Battle of the Sexes

Battle-of-the-Sexes-rev Battle of the Sexes  (2017)    Fox Searchlight/Drama    RT: 121 minutes    Rated PG-13 (some sexual content, partial nudity)    Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris    Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy    Music: Nicholas Britell    Cinematography: Linus Sandgren    Release date: September 29, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Natalie Morales, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen, Jessica McNamee, Lewis Pullman, Jamey Sheridan, John C. McGinley, Martha MacIsaac, Wallace Langham, Chris Parnell.  


 I grew up around tennis. My dad played almost every weekend. My brother was on the team in high school. I used to open new cans of tennis balls because they made a neat “ssssssss” sound when you took the flip-top lids off. Like every other sport, I didn’t follow it or watch games on TV. I knew about prominent players like Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Chris Everett Lloyd and Billie Jean King. I have no conscious memory of the famous match between King and retired player Bobby Riggs in 1973 but I’m sure my parents watched (it was shown during prime time). It’s this match around which Battle of the Sexes is centered.

 battle of the sexesDirected by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), it stars Emma Stone as King, the tennis champ who led the charge against sexism in the sport by starting the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 with the help of World Tennis Magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Silverman, I Smile Back). It was in response to prize money inequality- male winner gets $12,000; female winner gets only $1500- in a tournament arranged by Tennis Association head Jack Kramer (Pullman, Independence Day). She and Gladys take all the prominent female players and head out on their own tour (sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes).

 Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) plays Bobby Riggs, a retired tennis champ who misses his days on the court. He has a wife (Shue, Leaving Las Vegas) and young son but he’s not really the domestic type. He’s restless and always on the look-out for the next big hustle. That is, when he’s not attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings. A self-proclaimed chauvinist, this business with King demanding equal pay and treatment gets under his skin. He challenges King to a match (the “Battle of the Sexes”) to prove male superiority once and for all.

 The two players are as different as night and day. King is shy and socially awkward. With her wire-rimmed glasses and brown hair, she could easily be mistaken for a school librarian. She takes the game seriously. Riggs, on the other hand, is a born showman which is a nicer way of saying he acts like a jackass in public. At point, he announces he’s going to put the “show” back in chauvinism. For him, the match is a big joke. Of course he’ll win. He’s a man and she’s a woman. Duh!

 If you’re thinking that Battle of the Sexes is a mere sports movie, you’re wrong. There’s a lot more to it than tennis. King, who was married at the time, kept certain things close to chest. It was already hard enough being a woman in a male-dominated field; it would even harder if people knew she was gay. Women weren’t the only ones who had it tough in the early 70s. The subject of homosexuality was taboo. Coming out wasn’t an option especially for celebrities. The public wasn’t ready to accept gays into mainstream culture. At this point in her life, King was just starting to come to terms with it. The catalyst is an unexpected romance with her hairdresser Marilyn (Riseborough, Birdman). The attraction is mutual and instantaneous. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time as Heldman was still trying to find a sponsor for their first tour. King’s relationship with Marilyn, if found out, could end her career. There’s a lot at stake.

 For the most part, Battle of the Sexes is a good movie. It’s entertaining and funny. One of my favorite scenes is Riggs telling everybody at a GA meeting that they’re not there because they’re gamblers, they’re there because they’re terrible gamblers. This is all well and good but it doesn’t really do the movie any good. One of the main purposes of Battle of the Sexes is examining the culture of sexism that existed in the days when it was still okay to be an out-in-the-open male chauvinist. Riggs represented everything King hated about the game she loved. Yet the movie depicts him as more of a clown than a villain. It undermines the movie a bit.

 The acting by the two leads is sensational. Stone, fresh off her Best Actress win for last year’s La La Land, delivers a performance that can only be described as transformative. She perfectly captures King’s strength, grit and vulnerability. Although I’m not crazy about the direction in which his character is taken, Carell still does a very good job as Riggs. He may be a chauvinistic ass but one gets the impression that the Battle of the Sexes match is his last chance to relive his glory days. Pullman is the villain of Battle of the Sexes; he epitomizes the concept of Sexist Boss. One of the best scenes is watching the smug look leave his face as he watches King kick Riggs’ butt in the big match. Riseborough is terrific as Marilyn and Silverman brings a flinty quality to Heldman.

 Battle of the Sexes has pacing issues. It gets a little too talky at times. It could have been cut by 15 minutes. However, it does feel authentic to its time. From the fashions and hairstyles to the vintage soundtrack, it recreates the early 70s very well. No movie about professional sports in the 70s would be complete without at least one scene of commentator Howard Cossell doing his thing. It’s in there. The climactic match is filmed very nicely. Dayton and Faris made the right choice in not utilizing the crazy quick-cut editing that so many modern filmmakers think increase the excitement factor. They film it simply and plainly. Sometimes less is definitely more.

 I do like Battle of the Sexes and I think Stone and Carell have a shot at Oscar nominations. It’s not a perfect film by any means. At some point, I’d like to see a more serious telling of this story. For now, this will do nicely. It still manages to shine a light on sexism and the battle for gender equality, a fight that continues to this day. We still don’t have female baseball or football players. Maybe that will change someday soon. If it does, we have King to thank for getting the ball rolling. 

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