Film Review – Battle of the Sexes
Battle of the Sexes
Although Battle of the Sexes (2017) takes place in 1973, its themes feel unfortunately modern. That’s a sign telling us how slowly the progress of gender equality has been since. The tennis match that pitted Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs exploded in a spectacle over a feminist movement desperate for respect and a chauvinistic institution unwilling to look past its blinded arrogance. Sadly, this is a conversation we are still having – where the wage gap, pro-choice versus pro-life debate, and sexual assault/harassment continue to dominate headlines.
The connection to today’s political climate is too obvious to ignore, where King calls to mind Hillary Clinton and Riggs is surely representative of Donald Trump. And maybe that’s where the film loses a bit of its edge. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directs Simon Beaufoy’s script in an almost breezy fashion. The topic at hand is deathly serious, but the tone and style is lighthearted. Linus Sandren’s camera captures the 1970s with a golden hue – the use of 35mm film stock allowing the picture to have a graininess indicative of the time. But the visual style plays like a safety net, not wanting to push the envelope too far. It’s difficult to sense the urgency in the stakes when the material is treated as equal parts sports drama and comedy.
Interestingly enough, Battle of the Sexes operates much more effectively as a character study. Emma Stone brings one of her finest performances as the female tennis sensation. Billie Jean King was arguably the biggest star in the sport at the time, but Stone grounds the character, giving her an authenticity that feels natural. As King and her colleagues work for equality on and off the court, Stone never goes over the top with her delivery. In a climactic scene in which she confronts ex-player/promoter/commentator Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman, in an exceptionally villainous performance) Stone’s acting choices feel restrained but correct, even though the dialogue hits the central points a little too firmly on the head.
But Dayton, Faris, and Beaufoy provide King with conflicting character traits that make her all the more fascinating. This mostly involves her closeted homosexuality. While on tour, King developed an affair with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) despite King being married at the time. The scenes between King and Barnett are handled with a delicate touch. An early sequence with Barnett doing King’s hair is so well executed in its subtlety that we can sense the sparks flying between them intuitively. Seeing King juggle this situation with her goals as a tennis player and feminist figure – she feared that being outed would cost her sponsorships – provide an insight on the difficulties she had to endure as a celebrity, a woman, and as a gay person. In an attempt to keep things uncomplicated, the production did not include how King’s and Barnett’s relationship ended (a quick internet search will tell you: it wasn’t on the best of terms), but the connection the two share is the true emotional core of the film.
Steve Carell had a very difficult role as Bobby Riggs, and I’m not so sure the character was put under the microscope as intensely as it should’ve been. Riggs was a retired tennis champ who was an excessive gambler and relished in his sexist leanings. He boasted at how he thought women should stay in the kitchen, and bet money that he could defeat any female challenger put in front of him. For a guy in his fifties, Riggs had a lot of nerve to call out players half his age and in their prime. His big talk and grandstanding fueled the media hype to circus level proportions. At the time of the match, Riggs sported a bright yellow jacket that read “Sugar Daddy” in bold red letters.
Carell jumps headfirst into the part. He plays Riggs boldly enough to get plenty of laughs while not crossing the line to be unbelievable. But the problem narratively is that he is not condemned for perpetuating this ideology. The writing and direction are too kind to Riggs. In an attempt to flesh out the character, we are provided a side story involving his rocky relationship with his wife (Elisabeth Shue), but does that justify his actions? Seeing Riggs interact with his children does not excuse the fact that he is a serial gambler nor does it forgive his pig-headed treatment of women. His outlandishness is done for comedic sake, sure, but is that the right approach given what he stands for? Instead of being called to court for what he’s done to bring women down, Riggs is treated so well that there’s a temptation to root for him, which flies in the face of what the story is striving for.
When it comes to the tennis, Battle of the Sexes is not all that exciting or suspenseful. In fact, the final score between King and Riggs is quickly skimmed over because it was so lopsided. But this isn’t really about the match itself, is it? I enjoyed much of the entertainment value and character work this had to offer. But as a political and social statement, playing it safe may not have been the best approach to take.