Girls Can’t Surf (2020) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Not to take anything away from this fascinating documentary about the battle for gender parity in the surfing world, but it occurred to me how few movies exist that features female athletes, compared to the plethora focusing on males. The occasional Million Dollar Baby (2004) and I, Tonya (2017) are in stark contrast to the plethora of Rocky (and now Creed)movies,  or all the American football and baseball pictures while Kevin Costner alone has managed a dozen varied sports movies and even the recent King Richard (2021), ostensibly about the Williams sisters, actually centered on the father.  

And the reason I ask is that the lives of any of the champion surfers showcased here would have made a worthy biopic, their stories mostly about overcoming adversity, battling male prejudice and finally, though only in the last few years, winning equal pay with men. Just as King Richard was as much about brand management, so is Girls Can’t Surf, although it was only by accident that big business understood the commercial impact women surfers had on sales of board clothing.

And the other reason I ask is that compared even to the long ago likes of Big Wednesday (1978)  and Endless Summer (1965) the actual surfing footage here is meagre and it got me to thinking how much better it would have been with a proper budget for filming the surfing action.

Anyway, back to the movie I actually saw rather than the one I can only imagine, this covers the growth of female surfing from being regarded as a mere appendage to the male version to the billion-dollar industry it has become, tracing the largely sexist obstacles thrown in the way of women. The biggest issue initially wasn’t prize money, but that the men hogged the best waves and the best beaches, women often allocated times where the waves would be dismal, and therefore could not show off their skills.

This isn’t a sport like tennis or soccer where muscle power gives men the edge. Here, everyone is battling the same ocean. It’s not as if women get to surf with smaller, easier waves – that’s the last thing they want. The ocean doesn’t take it any easier on the women. But the women, barely tolerated, found themselves not just squeezed out of a decent share of the prize money but, being ignored in terms of publicity and deemed unworthy of articles in the surfing magazines, lost out in the battle to raise the sponsorship required just to make a living.

Whenever recession hit the sport, the answer was always to reduce female prize money, cancel female events or attempt to drive them out of the sport altogether. There’s an entire roll-call of generation after generation of top surfers not just battling each other to become world champion (there’s a program of global events as in Formula One racing) but battling personal circumstances – Pauline Menczer was crippled by arthritis, Pam Burridge suffered from anorexia – and each other as well as endemic sexism and inappropriate male advances.

The men were the glamour pusses, and they preferred it if the women stayed in their cars and read Mills & Boon novels and watched them surf, or if they wanted to parade about it should be in bikinis for the beauty contests that appeared a constituent part of any event.

The story is told in large part by the participants, names that were unfamiliar to me, like Jodie Cooper, Frieda Zamba, Lisa Anderson, Wendy Botha, Layne Beachley and Stephanie Gilmore. But the terms they use are the same as competitive athletes the world over, the determination to win, sometimes win at all costs, and even with a world championship trophy to your name unable to attract sponsorship.

The film could easily be interpreted as all about the battle for parity. At the start female prize money was barely a tenth of the million-dollar prize fund allocated the men. But even when manufacturers recognised that females were selling product, female earnings were usually half that of men. Eventually, the women took action, effectively going on strike when offered the poorer time slots in competitions, and at some point, it’s not exactly clear when, forcing the organisers to create a more even playing field, taking competitions to places where there was no shortage of giant waves for both sexes. The men, encountering exactly the same waves as their female counterparts, were forced to admit that in some instances the women were actually better. A social media outcry spelled the end of unequal pay, although noticeably there was no back payment for the years of inequality.

So, a terrific film directed by Christopher Nelius (Storm Surfers: New Zealand, 2010) – and co-written with Julie-Anne Du Ruvo – with no shortage of potential candidates for an awesome biopic, the supposed glamor of the surfing world exposed as tawdry for the most part, a bunch of larger-than-life personalities, a dose of humor, and women riding waves you would be scared to cross in a boat never mind with just a board for company.

In some programming quirk I caught this at the cinema but apparently it’s available on DVD and it must be streaming somewhere. The small screen will no doubt diminish the action but won’t take away form the basic story.

The Sweet Ride (1968) ***

Unusual drama mainlining on Californian surf, sex, bikers, a mystery of Blow-Up (1966) dimensions and the best entrance since Ursula Andress in Dr No (1962). Displays a 1960s vibe with a 1950s pay-off as the “hitchhiker” of responsibility rears its ugly head.

