Movie review: Battle of the Sexes
Emma Stone and Steve Carell serve and volley into Oscar contention in Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s detailed recreation of a tennis match that made history and an event that redefined pop culture
Battle of the Sexes
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Natalie Morales, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Fred Armisen
Directed by: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton
Running time: 121 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
Oh, if only we’d come a long way, baby…. More than forty years have passed since the Battle of the Sexes pitted Billie Jean King against former men’s pro Bobby Riggs, but this crowd-pleaser set in 1973 feels sadly timely.
From the moment Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s (Little Miss Sunshine) movie begins, we’re immersed in the never-ending gender war. Women tennis players on the professional circuit were making a fraction of what the men were taking home. The disparity was justified by the male-dominated board as an audience-based preference. Despite data to the contrary, the board said people liked watching men more than women.
Billie Jean King refused to accept the situation, and ranked number one, she had enough profile to make a point. She threatened to boycott the entire tour.
What happens next should be a chapter in social studies textbooks. But it’s not, which is why Battle of the Sexes is more than what it appears to be: A great big Hollywood ‘70s-era spectacle with a nostalgic soundtrack and two lovable comic actors taking on the leads; Boogie Nights with fuzzy balls.
Faris and Dayton, along with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, Fishing in the Yemen), have recreated a seismic moment in popular culture that you can almost feel rippling beneath your feet in the theatre.
We didn’t really know what hit us then, but now, it all seems to make crazy sense. Because that’s our current reality. The world is crazy, and we’re left holding the sickening string of logic that brought us here, into the world of unreal reality TV and real fake news.
We can blame colonial assumptions crafted by masculine notions of the warrior-hero narrative, but that’s dull. It’s way more fun to label it “Battle of the Sexes” and play it out shot by shot, volley by volley, until the craziness of the game becomes obvious.
The filmmakers do exactly that. Beaufoy’s script takes us on an adrenaline ride that begins in the back rooms of tennis power, in the wing-backed and leather-tufted boys’ clubs where men of industry gather and decide the rules.
Billie Jean King is the brave rebel who defies their petrified thinking. She’s a model heroine from her first stride down the hall, but the feeling is amplified by the presence of Emma Stone in the lead. The Oscar-winner is consistently adorable, even when she’s wearing a period, pink-frilled polyester number that looks stolen from a doll.
She pulls it off. She pulls the whole thing off.
Sure, she gained fifteen pounds of muscle to look substantial enough to play a professional athlete. But she still looks small. And yes, she’s a modern woman who would have no problem playing a nascent lesbian.
Yet, the performance Stone offers goes much deeper than skin and bone, muscle and sinew. She portrays a woman fighting the system, but in turn, fighting with herself. The internal conflict is weighted as elegantly as a well-struck forehand, and her precision with each stroke of emotion is a testament to years of earnest study.
Steve Carell makes an excellent opponent. Ready to meet her footwork with fresh moves, Carell brings an unexpected warmth and humanity to the character of Riggs. Flawed but persistently charming, we’re shown a man addicted to gambling — but more importantly, the game.
Riggs becomes the grotesque embodiment of male chauvinism for the cameras, getting everyone hyped about finally putting “women back in the kitchen and making babies, where they belong…”
Behind the scenes, Riggs was a different man. He just wanted to sell the show, make the cash, and enjoy the spotlight one more time.
Both he and Billie Jean got caught up in a culture storm, trapped on the same raft lashed from hate and fear. Beaufoy’s design keeps the two characters in isolation, developing twin narratives that play to the same themes of personal truth, until the final showdown at the Houston Astrodome — before thousands, including Helen Reddy and Salvador Dali.
Beneath it all, tossing our characters across the screen, is the ocean of entertainment that’s transformed our landscape.
“The Battle of the Sexes” is a Wikipedia entry about the 1973 tennis game — as well as conflict between genders — because it was broadcast to millions of people. It caused a sensation. It was all about entertainment, from how much women were getting paid to appear on centre court to Riggs’s polarizing antics, culminating in the biggest circus imaginable.
Faris and Dayton realize the details so well, and do such a good job with the entertainment, that you almost lose the bigger picture until you pull back. It’s there, in sifting through the layers and the varied performances from everyone involved — Andrea Riseborogh, Sarah Silverman and Elisabeth Shue, in particular — that you feel the emotional range of the story.
The Battle of the Sexes is a perfect Polaroid of a given time; the flash burst captured the face of our social demons. It showed us an undying need for entertainment over genuine reform, and a tolerance for offensive behaviour when it’s laced with the strings of power and fame. We can turn it over in two dimensions as artefact, but in its ochre hues and glossy finish, we can see our own reflection.
THE EX-PRESS, September 28, 2017