Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Main Event

Train Wreck Cinema

By Jonathon Saia

The Main Event (WB, 1979) – Director: Howard Zieff. Writers: Gail Parent & Andrew Smith. Stars: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, Paul Sand, Whitman Mayo, Patti D’Arbanville, Chu Chu Malave, Richard Lawson, James Gregory, Richard Altman, Seth Banks, Lindsay Bloom, Earl Boen, Roger Bowen, Badja Duola & Rory Calhoun. Color, Rated PR, 112 minutes.

I am not an object, a woman; I am a person, a man!"

I am utterly ambivalent toward the so-called "battle of the sexes." As far as I'm concerned, Henry Higgins was right. Why can't a woman be more like a man?!

We get it. Men and women are different. Maybe even come from different planets! Who cares? Haven't we exhausted this phenomenon by now? And isn't it presumptuous to assume that all women do X and all men like Y? Shouldn't we be focusing on the person and not the gender? Focusing on the inner workings of relationships as individual things and not indicative of gender politics? Of course this was the whole point of feminism, to see beyond the gender and see the person.

But all of this "equality" talk has backfired; despite the constant barrage of the "even though men and woman are different they shouldn't be treated differently," with every Sex and the City episode, every Scorsese movie, every time we are told to "take it like a man," to "embrace our feminine side," we turn around and celebrate the solidification of these so-called bygone gender roles we claim to be above and beyond, continuing to pit the genders against one another for some pointless game of Who's the Boss?; 104.3, a radio station in LA, even has a Battle of the Sexes competition every Friday morning, asking stereotypical questions to opposite genders, trying to prove who is...better? Or something.

This is the most perplexing part of any of these contests/films/books/songs/paint-by-numbers: while a woman can act "like a man" or a man can act "like a woman," in order to find that ever elusive love, they must drop all signs of "progress" and embrace their pre-designed roles: the ballsy, self-assured woman, the Jasmines and Ariels of the world, must submit their independence and wait to be saved by their dashing man; the shy, skinny boys, the George McFlys and Hercules of the world, must prove their worth by punching out the tough guy, when the phrase "zero to hero" means "I have muscles now," and carry the girl off into the sunset.

Which is why we have movies like The Main Event, starring feminist icon Barbra Streisand and pretty boy Ryan O'Neal as – what else? – star-crossed lovers, reminding us that "progress" is complicated and that a woman truly can have it all! Or something.

Prepare yourself because this gets a little convoluted: Babs plays Hillary Kramer, the owner of a successful perfume company who is about to go through the roof with her newest concoction: a unisex scent, created by combining a man's cologne and a woman's ode de toilette. If you weren't sure by the poster of Babs and O’Neil nose to nose sporting boxing gloves, this is a film where masculinity and femininity are literally duking it out for dominance.

But her business manager squandered away her assets without her knowledge, leaving her broke as a joke, and out of business. Which reads as hilariously false. We are really supposed to believe that a woman like Barbra Streisand – excuse me, Hillary Kramer – would leave her affairs so haphazardly to a man?

So she sells the business to a competitor, never once mentioning (now or for the remainder of the film) her presumed ace in the hole: her hybrid cologne; one to which she would presumably have the sole copyright because she invented it. But why would she mention the perfume business again? She is a boxing manager now, putting every waking moment into securing her protégé's victory. Huh?

Turns out that her nefarious manager also was syphoning money to a boxer as a tax write-off (naturally, perfume magnates would patronize boxers...the government would never look into this type of deduction). So she goes to collect the $47,000 she has unknowingly paid him over the past four years. Naturally, he doesn't have it so she makes him a proposition: box and win me my money back.

But he isn't really a boxer. That's right. He runs a driving school in the shape of a boxing glove (I'm sure this was enough of a tie-in to fool the government) and hasn't had a fight in years.

Well, that is going to change now that Babs is on the scene! Although she doesn't threaten him with civic force or legal action; he is supposed to do what she says because...because all-the-women-independent-throw-your-hands-up-at-me? I don't remember. My head was spinning in confusion! And months later, I am still reeling from its tilt-a-whirl derring-do.

Anyway, Babs puts Ryan threw the ropes of having a female boss – and he schools her in the machismo-like grunts of a man who was hired for his looks and not any discernible talent. (Oh! And his character's name is Kid, further infantilizing the male while maturing the woman; how the objectification tables have turned!). He trains and gets his pretty face bashed in; she nags from the sidelines in her designer sweat suit and horrible perm that was somehow considered sexy in the '70s. He spouts misogynistic banter at her very liberated ears; she laughs it off with her signature chutzpah, churning his insults like butta'.

Then while on a training retreat at a faraway camp in the snowcapped woods, Ryan inexplicably begins treating her with respect, leading to them making love. But where the film (blissfully) splits from history (and every film like it) Babs, "like a man," keeps her head during the after glow. Ryan, taking on the "feminine" role, assumes now that they have had sex they are a couple on the road to marriage; he no longer owes her any money. Babs, the pragmatist with her eye on getting back on her feet, without him, laughs in shock; of course he still owes her the money. Well, Ryan flies off the handle and the lovers return to their respective corners to cool down.

Being a romantic comedy – the tagline is "A Glove Story" – they reconcile in the final frame as Streisand the Singer belts her first disco hit over the soundtrack, cleverly titled "The Main Event." You see, if The Kid wins, then she will have her money and be out of his life forever; if he loses, then they will just have to keep on boxing until he does. So Hillary literally throws in the towel (hence the cliché), forfeiting the match, somehow solidifying their love and continuing their relationship.

The message is very mixed here. And for a movie that is clearly trying to say something, clearly trying to pit the sexes against each other, clearly playing with stereotypes to subvert expectations, this is more ridiculous than it would be in a film starring someone like Meg Ryan or Ali McGraw. But for a film starring Streisand, a woman whose entire career has been around subverting expectation and breaking through the glass ceiling, the man, the gruff misogynistic man, the man who says things like "a woman belongs on her back with her mouth closed," a man who has zero redeeming qualities (except his appearance and presumed bedroom prowess), this man is still the one that the woman wants; the woman who is college educated, the woman who is a business owner, the woman who has the scientific knowledge to create perfumes, the woman who takes jazzercise classes complete with a trainer yelling things like "no wonder your husbands are leaving you!" the woman who gives up her own dreams of getting back on her feet financially because as every woman knows, a man is the most important thing a woman can have. At least Catwoman (2004) – one of the worst and least enjoying films I have ever seen – ends with the woman walking into the night, alone; and Benjamin Bratt was sexy, smart, and kind. If Hillary and The Kid would not have dated if he had won, why are we supposed to believe that they will because he lost? Wouldn't he be pissed that she forfeited a match he was clearly winning? If he won, wouldn't he then be at the top of his game on the way to bigger and better matches and more money? If they were going to be together anyway, wouldn't this help her open a new business even easier? Wouldn't this net them a better place to live, a brighter future? But logic is never the road most traveled in the world of the rom-com.

But The Main Event is not an awful movie because of what it may or may not say about gender roles and the never-ending battle of the sexes. The Main Event is awful because we don't care about any of the characters. We are ambivalent towards their happiness because they are clearly wrong for one another. Is she going to be a full time fight manager now, playing second fiddle to her inevitable husband? Will this really bring her "happiness?" Especially when the first half of the film didn't set her up as successfully unhappy! Is he suddenly going to join the human race and realize that women aren't just for sex? I ain't buying any of this contrived malarkey. Why did Babs want to produce this schlock? Maybe it was the expectation that they would be as charming and funny as they were in What's Up, Doc? (1972). Whatever the reason, The Main Event fails because it is just plain boring.

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