I recently read Andy Crouch’s Playing God, a phenomenal & thorough examination of the gift of power. Against the definition that absolute power corrupts absolutely or that the ultimate kind of power is violence, Crouch argues that God created power for human flourishing. His thesis is “that all true being strives to create room for more being and to expend its power in the creation of flourishing environments for variety and life” and that this endeavor is essentially cooperative (p. 51). Throughout the book, Crouch unpacks this thesis and details how power goes so wrong so often.
I was in the section on institutions when I watched Misbehaviour. Since both this and the next Greg Kinnear movie (Little Miss Sunshine) are about beauty pageants, I couldn’t help applying Crouch’s four criteria (Chapter 9) to define beauty pageants as an institution. The arena is a county, country, or international stage; the artifacts are dresses, swimsuits, and crowns; the rules are both written and unwritten standards of physical beauty; and the roles are contestant, host, judge, and audience. Through this structure, the beauty pageant objectifies women and is discordant with the Imago Dei. It’s an institution that enriches nations and entertains men while stripping power from women as their value is reduced to physical beauty. Many rightly argue that the institution of the beauty pageant should die.
Misbehaviour supports this notion, depicting the founding of the Women’s Liberation Movement (an institution with better goals) to protest the 1970 Miss World pageant in London. But Misbehaviour is a more nuanced (and likely truer to life) film, as it also explores the good that can come from (or in spite of) beauty pageants. While protests build outside, the movie spends equal screen time inside the pageant–following the journey of Miss Grenada as she becomes the first woman of color to win Miss World. Minority rights lag behind women rights, such that the problematic competition’s outcome is still empowering for young girls watching from Grenada. The movie left me with a smile on my face, and I’m delighted to review it further.
Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, Misbehavior has a stacked mostly-British cast headlined by Keira Knightly, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (read this delightful interview), Jessie Buckley (whose prolific 2020 includes a great performance in I’m Thinking of Ending Things), Lesley Manville (who deserved an Oscar for her performance in Another Year), Rhys Irfans, and Greg Kinnear. Each actor portrays a real-life person, fitting into three narrative threads coming together at the Miss World 1970 pageant.
In the first, Keira Knightly plays Sally Alexander–a divorced single mother at odds with her own more traditionally-minded mother. She enrolls at the male-dominated University College London with the desire to challenge the patriarchal system from within. Beyond school, she moderates a women’s rights club and forms plans to protest Miss World.
At one of the meetings, Keira meets Jessie Buckley (as Jo Robinson) who’s the yin to her yang. Jessie’s form of protest is the smash-em-up variety, with little respect for the past, a penchant for graffiti, and an aversion to formal planning. Through club meetings & chance encounters, Jessie & Keira respect & challenge each other. Keira needs Jessie’s passion and artistic ability, while Jessie needs Keira’s elocution and organizational skills. They form the Women’s Liberation Movement and–to advertise their plan to protest Miss World–Keira goes on TV while Jessie bulk-produces signs. Their final plan is to protest both outside the competition (as advertised) and plant protesters inside (unannounced to the public).
The second narrative thread follows the planning of Miss World by its organizer Rhys Irfans (as Eric Morley). A large part of this process is finding a host, and Rhys extends that invitation to Greg Kinnear (as Bob Hope). A known womanizer, Bob previously hosted Miss World 1961 and brought the winner home with him in what became a multiyear affair. In most of his scenes, Greg objectifies and flirts with women while his wife (Lesley Manville) stands disapprovingly by. We see it as he attempts to impress and ogle a new secretarial hire, as he makes passes at an airline attendant, and ultimately as he cracks crude & demeaning jokes while hosting Miss World 1970. The event ends in disarray (see below) and Lesley finally gets her day. When Greg returns to the hotel room like a dejected puppy, Lesley leaves him to lick his own wounds while–feeling newly empowered–she hits the town.
In the final narrative thread, Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Jennifer Hosten–the Miss World contestant from Grenada. During preparations and practices, she befriends the only other contestant of color, Miss Africa South. The two discuss what the contest means to them and the limited & dire opportunities they’d return to if they lose. Gugu is very poised through all the proceedings, letting her conflicted emotions play across her face. As she’s measured and fit for dresses or paraded across an empty stage for practice, she easily discerns how the beauty pageant demeans woman. But she also sees this as the opportunity to “rise with the tide,” and gain opportunities otherwise restricted to her & her people.
All three threads come together at the Miss World competition. Inside the pageant, Keira & Jessie bite their tongues until Greg cracks a particularly crude joke about feeling women. The girls rise up with their co-conspirators, throw bags of powder, wave signs, and shoot squirt guns. The auditorium is in an uproar, Greg retreats backstage, and after some time Keira & Jessie are subdued & arrested. The pageant resumes and Gugu wins. In the movie’s most memorable (and fictionalized) scene, Keira meets Gugu backstage. While Keira notes that Miss World makes the world narrower for women, Gugu responds that she looks forward to having the same opportunities as a white woman.
Overall, the movie tries to do too much and several secondary characters get short shrifts. Even so, the movie’s message highlighting both the formation of the Women’s Liberation Movement and first black woman to win Miss World makes it worth watching. If the end credits, which profile the real-life women, don’t make you smile–you might be a robot.
The Keira Kiss
If you randomly open a movie review on this blog, there’s approximately a 25% chance Greg’s character is narcissistic, slimy, and insecure. There’s a further 50% chance that character is sleazy with a penchant to leer at women and/or sleep around. Further–if you so happened to open this or the Auto Focus review–Greg’s narcissistic, insecure, sleazy character is a real-life womanizer named Bob. The reason Greg so-often plays such characters is because he’s so good at it, bringing nuance to the particular prideful achilles heel or insecurity of each role.
As Bob Hope, Greg abuses the power of his popularity to leer at and flirt with young girls. Much of this is conveyed by his look. Yes, Greg sports a noticeably large prosthetic nose. But he also gets Bob’s half-smile just right. The left side of his mouth rises in delight as he praises the attractiveness of a flight attendant or feeds off the fangirl energy of Miss World contestants backstage. Beyond his look and lines, Greg further captures the playboy energy of Bob with physical gestures. Two examples stand out. In the first, Greg’s training of his new secretary mostly involves checking out her backside and impressing her with his image. As he boasts about his joke repository (literally filed in cabinets), he starts swinging a golf club in those vain attempts men make to look macho. In the second example, Greg is visibly worried about the protestors gathered outside Miss World and if they’ll effect the pageant. But as his car passes Keira, he quickly hides his fear and blows her a kiss–much to her disgust.
The ‘Keira kiss’ was my favorite Greg moment because it crystalized how afraid he (and likely Bob) was that if he loses his popularity he loses everyone & everything. Once the protestors interrupt Miss World during one of Greg’s especially misogynistic joke, his insecurity manifests it in a myriad of ways. He cowers from Keira as she charges with a squirt gun. After the protest, he timidly returns to the stage but is much less confident in his jokes and shoots scared looks where his card-holding speechwriter no longer stands. At the pageant’s end, he rushes to his wife seeking the reassurance he needs. But as he blathers how the protest wasn’t his fault, Lesley leaves him to dwell in the fears stemming from his misogyny. In sum, Greg does a great job of showing both the publicly prideful and fearfully insecure halves of Bob Hope.
- In my penultimate movie review, I wrote about the newly released Misbehaviour. I was super excited because I’d only reviewed “old releases” so far.
- Misbehaviour follows both the formation of the Women’s Liberation Movement to protest Miss World 1970 and the victory of the first black woman in the pageant’s history. The movie introduces too many characters, but features strong acting and a good, appropriately nuanced message.
- Greg Kinnear is once again excellent as a sleazy, insecure, but popular public figure. This time it’s Bob Hope.
- Next-up: It all comes down to Little Miss Sunshine.
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