My Take – As a filmmaker I can imagine how tough it must be to work out a feature film on an historic event, especially when coming to the biopic’s facts, however, the hardest thing about making such a film is that most people know exactly what happened. While, I am not exactly what you would call a tennis fan, nor was I very familiar with the material it’s based on, I found myself really enjoying these characters on-screen. Whether or not they accomplished a spot-on depiction of them, it matters if the film ends up being good or not. Although it is difficult to determine just how far women’s rights and social equality have progressed in the last half century, the victory of Billie Jean King over Bobby Riggs in the 1973 tennis exhibition match was a spectacular publicity success for all movements where women fought male chauvinism on the court, in the courts, and in the home. Personally, I found the film quite engaging, but also very uneven, with obvious great things and other elements that one wishes were done better. But I guess this is about a solid as you can get with a story that’s fairly specific about its messages. The story follows Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in their parallel journeys right before they lock heads for their famous match. While, King is a shy and reserved opportunist who has been pushing for equal rights for women in sports for some time now. However, when the executive director of the Association of Tennis Professionals Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), denies her claims for an equal play, in defiance, she and several other women tennis players quit the circuit to start their own women’s tennis league. While being on the top of her game, on tour, King, despite being happily married to the kind and supporting Larry (Austin Stowell), also discovers her homosexuality with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) and finds herself torn between her new desires and the life she already has.
Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs could not be more opposite from King. Stuck in a midlife crisis, Riggs feels that his life has been missing something since he retired as a tennis champion, and finds himself obsessively gambling again and again, which frustrates his wife to the point of no return. He’s also a male chauvinist who believes in the superiority of men and how women should stay just in the kitchen. With a hope of coming back into the world of tennis and into the eye of the media along with the fame, Riggs challenges King to a match, which results in one of the biggest and important sporting events in history, a match that sparked the women’s movement in sport and planted King’s status as one of the greatest tennis players in the world. This film clearly wasn’t meant to be just about tennis but also the universal fight to be freed from the shackles of outdated societal values. Thanks to the swift direction from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who brought us the insufferable Little Miss Sunshine, this is a wonderful story, told with the right mix of irony, humor and pathos. It captures the mood of the 70s with all the fashion trimmings, the mood for change, and the fears of men as they saw patriarchal power sinking under the tide of the feminist movement. The dramatic tension rises steadily as the narrative moves towards the final battle. Here, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris along with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy use the well-worn underdog, sports template to winning effect; repellent villains, training montages, back room deals and typical last-minute setbacks along with the overt on-the-nose social commentary that feels too shallow and Hollywoodised: Alan Cumming‘s character, a gay costume designer, seems to have wandered in from The Hunger Games and just doesn’t seem real. Despite the sport film clichés, the filmmakers manage to find space for moments of real sensitivity; Billy Jean’s self-exploration or Bobby consoling his wife, the tension is felt on both sides. By setting set a tone here that is pretty lighthearted and never gets too serious about the whole situation of equal rights among genders. It allows for a more feel-good sports film that is enjoyable to watch. But beneath the hoopla is a more dramatic story-line, one of homophobia and gender inequality that lays dormant. The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, have fun with the media circus aspects of the sporting game and allude to this issues, but the focus of the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy alludes to their back stories with an unequal balance between the two athletes’ personal lives. Clocking in at 121 minutes, the film takes its sweet time to build up King and Riggs’ story. While it’s interesting to see their stories unfold, it goes on for too long and drags in the middle parts just before the climactic match. The sharing of screen time is also very lopsided towards King while Riggs is treated almost like a supporting character for the first hour. Like the title of this film, everything leads up to the match. The problem is that while I like the events that lead us there, the film doesn’t seem to be interested in the Bobby Riggs side. He has approximately 2 scenes with him and his wife, and it doesn’t sell their relationship well. It sells it so poorly in fact, that at one point Rigg’s wife actually has to remind him why she loves him in the first place. We get hints that she is mad at him with a classic clothes-out-the-window scene, but Elizabeth Shue plays Pricilla so unaffectedly that it really seems like she could care less, even when confessing her love for him. Their whole dynamic feels a bit forced and unsubstantial. Rigg’s addiction problem is pretty hilarious to watch though, especially when he whips out a deck of cards at his gambler’s anonymous meeting, proclaiming that they’re not here because they’re gamblers, they’re here because they’re bad gamblers. I wonder if the original script was originally a Billie Jean Kings biopic that was rewritten to be about this match and the controversies surrounding this. This leads into a film that means well, but is structurally uneven with its tone. This will surely be a film that will be championed for its positive look on female athletes, but for those that want to look into the history of the event, there must be some books about it that tell the story better.