A woman thrown out of a car narrowly escapes being run over. The cops jack in the investigation after television actress Vickie (Jacqueline Bisset) refuses to explain why she’s been badly beaten up.  And so we enter flashback mode to supposedly find out. She makes a glorious entrance, emerging from the sea, minus bikini top, into the lives of surfer Denny (Michael Sarrazin), jazz pianist Choo-Choo (Bob Denver) and ageing beach bum and tennis hustler Collie (Tony Franciosca). From the off, she’s enigmatic, gives a false address, won’t explain bruises on her arm, has something clandestine going on with television producer Caswell (Warren Stevens) and like Blow-Up we are only privy to snippets of information.

She’s half-in half-out of a relationship with Dennis, with Collie hovering on the periphery hoping to pick up the pieces to his sexual advantage. Contemporary issues clog the background, Choo-Choo tries a camp number complete with pink dog to avoid the draft, a neighbor threatens to shoot Parker for wandering around in shorts and habitually stealing his newspaper, epithets like “degenerates” are tossed around, Choo Choo’s girlfriend Thumper, while appearing in movies with titles like Suburban Lust Queen acts den mother, there’s not much actual exciting surfing, and a biker called Mr. Clean is somehow involved.

The romance plays out well, Vicky unsure, Denny convinced but without a livelihood to offer and unable to get a straight answer out of her. Choo-Choo gets the gig of his dreams in Las Vegas and there’s an rape scene, more unsettling because it’s committed by Denny with the bizarre justification of getting “just for once something on my terms.”  And there’s the equally disquieting sense that the only explanation for Vickie’s behavior is to tab her a nymphomaniac, walking out of an argument with a mysterious man in a beach house to drop her clothes for a bout of sex with Mr Clean.

I must have seen a different picture from everyone else. A good few critics at the time and reviewers since appear to think Vickie was also victim of a gangbang by the bikers, but I can’t see why. When he sees Vickie coming down from the beach house, Mr. Clean shouts “everybody split” and his buddies clear the beach. However, Mr. Clean, ironically, gives the best indication of her state of mind, explaining that Vickie “kept staring back at the house and moaning about how she wanted to die” while he enjoyed the best night of his life sex-wise.

Denny and Collie prove not to be the pussycats they appear, bearding the bikers in their den and beating up Mr. Clean while Denny goes on to deliver a hiding to Caswell. But what this film turns out to be is an examination of vulnerability, how easily those with a new sense of freedom are trapped. An examination of contemporary mores, perhaps, but in not resolving the mystery of Vickie ultimately fails to deliver, especially as it does not, from the outset, carry the kind of artistic credentials of Antonioni in Blow-Up.

Perhaps the mystery needs no resolution, it’s just same old-same old dressed up in the novelty of sexual freedom. There’s no idea of why Vickie was beaten up, and essentially abandoned on the road to become accident fodder, and no hint really of why she fell foul of someone so badly she needed disposed of, no notion that she was a threat to anyone. (Or, for that matter, no explanation of what happened to her bikini top and why, if she was so apparently free with her charms, she was so shy about being seen half-naked.) On the other hand, victim may well have been Vicky’s destiny from the get-go, that kind of innocence only waiting to be defiled.

In any 1960s contemporary picture there’s always the temptation to accept as truthful or reject as phony the lives shown. The idea that sexual freedom bestows actual freedom is usually the issue until consequence (i.e. old-fashioned Hollywood morality) comes into play. This is less heavy-handed than, for example, Easy Rider (1969) or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). The characters make decisions to grow up or to stay locked in a world of easy sex, dope and money. There’s no grand finale, just a more realistic drifting apart, and it’s only Vickie who comes apart, although that process had begun long before she met the drifters.  

Jacqueline Bisset (The Detective, 1968), in her divinely posh British accent, comes over well as an attractive screen presence and complex character. In fact, she has a bigger part here than in Bullitt (1968) or The Detective (1968). If you wanted anyone to portray a soulful hippie you need look no further than tousle-haired Michael Sarrazin (In Search of Gregory, 1969) and normally if you required someone on the sly, despicable side, Tony Franciosca (Fathom, 1967) might well be your first port of call, but Franciosca proves the surprise here, classic wind-up merchant and predator who exhibits considerable vulnerability when he realizes he is losing the worship of the idealistic young.

Former British matinee idol Michael Wilding (A Girl Named Tamiko, 1962) and Norma Crane (Penelope, 1966) appear as Vickie’s parents.  Bob Denver (Who’s Minding the Mint, 1967) and Michele Carey (The Spy with My Face, 1965) are solid support. Director Harvey Hart (Fortune and Men’s Eyes, 1970) tries to cover too much ground and could have done with narrowing the focus. Future Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (son of Joseph L.) made his screenwriting debut adapting the book by William Murray.

The DVD is a bit on the pricey side, but if you just want to check it out, YouTube has a print.

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