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A film ahead of its time in one of the more obscure pop culture corners of the 1980s, Below the Belt (1980) charts the gritty story of Rosa Rubinsky (Regina Baff), a server at a sports arena whose unassuming size conceals a fierce fighter's streak. Her ability to subdue a rowdy customer attracts the attention of wrestling manager Bobby Fox (John C. Becher), who gets her trained and ready for the ring. However, as she soon discovers, the ladies' wrestling circuit isn't exactly a life of glamour and respect.
Released in December of 1980, Below the Belt preceded a more famous women's wrestling film, Robert Aldrich's ...All the Marbles (1981), by a few months; furthermore, it was another five years before TV viewers would turn GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) into a grassroots syndication phenomenon that would last until 1990. The actual wrestling content in this film may be small compared to the wall-to-wall action seen on TV channels, but there's still the combination of colorful, tough women and rowdy grudge matches that would soon come to define the sport.
Since the rise of women's wrestling in the '80s, the sport has seen at least 28 significant promotions in the United States, often mixing elements of comedy and music into the events. However, the depiction in this film is closer to one of its most obvious cinematic models, Kansas City Bomber (1972), which dealt with the world of a female roller derby. The decision to update this approach for an '80s audience made sense given the rise in nouveau feminist films at the time, with 1980 also seeing the release of such female empowerment titles as 9 to 5, Private Benjamin, Coal Miner's Daughter, and Little Darlings. This particular film may have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle compared to its more famous cousins the same year, but it's definitely cut from the same cloth.
Below the Belt marked a rare starring role for Baff (in her final theatrical appearance to date), a stage actress with numerous Broadway appearances to her credit including a 1974 Tony-nominated role in Veronica's Room. Her feature roles were mainly highlighted by small supporting turns in The Paper Chase (1973),Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me? (1971), Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. However, film buffs will recognize several character actors in the cast, highlighted by third-billed James Gammon, a grizzled presence in films like Wyatt Earp (1994),Major League (1989), and Silverado (1985). Also keep an eye out for veteran TV and film actor Dolph Sweet (who passed away five years after this film while starring on the sitcom Gimme a Break!), and the imposing Shirley Stoler, who had made an indelible debut starring in The Honeymoon Killers in 1969 and had just appeared in a women-in-prison episode of Charlie's Angels before her role here. Perhaps strangest of all, you can also hear (but not see) the four members of comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre!
You'll also find a few surprising names buried elsewhere in the credits here, particularly the music score by Oscar®-nominated composer Jerry Fielding, who died while working on this film in February of 1980 (just after completing the horror film Funeral Home). He was already in poor health at the time after suffering multiple heart attacks, though the caliber of his work had not declined. He had built a solid reputation working on several films with directors like Sam Peckinpah (most famously The Wild Bunch  and Straw Dogs ), Clint Eastwood (The Outlaw Josey Wales, 1976), and Michael Winner (highlighted by The Big Sleep  and The Nightcomers ), refining an ability to evoke atmosphere with subtle, sometimes atonal scores focused on reinforcing the environment. Here his contribution weaves in and out of the film often in what feels like source music, rarely drawing attention to itself. He also composed and wrote the lyrics for several of the film's songs, and if you listen carefully, you can hear some familiar singers including Billy Preston (who famously performed on The Beatles' "Get Back") and a young Jennifer Holliday, who would go on to Tony and GRAMMY-winning glory on Broadway as the original Effie White in Dreamgirls.
Even more unusually, this film also marked the final editing job for Steven Zaillian, who had earlier done cutting room duties on such films as Breaker! Breaker! (1977) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977). Five years later he would switch to screenwriting with The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), which he followed with such films as Awakenings (1990),Clear and Present Danger (1994),Hannibal (2001),Moneyball (2011) and his Oscar®-winning script for Schindler's List (1993). He also made the jump to directing in 1993 with Searching for Bobby Fischer, followed by A Civil Action (1998) and All the King's Men (2006) -- none of which revolve around women's wrestling.
Speaking of female wrestlers, you can also see a piece of the sport's real history thanks to the actress playing Hilda in the film, Titi Paris. A real-life presence in the ring (often under the names Princess Che Che, Princess Ti Ti, and the Black Dragon) and a judo black belt to boot, Paris was instrumental in legalizing women's wrestling in New York in the 1970s. In fact, she and Cora Combs were the first women to have a professional wrestling match in the state in 1972, ending a fifty-year ban on the sport. When it comes to both women's wrestling and this film, it's perhaps appropriate to quote a famous feminist-centered ad campaign from the same era: "You've come a long way, baby."
By Nathaniel Thompson
Source: Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame