Misbehavior's funny look at feminism and beauty

Misbehaviour is a comedy set in London's 1970 Miss World Pageant.

 A SCENE from ‘Misbehaviour.’  (photo credit: NACHSON FILMS)
A SCENE from ‘Misbehaviour.’
(photo credit: NACHSON FILMS)

Misbehaviour is a smart, funny and good natured political comedy set at the Miss World Pageant in London in 1970, where feminists staged protests, which opens in theaters in Israel on March 10. The movie has real points to make about sexism and racism (and how women of color can be caught in the middle) but it is also honest about the appeal of beauty pageants and never gets preachy.

It pokes gentle fun at everyone involved, although it is most sympathetic to the women who see the exploitative nature of pageants. It brings to mind a wonderful black comedy from the 1970s, which also took an inside look at the mechanics of a beauty pageant, Michael Ritchie’s Smile. It featured a very young Melanie Griffith as a contestant in the Miss California pageant and took similar aim at the hypocrisy.

Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (who directed the extraordinary episode of The Crown that dealt with the Duke of Windsor’s embrace of Hitler), Misbehaviour is especially topical following the recent Miss Universe pageant, which was held in Israel for the first time in December.

I covered many events in the run-up to the pageant and had a chance to speak to both the reigning Miss Universe, Andrea Meza of Mexico, and the new winner, Harnaaz Sandhu of India, as well as many other contestants, and was struck by how everyone involved recited – at times, robotically – the current party line about how this event is all about women’s empowerment.

While almost all the contestants I met were fashion models, many had trained in other fields, and seemed intelligent and poised, but all the brains in the world would not get someone who did not fit the height and weight requirements or who was not conventionally pretty into this pageant. So I was sympathetic to the sentiments voiced in the film by Sally Alexander, a young British feminist and historian played by Keira Knightley.

Sally is appalled when her mother encourages her young daughter, who is prancing around in front of the television, pretending to be a Miss World contestant. “Why should any woman have to earn her place in the world by looking a particular way?” she asks. A bohemian academic who is not married to her partner, she faces discrimination at the university where she teaches and is angry about it, although she mostly bites her tongue when confronted by her male colleagues’ sexism.

At a meeting of a feminist group, she finds herself drawn to the more radical activists, who live in a women’s commune and are led by Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley, who is nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The Lost Daughter). Eventually, they organize a series of protests designed to disrupt the pageant, chanting, “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry.”

While this chant might sound strident to some today, if it were not for the efforts of women like Sally and Jo, we might still be living in a 1970s reality, for example, where women were not allowed to get credit cards without their husband’s permission, even if the wife earned more than her spouse. The pageant did not take place in a vacuum and their anger was fueled by a great deal of discrimination, both legal and cultural.

Misbehaviour presents the pageant organizers, especially the men, not as villains but as buffoonish figures, who are befuddled by the changing times. Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans, who will always be remembered fondly as Hugh Grant’s crazy roommate in Notting Hill) is the producer, who has a hard time grasping the fact that staging the Miss World pageant has to do with anything more than getting the contestants to stand in a straight line, while his pragmatic wife, Julia (Keeley Hawes), does her best to minimize the disruptions due to the protest.

Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) is the host, whose aggressive sexism comes in for the most criticism, while his long-suffering wife (Lesley Manville) seems delighted that the era of leering harassment surrounding the pageant is coming to an end. (Bob Hope fans are the group most likely to be upset over this movie.)

But while the feminist controversy is front and center, there is another important issue at the 1970 pageant: Racism. For the first time, South Africa has sent a Black contestant, Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), who is designated as representing Africa South, as well as a white one. It is the first year that Grenada has sent a contestant, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Hosten is naively optimistic about her chances, while Jansen tells her that no Black woman will win. At the same time, anti-Apartheid protestors are urging a boycott of the pageant. For these two Black women, the pageant represents a way to advance themselves and they want the show to go on.

It’s fun to watch all these disparate characters and agendas collide. I advise against googling the Miss World pageant, because it will be more fun if you don’t know how it turns out, but I can reveal that the Miss Israel of that year has a minor character in the film. Don’t leave before the credits are over because photographs of the real people, then and now, are shown, and it’s fascinating to see them and read a little bit about how their lives turned out.