Battle of the Sexes Rages On

Movies: TIFF17

Stories about strong women continue to struggle for popular approval while movies about middle-aged men absorbed in their own search for success are celebrated for brave storytelling

By Katherine Monk

TORONTO (September 11, 2017) — Battle of the Sexes is the title of one of the bigger buzz movies at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but four days into this exhaustive and exhausting celebration of cinema, it may as well be a central theme.

On one side, the festival is showcasing films featuring strong women with the courage to pursue their dreams. On the other, it’s awash in the insecurities of middle-aged men terrified by the prospect of being forgotten. Or, worse yet, being altogether average.

Maybe it was just the course of my day that kicked off with the press and industry screening for Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s take on the famous 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. I thoroughly enjoyed their period piece that pays homage to the era with outstanding production design and a seductive soundtrack of ‘70s pop hits. Feminism never gets a chance to be ‘feel-good,’ but thanks to Stone and Carell, the movie wasn’t just funny — it had moments of true inspiration as Stone served up King’s history-making achievements and Carell humanized the iconic male chauvinist pig.

I remember the match and the circus, but little did I know the back story: King was ranked number one, yet struggled to get equal pay on the circuit, forever running into the brick wall of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association and its male directors. They told her men were more exciting to watch. They were stronger, faster and simply more skilled.

Her only option was to boycott the Grand Slam events and create the Women’s Tennis Association, recruiting other top-ranked players to play in tournaments that lacked major sponsorship. Without big money, the women on the tour were not only forced to promote their own matches, they had to sell their own tickets and set up their own courts — from laying down the playing surface to stringing up the nets.

Meanwhile, she was facing her own fears, grappling with her own sexuality, realizing she had feelings for women that weren’t socially acceptable back in 1973.

When she met Riggs on the court under the Astrodome, she wasn’t just working for a paycheque, she was waging a war on behalf of all women — forever changing the face of tennis. Now, the United States Tennis Association is headquartered at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre, which hosts the US Open.

It was a major victory, and so is the film — at least in my opinion. But when I looked at the early critical scores before typing this paragraph, Battle of the Sexes was getting a 46 per cent approval rating. This is when I really feel my gender (and my sexual orientation) as a film critic, and how few of us females are out there, seeing all the work from ‘our’ point-of-view.

I never thought it was so different. I assumed art was art and gender didn’t really matter. Good work would transcend genitalia and even a male-dominated critics’ pool.

But such is not the case. While I cheered on Stone, and felt a rush of validation when she smacked Andrea Riseborough on the lips, I was feeling the exact opposite while watching Louis C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy — the directorial debut from the stand-up comic who recently conquered television.

A black and white film starring C.K in the lead role, the central dilemma is C.K.’s own neurosis. His 17-year-old daughter, played with Lolita-like cunning by Chloe Grace Moretz, is hanging out with a man four times her age. John Malkovich handles the role with his trademark laid-back weirdness, essentially embodying everything C.K. fears most: a confident man who can be funny without playing the fool.

I am told it is brave filmmaking that addresses male fears, as though it’s a huge revelation for women that guys want to date women half their age, own a private jet and have the the power to make their own TV shows, direct their own movies and take home shiny fake gold hardware for the mantel.

C.K’s movie echoed the very same craving as Brad’s Status, the latest film from Mike White starring Ben Stiller as a middle-aged man panicking over his legacy, and feeling unfulfilled with a beautiful wife, a comfortable home and a handsome, talented teenager on the verge of going to college.

The entire film is narrated by Stiller’s voice, the inner monologue of his insecure character moping over the fact he’ll never own a private jet, have endless sex with multiple partners on a beach in Hawaii, or be a close friend of the President of the United States.

One scene shows Brad (Stiller) talking to a young student in a bar. He talks for hours about his fear of being average while she politely listens, looking increasingly bored, but still attentive enough that he keeps talking, and talking, about himself.

I am told this, too, is brave. “Men never talk about their inner fears.”

Then there’s Darren Aronofsky’s mother! — yet another story of a middle-aged creator consumed about his personal success while his wife, who is half his age, makes a nice house and prepares his meals so he can focus on his next poem.

The film is void of love and compassion, but full of stylized violence that rips holes in its female characters. I am told mother! is revelatory.

Meanwhile, the story of a man who truly recreated the role of women in pop culture is considered ‘vanilla.’ Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is Angela Robinson’s (Debs, The L Word) biopic about William Moulton Marston, the Harvard psychiatrist who created the character of Wonder Woman.

It’s another feel-good story that puts female empowerment front and centre, letting us cheer for intelligent and strong-minded women who refuse to go along with the status quo, and refuse to be treated as second class citizens.

Variety said “its non-stop feminist message can get a little heavy-handed” while The Guardian gave it two stars out of five, saying its “tone of forced sweetness and celebratory earnestness” was a liability, and that its pivotal three-way love scene was “embarrassing.”

Only Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, starring Saorise Ronan, seems to be getting good notices. Then again, the character is a good Catholic girl who doesn’t challenge the status quo and barely has the courage to tell her mother she wants to leave home to study in New York.

Her central act of rebellion is picking her own name. She asks to be called Ladybird instead of Christine, the name she was given. It’s a beautiful, sweet and nuanced film, with Ronan fully absorbing the quirks or Gerwig’s own personality. At the moment, it’s the best-reviewed film of the festival at 100 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.

May the battle of the sexes continue.


THE EX-PRESS, September 11, 2017


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