The game of tennis is a convenient all-purpose metaphor, and filmmakers know it. I’m compiling a list.
1. The Squid and the Whale. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, a thinly-veiled account of his parents’ divorce and the hell of joint custody, set in Brooklyn in 1986. Painful and funny; after a while I couldn’t tell if I was laughing or cringeing. The movie opens with the couple and their two sons playing doubles, and the way they play sums up their disintegrating marriage. The younger son takes tennis lessons from a pro once ranked 402nd in the world. There is an argument over the merits of the one-handed backhand. The mother has an affair with the pro.
2. Match Point. Written and directed by Woody Allen. One of his darkest films, a comeback of sorts, and not set in New York. A former world-ranked tennis pro is befriended by the scion of a very wealthy family. Before long he marries his friend’s sister and becomes a rising executive at his father-in-law’s company. Then he falls in love with his friend’s fiancee, an American starlet, and risks losing the fabulous lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. Main tennis metaphor: the net ball, and the role of chance in human lives.
3. Strangers On A Train. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (of the Ripley books). Two men meet on a train. One is a tennis player on his way to see his estranged wife and ask her for a divorce. The other is a very strange man who wants his father dead. He proposes that they swap murders: he’ll kill the wife, and the tennis player will kill his father, that way the police won’t suspect anything because what would be their motives? The tennis player thinks the strange man is kidding. He’s not. The wife is murdered, and the player is the suspect. To elude the police and the killer, he hatches plan that involves his winning a match at the US Open in three sets, then taking off. There’s that famous scene where everyone in the stands is watching the ball fly across the court, but the killer is staring right at the tennis player.
4. A Room With A View. A Merchant-Ivory production. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala adapted the E.M. Forster novel for the screen. Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) is a muddled young woman in Edwardian England. On a tour of Italy she falls in love with the unsuitable George Emerson (Julian Sands), who grabs and kisses her during a picnic in Florence. Upon returning to England Lucy gets engaged to the twit Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day Lewis). Then George unexpectedly appears at her house to play tennis with her brother (Long pants! Wooden racquets!) Cecil does not play, preferring to walk around the court reading aloud from a trashy novel whose author Lucy had met in Italy. The passage he is reading describes the grab-and-kiss episode at that picnic in Florence. When Cecil is not looking, George grabs Lucy again. Here, tennis equals running and sweating equals passion and excitement.
5. Salawahan. Directed by Ishmael Bernal. I saw it years ago on Cinema One. Jay Ilagan and Mat Ranillo III are young men on the make. Rio Locsin is the “nice” girl, Sandy Andolong is the “liberated” fashion designer, and the fabulous Rita Gomez is a sex researcher. One day the three women meet at the apartment Jay Ilagan shares with Mat Ranillo. They eye each other warily, then Rio Locsin announces that it’s her birthday. Sandy Andolong asks her how old she is.
Rio Locsin: I’m 18.
Sandy Andolong: I’m 20.
Rita Gomez: I’m hungry.
Mat Ranillo discusses his sex life while playing tennis with his friends, and since this is the early 1980s everyone is wearing tight short shorts like Bjorn Borg used to wear. The tennis here signifies privilege and youthful energy. Usually when people play tennis in Filipino movies, it means they’re rich. (Rich people are also portrayed as wearing full make-up, couture, and jewelry while sitting around the house.)
6. Pat and Mike. Directed by George Cuckor. Katharine Hepburn plays a golf-and-tennis star, and Spencer Tracy her manager. Haven’t seen it. Given the year-round schedule of professional tennis, it would be impossible for a contemporary player to also have a career in golf.
7. Wimbledon. The Four Weddings and A Funeral people attempt a romantic comedy, set at the world’s most famous tournament, involving a top female player and a former world number 11 on the verge of retirement. They flub it completely, despite having Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst in the lead roles. There’s so much emotional turbulence and drama in tennis; this movie doesn’t have the intensity of a checkers match.
8. Annie Hall. Woody Allen again. Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) meet on a tennis court. She wears neckties and vests. He keeps watching The Sorrow and The Pity. They fall in love. They break up. What, you were expecting a happy ending?
9. The Royal Tenenbaums. Written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. Directed by Wes Anderson, who is quietly going through the collected works of J.D. Salinger—disguised, so he can’t be accused of unauthorized adaptations. This one is his Glass family chronicles. Luke Wilson plays a tennis player who self-destructs during a match—something that happens to our favorite players on a regular basis.
10. Mr. Deeds. Adam Sandler makes stupid movies that I enjoy. I would rather watch a moronic Adam Sandler movie than some pretentious artsy flick. (He was brilliant in Punch Drunk Love. No one noticed.) In this one he plays a small-town aspiring greeting card poet who inherits a billion-dollar company. Evil executive Peter Gallagher invites him to play tennis; Deeds gets helpful advice from new friend John McEnroe.
11. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Vittorio De Sica directed, based on the novel by Giorgio Bassani. In Ferrara, Italy in the 1930s, a young man plays tennis in the palatial estate of the Finzi-Continis. He falls in love with the daughter. The fascists come to
power. Their idyllic world goes straight to hell.
12. Sabrina. By Billy Wilder. Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) is the chauffeur’s daughter. She is in love with the younger son (William Holden) of her father’s boss. The older son (Humphrey Bogart) steps in to break up the budding romance. The family lives in a huge Long Island estate with an indoor tennis court and an outdoor tennis court. Holden’s character meets his dates at the indoor tennis court; he brings a bottle of champagne and two glasses. On his way to meet Sabrina, he accidentally sits on the glasses.
In the 90s Sydney Pollack did a remake starring Julia Ormond. It is foolish to remake an Audrey Hepburn movie. It only calls attention to the fact that Audrey Hepburn is not in it. More recently, Jonathan Demme redid Charade with Thandie Newton. Aargh.
13. M. Hulot’s Holiday by Jacques Tati. On vacation at a seaside resort, Monsieur Hulot provokes a series of catastrophes. On the tennis court, however, he demonstrates an odd but effective technique.
14. Shampoo directed by Hal Ashby. Warren Beatty plays a heterosexual hairdresser who wants to open his own salon. To finance the venture he approaches Jack Warden, whose wife (Lee Grant) and mistress (Julie Christie) he happens to be sleeping with. The daughter played by Carrie Fisher is added to the list when Beatty turns up at his investor’s house and finds her playing tennis. She jumps him. No wonder he had so many customers.
15. Shakespeare’s Henry V, the film adaptation directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, and the 1989 version that announced Kenneth Branagh as the next Olivier/Orson Welles (Whatever happened to that?). The young King Henry declares his claim to the French throne; the Dauphin insults him by sending him …tennis balls. According to historians this didn’t really happen, but it’s an effective bit onstage and onscreen. Advantage, Will Shakespeare.
What treasure, uncle?
Tennis-balls, my liege.
We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for.
When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
16. English royalty also play tennis in Derek Jarman’s Edward II—a variation called “real tennis”, which was played indoors. And could someone check if there is a tennis scene in Jarman’s Caravaggio? Caravaggio killed a man over a dispute in a tennis match.
17. A Good Year directed by Ridley Scott has a scene in which Russell Crowe plays tennis with the cook in the villa in Provence that he’s inherited. This is according to my friend Mike who is addicted to tennis and plays four times a week.
18. I am happy to add Claire’s Knee to the tennis movie list. It’s a stretch—the tennis scene is not that important—but an excellent excuse to mention Eric Rohmer. Rohmer movies are not what movies are supposed to be: they tell rather than show. Nothing much happens. The characters sit around discussing how they feel, what they think, their notions of happiness, and what they plan to do. Later, they sit and talk about whether they did what they had planned to do, and what happened. For some reason, it’s fascinating. In Claire’s Knee, a man in his thirties, who is about to get married, becomes fixated on the titular body part. No, it is not a sex-comedy about a midlife crisis. Something momentous happens when he beholds that knee, and Rohmer works it all out beautifully.
19. Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni. David Hemmings plays a fashion photographer who takes pictures in the park. (Warning: Plot spoilers follow.) When he develops and enlarges the photos, he becomes convinced that he has just witnessed a murder. But the girl in the pictures, the negatives and photographs, even the dead body disappear, and he has no proof of what he saw. Or what he thought he saw. If he really did see it. In the end, all that’s left are a bunch of mimes in strange costumes, playing tennis without rackets or balls. Deep.
20. In Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, the woman takes a tennis racket hanging on the wall in its press and threatens the man with it. He then pulls two pianos attached to two priests and a dead donkey.
21. In Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical Murmur Of The Heart, Laurent’s older brothers teach him how to play “spinach tennis” at the dinner table. Later Laurent is diagnosed with a heart murmur and sent off to a sanatorium for treatment. He is accompanied by his beautiful mother, to whom he’s really, umm, attached. They play tennis.