However, the Billie Jean and Marilyn’s story is much more interesting. After one of the more intimate, beautifully shot and well-acted chemistries I’ve seen in a long time, Billie starts to feel a certain way towards her hairdresser Marilyn, leading to a steamy romance. Is cheating on your husband a good thing? No. Is discovering your sexual preferences important? Yes. The film doesn’t really make clear what it wants you to think about Billie’s affair, especially when Billie’s husband Larry finds out about it (within his first 10 minutes on screen) and still is supportive of her up to the match. Eventually, this is a film that builds up to a tennis match to end all tennis matches (so to speak), but it’s really not about the match at all. It’s really just a matter of whether or not a woman can stand up to a man in the court, regardless of the outcome. I found this aspects to be very moving and it’s what made me enjoy this film as much as I did. Yes, the match itself is well done, but it’s really not that intense, because by the time the match begins, the point of the film has already been made. The film also has a suitably authentic 70s look that makes one feel like they are back in 1973. Some people may not like this and feel it’s poor film-making, understandably, personally liked this successful effort at authenticity. Kudos to the cinematographer who really has a wonderful grasp on stillness to promote an essential moment and exerts great uses of soft and hard focus to portray dramatic moments and internalize character feelings. If for nothing else, Steve Carell and Emma Stone should surely be remembered for their performances here. Reuniting after starring together in Crazy, Stupid, Love, Steve Carell and Emma Stone as expected, both give great performances. Steve Carrell is hysterical as the over-the-top Bobby Riggs. He’s unrestrained and seems to be a having a ball playing a chauvinistic pig. Carrell‘s portrayal of Riggs captures the obnoxious claims of masculine superiority that were trumpeted in the 70s. As Riggs, he flaunts his chauvinism in such a flamboyant manner that showmanship is clearly his primary focus. This is one detail that the film gets right, thanks largely to Carell. Riggs doesn’t actually believe the gross, archaic things he says about women. It’s an act. He says them to attract interest in the upcoming Man vs. Woman tennis match with Billie Jean King. He was obviously doing it just to get back in the game, and make some money in the process, and he’s actually a really sympathetic character in it. Carrell humanizes the character by emphasizing his good nature coupled with the lack of discipline. On the other side, with little cosmetic modification beyond her hair style and the addition of King’s trademark glasses, Emma Stone easily captures the iconic tennis star’s natural dignity and poise. That King is depicted as also coming to terms with her sexuality might be the telescoping of events for dramatic purposes, but the point works well in creating a human dimension in a character who might otherwise have been depicted as too driven, goal-oriented, and bloodless. In supporting roles, Sarah Silverman also shines as the rough and confident manager, Gladys. She plays well off Stone in the small amount of time she gets. Andrea Riseborough is solid as King’s lover, Marilyn, who opens up King’s hidden secrets and is the leading contributor to the emotional arc, so does Austin Stowell. Bill Pullman is the only person who doesn’t pull of their role, as his sexist boss character is very one dimensional and almost cartoonish by the end. It’s also fun to see Alan Cumming in a role he get to sink his teeth into. Jessica McNamee as the Australian tennis player Margaret Court does a good job portraying her homophobia without going overboard. On the whole, ‘Battle of the Sexes‘ is an uplifting and crowd pleasing film which despite important messages of equality and fairness, suffers from being too uneven and uncomfortable.
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 121 minutes