Battle of the Sexes, 2017.
Directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Natalie Morales, Jessica Mcnamee, Fred Armisen, Lewis Pullman, Martha MacIsaac, Mickey Sumner, Bridey Elliott, Eric Christian Olsen, Wallace Langham, and Matt Malloy
The true story of the 1973 tennis match between World number one Billie Jean King and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs.
Long before Mayweather vs McGregor was a sporting showdown for the ages; a one-on-one matchup that actually occupied societal landscape-altering overtones for both the close-minded present-day perspectives and future generations. Billie Jean King taking on openly proud male chauvinistic pig Bobby Riggs in a 1973 tennis match wasn’t just a dog and pony show built on ego and superiority alone, it represented the gender equality war (everything from raw talent to short-changing women when it comes to payday is brought to attention) that still rages on throughout the current climate. However, not only did the so-called battle of the sexes symbolize one progressive step forward for the female populace, as hidden away is a deeper, personal story also worth shedding light on; the emotionally locked away bisexual lust of the celebrated woman tennis star.
Relatively fresh off of her much-deserved Best Actress Oscar win for awards darling La La Land, Little Miss Sunshine directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton and 127 Hours co-writer Simon Beaufoy have handed Emma Stone a multilayered real-life figure worthy of the biographical sports dramedy treatment, as Billie Jean King was uncompromisingly dedicated to the cause of equality and improving women’s rights. Some viewers may feel that Battle of the Sexes may not go far enough in presenting Billie as a Messiah for feminism or demonizing Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) as a womanizing degenerate, instead successfully locating a middle ground of humanization for both star athletes. However, the results are a pair of Oscar-worthy performances from both Emma Stone and Steve Carell, more Emma as her struggles are decidedly more righteous and identifiable.
Naturally, the events in Battle of the Sexes do play out with many of the conventional structures one would expect from a sports biopic, but the mental headspace of Billie Jean King is the film’s greatest strength. Without spoiling too much, the focused, high-caliber athlete quickly becomes smitten with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), exploring sexual awakenings and different intimate experiences that gradually begin to spiral into a distraction from the game. That stress is only amplified when factoring in that this blossoming romance (or will it be a phase?) is an act of adultery and betrayal against her husband Larry (Austin Stowell). As if that wasn’t enough, this whirlwind of events is coming hot off the worn-out tennis shoes of Billie and company dropping out of the USLTA in favor of starting up their own organization (publically represented by a chain-smoking, boozing but effective manager played by veteran comedian Sarah Silverman), in turn sending a resounding statement that enough is enough and that since the women are drawing the same amount of asses in seats, the same pay as their male counterparts is justified.
It takes methodical execution to present a relationship cheater as empathetic, but such is one of the wonders that Emma Stone works into her performance. Aiding this understanding is the fact that Larry himself has a forgiving reaction once he stumbles upon the evidence, almost as if he knew that it was a likely possibility and that her true feelings belong to the love of the game. Like the rest of us, Larry shows compassion for Billie exploring her sexuality and searching for her true self. It’s not just complex material either that allows Emma Stone to deliver an inspirational and moving performance, as she’s unrecognizable in the role, wholly stripped of her Hollywood beauty to rock some nerdy glasses, short hair, and an overall dorky personality. Of course, she also nails the most important emotional beats, letting audiences feel her internal pain of society’s normality forcing her to keep her real sexuality and desired partner a secret.
At the other end of the spectrum is an entirely different tone, one that sees Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs making a mockery of the cultural event, dressed up as Little Bo Peep herding sheep with a tennis racket, partaking in artistic nude photography, and making derogatory comments about women. Arguably, this is responsible for clashing tones from scene to scene, but here it makes sense and works as this worldwide spectacle took on completely different meanings to both participants. Anyway, Bobby too has empathetic qualities as we see he is a family man that deeply loves both his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and child. His vice though is gambling, and as one would expect it definitely makes for some of the film’s funniest moments, but amidst all of the pre-matchup shenanigans what’s most compelling is that both athletes are taking a huge risk; they’re more alike than they appear.
By simply accepting Bobby’s challenge, Billie is potentially placing the future of women, at the very least when it comes to equal pay or representation in sports, on her shoulders. Not to mention, by putting herself in a spotlight of that magnitude she runs the risk of having her taboo sex life being outed to the public which would obviously ostracize her from fans and peers alike (especially if she loses the crucial matchup) and possibly ensure she would never play again (at least until a dramatic change occurred in social politics). The script also heightens this by playing up the myth that by biological nature, women are incredibly prone to crack under massive stress.
This all makes for a movie majorly reliant on setting up the must-see phenomenon, which isn’t always smooth (it’s difficult to buy into the brewing romance right away, especially considering that Marilyn isn’t that fleshed out of character), but the payoff is worth it. With 30,000 paying customers watching inside of the Houston Astrodome, the cinematography manages to capture all of the backhands and diving stops from an appropriate angle underneath blinding spotlights, hovering just above the court but never pulled back too far. The uplifting musical score is fairly commonplace for the genre, although accomplishes its job at creating palpable stakes and intensity. Really, the only minor nitpick about the showdown itself is the addition of an ABC sports commentary team, as they offer little insight into the proceedings or simply state the obvious as most announcers do. Yes, I can see that the humor has been knocked out of Bobby Riggs thanks to the close-up of his nervous facial expressions.
Thankfully, emotion is never knocked out of Battle of the Sexes. The script may not know what to do with many of its supporting characters (the connection with Bobby and his older son in particular leaves something to be desired) and is unable to avoid some familiar genre tropes, but the picture has a pair of winning performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carell embodying real-life, complex figures that in less delicate hands could have come across fake and disingenuous. Even after the hostility and the circus preamble, the matchup ends with a classy handshake, one that will continue to spark discussion and change backwards thinking thanks to this competent retelling of something more than the latest mega-showdown between celebrities too rich they don’t even know what to do with their money, but rather a key moment in the ever-growing battle for gender equality and LGBTQ rights.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com