Below The Belt

Don't be fooled by the subject matter, by the shooting date in the mid 70s, or the release date in the early 80s. It predates Rocky, but missed the boat on being the first true proletariat, underdog sports film. Even in the midst of a decade rife with gritty human comedies like Fat City, The Landlord, Cockfighter and Peckinpah's one-two punch The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner, Below The Belt feels too honest. Information on the film is scarce and you'd be hard pressed to find a decent copy anywhere (DVD, streaming, illegally, whatever, it's basically gone). I saw the film late night on TCM in a double feature with Robert Aldrich's tough-as-nails swansong ...All The Marbles (aside: all the best films have ellipses). Both films are linked by their narratives about unappreciated female wrestlers. It's the shading that separates them. Aldrich's film is among its director's finest works and colours inside the lines with abandon. Peter Falk and his two hotheaded charges lie, cheat and steal their way to the top of a very small heap. It's a joy watching them squabble in and out of the ring. Below The Belt is a much more low-key match. And not that Marbles doesn't ring true, but Below The Belt has a sense of diving headfirst into the pathetic and bleeding from the impact; you can't, or wouldn't care to, make this up. It's too painful, but in that pain is a beautiful truth. It's as real as documentary and director Robert Fowler went out of his way to make it so. Real wrestling footage is mixed with the drama, the combatants seem to mean it and the pros play themselves. The lead characters navigate these elements with the kind of wide-eyed trepidation you'd expect them to. They'd be just like us if they weren't perfectly, bracingly themselves.
Regina Baff plays Rosa Rubinsky, a waitress at an all-purpose arena near somewhere near New York City. The night we join her a wrestling league has commandeered the space, but it's just another night for her. She still has to fend off the same leery regulars and their well-rehearsed come-ons. In fact one of them goes a little too far and Rosa responds in kind by kicking his ass gently enough to avoid being fired. She happens to do this in front of wrestling promoter Bobby Fox (John C. Becher) who offers her a job. She's flattered but only half-heartedly commits. Her shock-jock boyfriend is only too happy to remind her that she's been down this road before but no matter what fad she decides to get into she always winds up back at square one. One gets the feeling he was more supportive the first few times, when she tried out macrame and french cooking, but like everyone else in Rosa's life he's too exhausted to do much more than politely put up with her decision. Of course his apathy seals the deal and days later she's at a gym learning the ropes. A few bumps in the road later and she's on a bus to the midwest to try her hand at the big leagues. In the process of getting ready she makes an enemy of veteran ass-kicker Terrible Tommy (Jane O'Brien), who doesn't much like playing by the rules and regulations. If Tommy wants to eat Rosa alive, she's going to do it for real. Rosa's going to need more than can-do spirit to beat her. 

Now, let's talk about those bumps in the road for this is where the film excels. First though it's worth pointing out that Regina Baff could not be more suited to the part. She seems too alternately too big and too small for her body, she never knows what to do with her hands, and her adorably porcine nose constantly reminds her she isn't a traditionally good-looking woman, which puts a "yeah, I know" expression on her face for most of the film which codes her as the underdog before the script has a chance to. Fittingly, Rosa's romantic life is exceptionally awkward. She and her boyfriend are so clearly settling for each other from the minute you see them interacting. They communicate this just through the tenor of sighs, the fact that they sort of look past each other, and their posture. While training for inclusion in the league, Rosa meets and becomes good friends with an amateur wrestler named Lee who calls herself the The Beautiful Boomerang. Both have had serious troubles with men in the past and they seem like the right kind of weird to be great friends. Watching them train together, getting the hang of both the form and the showmanship involved in pro wrestling is a delight. Some of the film's biggest joys are watching them have fun getting used to stage combat. "Look mean!" says Annie McGreevy's Lee, almost breaking into laughter. Their laughter is the real thing. And reality, or more pointedly, 'realness' is so much a part of the narrative. Terrible Tommy fights hard, erasing the idea that wrestling is safe which is the opposite of the fun we see Fox's women having training with each other. Conversely Rosa's boyfriend is the first of many people to tell Rosa that they think wrestling's fake or staged. "No, It's not fake. It's magic. It's a show." She says with a frown and the ice around my heart melts. There's nothing fake about wrestling to her, and there's certainly nothing fake about Rosa.

