A film review by Craig J. Koban October 29, 2017

BATTLE OF THE SEXES  jjj
  

2017, PG-13, 121 mins.

 

Emma Stone as Billie Jean King  /  Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs  /  Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn Barnett  /  Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman  /  Alan Cumming as Ted Tinling  

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris  /  Written by Simon Beaufoy

 

 

 

BATTLE OF THE SEXES deals the very well publicized tennis match between then 55-year-old Bobby Riggs and 29-year-old Billie Jean King at the Houston Astrodome on September 23, 1973.  The match had a winner-take-all prize of $100,000 and was watched live by over thirty thousand spectators (still the largest audience to watch a tennis match in the U.S.).  An estimated 90 million more tuned in on TV from around the world, witnessing King beat Riggs in three sets.  It was considered a milestone in the general public's acceptance of female athletes deserving as much equal respect as their male counterparts. 

The match had other significant ramifications beyond the sport of tennis, in particular for King, who very publicly stated "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win the match.  It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self esteem."  This was more than just a tennis match against a male opponent for her; this was a chance to propel gender equality in sports - and all facets of life - to the next level.  

BATTLE OF THE SEXES is a rock solid recreation of the gargantuan media circus that permeated this event, but directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and the criminally underrated RUBY SPARKS) and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (the Oscar winning writer of SLUMGDOG MILLIONAIRE) use the titular sports battle to speak volumes about the relevancy of gender rights...even in the modern era.  Their film wisely and rightfully embodies a message that King v. Riggs was a social/cultural turning point that transcended tennis and instead pointed out the more significant battle between women battling for equality and men battling equally as hard to maintain their gender's perceived superiority status quo.   

 

 

Of course and predictably, BATTLE OF THE SEXES is at its most enthrallingly entertaining when focuses on the whole build-up to the 1973 match, showcasing both players fighting for things well beyond personal dignity.  Many critics have rightfully pointed out that the Battle of the Sexes was a money grabbing publicity stunt, with the ringmaster-like Riggs serving as the ultimate huckster selling the event and making it must-see television.  The carnival-like atmosphere of the match is undeniable, not to mention that it could be very easily said that Riggs was hardly a well oiled athlete at his physical peak when he played against an opponent that was young enough to be his daughter.  Dayton, Faris, and Beaufoy - if they're collectively guilty of anything - tend to turn a blind eye to the sensationalistic and questionable legitimacy of the match, which holds back BATTLE OF THE SEXES from achieving a democratic handling of the material (not to mention their handling of a rather one-sided portrait of Riggs, more on that in a bit).  Still, their film is a searing examination of the skewed gender norms of the period, not to mention an absolutely captivating portrait of an endlessly fascinating sports figure and rights activist in King. 

In the opening stages of the 1970s Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was an emerging tennis champion that was poised on taking over the sporting world on both a professional and personal level.  Early on, though, she's flabbergasted at the frustrating levels of pay inequity that exists between woman and male players.  Realizing that promoters would be up shit creek without a proverbial paddle without her and her tennis playing sisters, King decides - with the support of her manager (a snarky Sarah Silverman) - to start their own woman's-only league in the Woman's Tennis Association, which gets off to reasonable levels of success early on.  While on the road King hooks up with a kind hearted hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), who nonchalantly, but pointedly begins a subtle campaign to get the repressed lesbian in King to come out of the closet, which would be a no-no considering that she's married to her deeply devoted husband Larry (Austin Stowell) and revealing her homosexuality to the unsympathetic world of the era would be a professional death sentence.  Nevertheless, King comes to grips with her sexual orientation while on tour, all while retired pro tennis player and compulsive gambler Bobbie Riggs (Steve Carell), starts to stir the pot for a possible tennis match between himself and King that he hopes will prove to the world where women really belong. 

