Before he was the first Doctor Who, William Hartnell appeared in the 1963 Kitchen Sink drama This Sporting Life. Starring Richard Harris as one of the Angry Young Men populating such films at the time, it’s a great and rough tale of a man whose response to sudden fame is demand for things as surprisingly normal as they are surprisingly elusive.
Frank (Harris) is a coal miner in Yorkshire, boarding in the home of a widow named Margaret (Rachel Roberts). Some affection is developing between the two—possibly just from living in proximity of each other. Margaret is too afraid of a new relationship, though, or too devoted to her dead husband, or both. She hasn’t sorted her own feelings out, which is hardly strange, especially since she has two kids to take care of.
But then an old man named Johnson (Hartnell) sees Frank in a bar fight and thinks he could be a rugby star. In fact, Johnson seems almost inspired by the sight of Frank and Margaret wastes no time throwing homophobic aspersions (“He looks at you like a woman, Frank!”). It seems more likely, though, Johnson, or “Dad” as Frank calls him, is just the kind of person who can spot and cultivate a myth and legend. He can spot someone people can rally around and believe in.
How does rough and tumble and none-too-bright Frank respond to fame and fortune? As you might expect—with a big car, boozy parties, and a mink coat for Margaret which she reluctantly wears on a reluctant night out where Frank makes a scene at a posh restaurant.
Like so many great movies about simple people who are suddenly given massive wealth and fame, This Sporting Life is about how life is derailed by weird decadence and imprudence. But this movie does a particularly good job of showing how the sudden injection of means for Frank upsets a delicately evolving relationship. He doesn’t sleep with groupies who throw themselves at him, or with the team owner’s wife who seems to feel she sexually owns him, but Margaret assumes he does. Everyone just expects it no matter what he does. And when Margaret’s affections are on the edge anyway, it doesn’t take much of a push to push her away completely.
Harris is terrific in the film and so is Roberts. Hartnell is great, too, though his role is smaller than I was expecting. This Sporting Life is available on The Criterion Channel.
Twitter Sonnet #1298
A grassy needle decked a courtly tube.
In grainy thoughts the film in time returned.
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In state the ghouls in dance were late interred.
The echo dime requites the nickel chip.
In time, the neck was stuck betwixt the eyes.
A second glass reduced the wine to dip.
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The blinking dwarf illumes the giant red.
A tower built of trees surveyed the grass.
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