One day Lee goes a little too far and suggests that they be more than friends. Here was where the movie had my full attention. Rosa loves this girl as a friend and it breaks her heart to have to turn down her advances, but she's clearly been fucked around too many times to ever be dishonest about her feelings again. Lee and Rosa want the best for each other and can't lie. There's real sadness watching Rosa first stop Lee's hand caressing her face (she's clearly never been hit on by a woman, let alone someone she's so close with) and then when she leaves both her home and her boyfriend behind when she heads out west. Below The Belt isn't at all about wrestling, of course, but I was wondering how it was going to sustain the mood minus this most interesting dynamic. The film finds its feet once we meet the other women under Bobby Fox's tutelage. The four women she joins up with come in (something like literally) every shape and size, and could have handily rounded out the cast of Desperate Living. They're all awesome characters but Shirley Stoler, looking a shade away from Divine, takes the cake as plus-sized, gun-toting Trish. When these girls take Rosa in we know she's in capable hands for the first time in quite a while. Below The Belt settles into a calmingly staccato groove observing these girls on the road, telling jokes, terrorizing gas station attendants and getting into wrecks. It's here that Rosa realizes she can take control of her life and start pursuing a man worth her time, someone who appreciates her, who is just as realistically observed and reserved a character as she is.

Robert Fowler never directed another movie and I don't know a thing about him except that if he'd kept going I have little doubt he'd have been as important a voice as Hal Ashby, Michael Ritchie or Bob Rafelson; he definitely had a more coherent vision than Dennis Hopper or Henry Jaglom. He ably captures a world that seems to demand to be anonymous, shining a spotlight on characters that other directors wouldn't touch. Even the women in Aldrich's film are striking blondes. It's only when the girls in Below The Belt put their costumes on that they become worthy of conventional attention, but we've known that all along. They become part of a show and resist the personalization Fowler has already dressed them in. They almost look wrong in their leotards and accessories. Wrestling is a sport of outsized heroes and villains and Fowler had to contend not only with that, but the disgraceful history of the culture of women wrestlers. Look at a movie like Racket Girls, which is propelled by a grotesque fetishization and possesses production values and a level of craft a step below pornography. It gives women's wrestling a bad name and it wasn't exactly the world cup to begin with. Fowler couldn't have picked a sport culture that interested American audiences less, despite it being among the most american phenomena I've ever seen. Not only does he make the sport work on its own terms, he was among the first filmmakers to make you root for a win in the big climactic match in New Hollywood grammar. He takes the same approach to his characters. He treats even the craziest, surliest side characters with the utmost respect. I haven't even mentioned the subplot about the domestic trouble facing Verne Vavoom (Sierra Pecheur) and her husband Joe, a fellow wrestler, which is splendidly tragic and gets one of the most amazing payoffs I've ever seen. The film would be worth it to hear Verne scream as her husband threatens to drive off without her. If what they have isn't love I don't know what is. Tellingly, his last words to her are "It's been real." They talk about home a fair amount, but the only definition they can come up with is that it's wherever they can be alone. Their love. That's real and the rest is fake. After that moment Rosa has to find out what's real for her.
In sheerly aesthetic terms there isn't a big shift between the world of waitressing and that of tossing people around a mat in front of hundreds of people. Unlike most films about wrestling, boxing or really any sport, the outfits and settings don't get progressively more glamorous. Fowler has to rely exclusively on the nuts and bolts of living the dream. Rosa has nothing but the roar of the crowd and a gut feeling to prove she's a winner and Fowler has to find inventive ways of rendering her slowly developing self-respect. You grow with her and if you want her to achieve her goal, it's got nothing to do with the thought of beating Terrible Tommy and everything to do with self-worth. Watching Rosa step into the ring by herself hours before the big fight, imagining the audience cheering for her in the empty arena, we know she's found herself. Below the Belt invites you into an ugly, harsh world (and boy oh boy it doesn't get uglier than the soundtrack to this film) and makes you appreciate what it means to be a beautiful person; nothing to do with the win and everything to do with how you feel about it.

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