It's kind of surprising how little of the running time for BATTLE OF THE SEXES focuses on the actual tennis match-up itself.  It's really more of a deeply intimate portrait that cuts surprisingly deep into the inner struggles of King herself, who was not only waging a war within herself about her sexual identity and later awakening, but also the larger cerebral war of wits with Riggs himself, who positioned himself as the ultimate male chauvinist pig that was out to prove that women have no place at all on the higher alter of sports hero worship as the men.  The film is patient and takes an observational tone with the domestic life of King and the quandary she found herself in between being an outspoken and very public champion of the Women's Lib Movement and keeping her homosexual affair a well guarded secret.  The scenes between Stone and Riseborough are among the film's most captivating, seeing as they evoke King as someone that's deeply motivated and charged up by her new same sex lover, but unfortunately realizes that she can't do much about it for fear of destroying her livelihood as an activist and athlete.   

It's easy to overlook what a monumentally important figure King was in her era; not only was she one of the foremost tennis players (male or not) of her time, but she was also a pro athlete that was aggressively using the sport to help support her cause for gender equality on and off the court...and she was one of the first major athletes to come out as gay.  Emma Stone may not look much like King at all, but she's resoundingly strong and convincing for displaying her headstrong conviction, never-say-die attitude, and her thoughtfully shy and vulnerable side that makes her such an endlessly compelling character of exploration.  She's flanked extremely well by Riseborough, who arguably has the toughest performance challenge in the film of evoking a woman that's in love with an extremely famous one and feels constantly like a source of unintentional stress on King's life.  There's so much aching melancholy and yearning in Riseborough's performance, and her scenes with Stone are the emotional glue that keeps BATTLE OF THE SEXES from devolving down the obligatory paths of lesser sports films. 

Films that try to recreate the 1970s have the trickiest challenge, in my humble opinion, seeing as they have to accurately reflect the aesthetic garishness of the period without drawing too much distracting attention to it.   Dayton and Faris lovingly imbue BATTLE OF THE SEXES with suitably grounded, textured, and lived-in production design elements that contains a bright primary color palette that pops off the screen that's further complimented with an eccentrically varied music soundtrack that cements our level of easy immersion.  And, yes, when the film does culminate with the climatic tennis match it's handled with relative straightforward simplicity that manages the Herculean task of generating suspense from an event that we already know the outcome too.  And when King does emerge victorious we don't see her basking in the glory of her victory, but rather in a quiet and soulful moment involving her quietly crying in the locker room, suddenly realizing that the magnitude of her accomplishment goes beyond beating her opponent. 

I've spoken a lot about how BATTLE OF THE SEXES deals with King as a character, which is telling because one of its major flaws is that Riggs is frankly not given equal screen time treatment here, which is a bit of a squandered opportunity.  Instead of thoroughly getting inside what made this man's head tick and discovering what psychologically drove him, BATTLE OF THE SEXES reduces Riggs to a somewhat one-note publicity seeking hound caricature.  He was, no doubt, an outward bigot in press tours and while in the constant media spotlight that preceded the match, but was he really a venomous anti-women's lib predator or just a playful jerk that laid on his chauvinist schtick far too thickly for the purposes of selling the event?  BATTLE OF THE SEXES doesn't really know, and even during perfunctory scenes with him on the home front with his wife (thanklessly played by Elizabeth Shue in a very marginalized role) that try to humanize him, he never emerges as a fully well realized and rounded character.  It's a shame, because Carrel delivers a laser beam focused performance that deserves a better written character than what's he given (plus, he's an absolute physical dead ringer for Riggs and is exceptionally well cast).   

Beyond that and as already mentioned, I have to ask again: Was King's victory really a legitimate one on purely athletic levels (after all, she wasn't playing opposite of a similarly aged man)?  It wasn't exactly an equally skilled Battle of the Sexes.  However, maybe that's not the point.  BATTLE OF THE SEXES does downplay many of the 1973 match's more questionable legacy and opts to craft a poignantly realized fact based sports drama that's ultimately not really about sports at all.  It's more about the intrinsically mesmerizing personality at the heart of the event that had the most to win and lose while having the audacity to battle a male dominated world when very few of her contemporaries wouldn't dare.  BATTLE OF THE SEXES works as a portal into the wickedly uneven gender politics of a bygone era that, rather unfortunately, still reverberates to this day, which makes the film all the more germane and topical to contemporary audiences. 

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