BATTLE OF THE SEXES
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Andrea Riseborough, Austin Stowell, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Alan Cumming
Emma Stone and Steve Carell are a winning pair in their second outing together after starring in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. Both happen to be Oscar nominees with Stone winning last year for La La Land. Battle of the Sexes is set in 1972 and 1973 at the height of Billie Jean King’s career. The sad reality is that this could be set in 2016 and 2017 and the story wouldn’t feel any differently. More on that later. Stone plays the U.S. Open champion who fought for women’s equality in sports. She was the greatest female tennis player at the time yet was only offered $1,500 for her next match versus the $12,000 offered to her rival male counterpart. As former pro and commentator Jack Kramer (Pullman) tells her, “People pay to see the men play. They’re the draw.” King proceeds to back out of the match stating she, along with the rest of her girls, will start their own organization. She knows she’s risking her career along with theirs by leaving the US LTA (Lawn Tennis Association).
Her daring move to bring equality to female athletes draws the attention of Bobby Riggs (Carell), a former US Open champion who’s probably more known for his male chauvinist ways. He’s nicknamed “The Mouth” for his garish and appalling rhetoric to women. He’ll say anything to get arise out of others. He can barely keep his marriage in check, as his wife (Shue) can no longer take his gambling addiction. Bobby offers Billie Jean the opportunity to do a “man vs. woman” exhibition match where he’ll prove that men are the definitive gender. It sounds like it should be a ludicrous idea that someone would be so publicly vile like Riggs, yet not so far off in today’s reality. At first she balks at the idea but eventually accepts after being fueled by his immature behavior in the press. She feels no choice but to beat him and be a pioneer for her beliefs.
The advertising for the movie makes it appear as if the movie is all about the match, but this really is the Billie Jean King story. The whole first half of the movie really hones in on her battle to bring forth the inequality female athletes faced next to the men in their sport. We also see Billie Jean coming to terms with her sexuality. At the time she was married to her husband Larry (Stowell) but started falling for her hairdresser, Marilyn (Riseborough). This aspect of Billie Jean’s life is extremely important to her story and is a good chunk of the movie, yet is not featured in any of the film’s promotion. It poses those reminders that same-sex attraction and relationships were thought of as shameful in 1973. Added on top of that is the notion that she’s a female public figure who is reminded that her actions could be thought of an embarrassment to the other female athletes out there.
I struggle with how it’s dealt with in the movie. These moments reiterate some tonal issues at hand. It’s the film’s biggest and most glaring issue. It’s as if directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) want to fully utilize Stone and Carell as comedy actors. Much of the film is told with this lighter bent despite the serious themes of equality and sexuality. We have a scene when Larry and Marilyn come face to face when appearing at Billie Jean’s hotel door, yet it’s almost played for laughs like a sitcom comedy. Larry’s realizations after this of Billie Jean’s truth then feels very rushed and not quite true to how this would naturally play out. Then you have Steve Carell’s performance as Riggs. We’re not supposed to be laughing at Riggs or find him funny, but you can feel the audience wanting to laugh. Is it out of pure uncomfortableness?
Emma Stone gives another winning performance as Billie Jean King. I don’t think anyone’s surprised by that concept. Much like Carell, neither of them disappears into their roles like one may expect given that they’re playing real life people. Their hair and make-up are enough to give the essence of the period. I don’t expect those kinds of performances from either actor but that doesn’t diminish the great work they accomplish here. Stone is the Diane Keaton of our generation. She has a natural warmth and vibrancy to mix the comedy and drama with any character. King has all of that with the strength and determination she had to take down the system. Stone delivers that in every moment.
The film gets to the title match in the second half once Billie Jean is determined to take Bobby on. We have enough scenes of Bobby earlier on to understand what an obnoxious human being he is when it comes to other women. Steve Carell easily taps into his cringe comedy strengths. There was a point where I debated if Carell was overdoing it and falling into caricature work. Mind you, I had no context of who the actual Bobby Riggs was like in his hay day. It only donned on me, again around that halfway marker, that this really is who Riggs was in real life. He was a larger than life showman who did anything for attention. If you watch clips of Riggs and King at the time, you’ll see how much the movie pulls from reality.
When you start thinking about the film’s themes of fighting for gender equality and standing up to a man like Riggs, you realize how it mirrors the current fight in a post-Trump election. It’s rather startling to watch just how closely the dialogue and Riggs’ rhetoric matches what is currently being discussed with the fallout from the election. You have a loudmouth personality who’s all show for the cameras, and yet despite his behavior, wins over women with his faux charms. King’s story isn’t new to anyone, but it feels so timely. I wonder if this film would have the same impact if it had been released ten years prior.
By the end, you will be applauding for all of Billie Jean King’s groundbreaking efforts. The payoff would feel more poignant if the rest of the film was delivered with the same pointed drive that she deserves. The end credits give the standard post-movie recaps with actual footage of its subjects. Now it’s time to dig a bit deeper, recognize how she paved the way, and realize how the fight for gender equality is still raging on.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? A crowd-pleaser thanks to the dynamic performances by Emma Stone and Steve Carell
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS