Battle of the SexesReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/21/17 10:16:38
Although the ads and trailers only suggest one, there are actually two different stories battling for supremacy throughout its running time. The one being advertised is, of course, a chronicle of the infamous 1973 exhibition tennis match between retired men’s champion Bobby Riggs and reigning women’s champion Billie Jean King that became both a jaw-dropping spectacle and an unexpected referendum on the then (and sadly still)-emerging women’s rights movement. The other one involves the two battles that King found herself fighting off of the court—a public one that finds her demanding that women athletes be treated and paid the same as their male counterparts against forces that do not even try to disguise their blatant sexism and a private one in which she finds herself wrestling with questions about her sexuality at a time when mere whispers suggesting such a thing could destroy a career. Both topics are interesting and could have easily led to fascinating films but by trying to jam the two together, both wind up getting a bit short-changed in the process and the end result is a movie that, while undeniably crowd-pleasing for the most part, never quite comes together in a fully satisfying manner.As the film opens in 1972, King (Emma Stone) has just won the women’s singles title when she learns that for an upcoming USLTA tournament, the male players will be paid eight times more than the women even though they both pull in the same crowds. When the head of the association, former player Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), oozes a combination of condescension and contempt instead of offering any legitimate explanation for this disparity, King, along with business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), decides to break away and form her own rival league with a number of other female players and while Kramer tries to nip this in the bud, what would grow to become the Women’s Tennis Association is formed with the largesse of Virginia Slims cigarettes helping to make up for the massive pay cut they are all forced to take at first. As this shakeup is occurring in her professional life, an equally important change in King’s personal life kicks in when she meets hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) while the team is getting their hair done. At the time, King was married to husband Larry (Austin Stowell)—not that one—but there is an immediate spark between the two that she cannot deny, even if she cannot possibly even hint about it publicly. To complicate matters, she genuinely does love and care for her husband but with Marilyn, it is something else entirely.
While all of this is going on, Riggs (Steve Carrell) is not exactly thriving in his retirement from the game. His life is comfortable enough thanks to having married well to the rich Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) but the combination of life out of the spotlight and Priscilla’s insistence that he quite gambling begins to chafe and he soon finds himself sneaking out at night to make goofy bets with rich friends over whether he can beat them at tennis while simultaneously walking a couple of dogs. He wins handily enough but when the winnings include a fully tricked-out Rolls Royce, they can be slightly difficult to conceal from a spouse not inclined to look the other way and he winds up getting booted out of the house. While this is going on, he is also hearing about King and her demands for equal pay and something begins to percolate in his hustler’s mind—a so-called battle of the sexes exhibition match in which he, serving as the embodiment of the raging chauvinist. shall prove that even a man several decades away from his prime tennis years can still beat the best female player out there. When he first lobs the idea her way, King sees it as just a publicity stunt and nothing more and turns him down flat. However, circumstances eventually lead to her agreeing to a match that has by now ballooned into a full-on spectacle that captures the attention of the world, even those who have never watched or played a single game of tennis before.
All of this stuff is interesting—not to mention unexpectedly relevant these days—and if “Battle of the Sexes” had been conceived as a limited-run miniseries, it would have had enough time to explore King’s battle for equality for women athletes, her sexual awakening and how the eventual match grew from a cheap publicity stunt to a spectacle of a size, scope and import that is almost impossible to fully comprehend today, it could have been a spectacular examination of the intersection of sexuality, gender roles, socioeconomics and sport as seen through the eyes of a pair of undeniably compelling characters who are all the more fascinating for the ways in which they were similar than for their differences. By trying to telescope all of this material into a screenplay for a two-hour movie, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy does not do himself nor the story any favors. The script focuses more on King’s personal struggles and does a reasonably good job with that—the odd romantic triangle that develops between her, Larry and Marilyn is interesting and it is fun watching her butt heads with the tennis hierarchy in order to prove her point about equality—but just when it seems to be building a legitimate head of dramatic steam, it switches over to Riggs’s story for a while and once we get caught up in his narrative, it switches back to King and leaves us discombobulated once again. Their stories eventually dovetail together once the match is officially a go but by the time that occurs, the film is nearly over with the match itself not even kicking in until the last 15 minutes of the film. Granted, not focusing heavily on the match itself was probably a smart decision—the match was (Spoiler Alert) pretty much a rout in which King ran circles around an unprepared and outmatched Riggs—but we never quite get an idea of just how the match captured the imagination of the public to the degree that it did or how Riggs and King reacted to being the center of such weirdness. The end result is a film containing a lot of good scenes that co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton are never quite able to pull together into a satisfying whole.
To the film’s credit, the unevenness of the screenplay and direction is not immediately noticeable because of the quality of the performances. In her first role since winning the Best Actress Oscar for “La La Land,” Emma Stone is pretty spectacular, so much so that some may wish that she won the award for her work her instead of for her previous film. When she has appeared in period films in the past, such as “The Help,” “Gangster Squad” and “Magic in the Moonlight,” the results have always been a bit uneven because she always seemed a bit too inherently contemporary in nature to fully fit in with her surroundings. Here, whether it is because she feels more of a legitimate kinship with King or because King herself was a forward-thinking person who was not entirely of her own time, Stone perfectly embodies the combination of charm and steely-eyed determination that made her such a compelling figure both on and off the court while at the same time offering a touching take on the emotional confusion, turmoil and excitement brought on by her new relationship with Marilyn (performed nicely and almost unrecognizably by Riseborough) and her still-considerable feelings for Larry.
On the other end of the spectrum, Steve Carrell is amusingly brash and obnoxious as Riggs but also manages to invest him with a certain degree of sympathy—he is a guy who craves the kind of publicity and adulation that King has gotten in spades and which he feels he was denied to a certain degree (his apex as an athlete being somewhat overshadowed by World War II) and if he has to transform himself into a heel in order to achieve it, it is the worth the price. For all the broadness on display, Carrell’s best moments are the smaller ones, especially one brief moment during the big match when he is sitting on the sidelines and quietly begins to process the fact that he is likely going to lose the match after all. The supporting performances are all good as well, most notably Pullman, who normally specializes in playing nice guys, as the real villain of the piece—after watching him here, even the most peaceable viewers will want to see him wind up at the wrong end of a “mother!”-style beating.Watching “Battle of the Sexes” is not an unpleasurable experience by any means—the performances are strong, there are number of big laughs and legitimately emotional moments and the decision to shoot in 35mm gives the film a subtly authentic period flavor that helps to sell the proceedings. And yet, when it was all said and done, I just felt that a story this audacious and compelling deserved a more impressive and audacious treatment than it has received here. What should have been a sprawling narrative covering a brief but ultimately significant shifting of the American cultural landscape, not unlike the book “Ragtime,” has instead been reduced to a series of entertaining scenes and performances that do not make up a fully satisfying whole, not unlike the movie adaptation of “Ragtime.” Most times when I come out of a movie, I find myself thinking that if the running time had been reduced by 20 minutes or saw, the results might improve the film as a whole. In the case of “Battle of the Sexes,” however, it probably would have been a lot better in the long run if it had been allowed to run longer and give its incredible story more time to breathe.
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