetheless. Girl attempting to participate in activity that only males are supposed to engage in? Check. Male relative who loves girl but thinks her attempt to pierce the gender boundaries is wrong? Check. Pai’s story, which takes place in New Zealand among her Maori tribe, is both heartbreaking and beautiful.
After her soccer star older brother is killed in a car accident, 15-year-old Gracie tries out for the boys team. This movie takes place in 1978, when girl’s teams were rare and Title IX was brand new. Gracie is honest and brutal in its portrayal of the challenges that its character faces, from the way she acts out with sex and drugs to express her grief to her harsh physical and psychological bullying at the hands of her male teammates. Gracie is loosely based on Elizabeth Shue, who plays Gracie’s mother in the movie and who played soccer in real-life on an all-boy’s team until she was 13. She says of Gracie, “The movie is really what would have happened if I hadn’t quit...I quit because of what people would think of me. The pressure from the boys. The awkward development of my body. I really, really regret it. I wish I’d been brave enough.” [http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/27/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/27artsnj.html?_r=1&oref=slogin]
This documentary follows two stuntwomen, Jeannie Epper (who did Lynda Carter’s stunts on the 1970s Wonder Woman TV show) and Zoe Bell (who did Lucy Lawless’ stunts on Xena: Warrior Princess). It’s a pleasure to watch these two insanely tough women do what they love and it’s a fascinating look into the select group of men and women who throw themselves into danger repeatedly until the director has what they need. In the movie, Bell lands the plum role of Uma Thurman’s double in Kill Bill. Quentin Tarantino liked her so much that he later cast her in a speaking role in Grindhouse (which, technically, could be considered another awesome female sports movie what with its car roof riding and male killer dominating).
True story: I once briefly dated a guy who asked me to tell him about my best day in recent experience. I immediately told him it was the day when I went to see Bend It Like Beckham and I was so happy when I came out of the theater because of girls playing soccer and friendship and it is just the best movie ever! He started laughing hysterically. At me. Because he thought the movie looked dumb. That was when I knew it wasn’t going to work out between us.
This movie features a lot of super tough roller derby ladies kicking the shit out of each other, but it is also about figuring out who you are, finding your purpose in life, and then working really hard to achieve that purpose. Also, it is secretly one of the best movies about teenage girls and their mothers that I have ever seen. Plus: bonus Zoe Bell as one of Ellen Page’s teammates!
I had a feeling this one was going to be awesome even before I saw it, but the weirdness of the ad campaign convinced some of my lady friends otherwise. (Boobs were featured prominently, as if they were afraid no men would see it otherwise. Also, I have no proof, but I still suspect those boobs were enlarged slightly for the poster.) However, the movie’s quiet exploration of an athlete letting go of her fear so that she can achieve her dreams won them over. Also, friendship! Surfing! And a tricky relationship between two sisters!
The mother of all crying movies. I was still crying when we walked up the aisle and left the theater. But from happiness! Love and Basketball follows Monica Wright, lady basketball player extraordinaire, as she plays her way through high school, college, the European leagues, and, eventually, The WNBA. Meanwhile, she just can’t forget about her childhood sweetheart, who is also a basketball player. And just to bring things full circle, the childhood sweetheart is played by Omar Epps, and his fiancé—who he is definitely not supposed to be with because his and Monica’s love is forever—is played by Ms. Tyra Banks! Poor Tyra never gets to be with Omar Epps.
What are your favorite lady sports movies?