Wednesday, September 20, 2017

“Battle Of The Sexes”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “Battle Of The Sexes”, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. 


When The Women’s Liberation Movement comes to the forefront in American culture, can a top woman tennis player defeat a retired older male tennis player?


In 1973, The Women’s Liberation Movement was gaining steam throughout The United States.  Main among its causes was equal pay; women were not being compensated fairly in comparison to their male counterparts.  This was prevalent in all walks of life, including and especially in highly visible areas, such as professional sports.  At this time, Billie Jean King (Stone) was considered among the best female tennis players.  She becomes outraged when the older men who control the sport refuse to award prize money to the women that is equivalent to what the male players would win. 

Mrs. King retaliates by starting her own women’s tennis league, recruiting all of the best professional players; when it earns sponsorship from a cigarette targeted for women, they are then able to promise prize money that is commensurate with what the men would get.  As this group is forming, King meets Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser who awakens King to an aspect of her sexuality that had long since remained dormant.  This proves problematic to King not just because she’s already married, but also because if this information became public, it would ruin her career permanently.

Upon hearing of this women’s league, retired tennis player Bobby Riggs (Carell) is inspired.  Needing money to pay gambling debts – and seeking the limelight he once had during his days as a player – Riggs contacts King to suggest the two play each other to prove once and for all if men are better than women in tennis.  King rejects the notion, but Riggs convinces her main competitor Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) to agree.  Once Riggs beats Court, King quickly reconsiders.  Thanks in large part to Riggs’ skills as a master showman, the media rapidly latch on to this story; once it’s on everyone’s radar, it becomes the world’s most anticipated sporting event.  But will King succumb to the intense pressure or can she find a way to defeat the bloviating Riggs?    


What holds back “Battle Of The Sexes” most is its hackneyed screenplay.  Despite both main characters being humanized with their own personal struggles – Riggs with his gambling addiction and King with her sexuality – there is not enough that’s special about the way this story is told that draws in the viewer on an emotional level.  Once we see Riggs as a devoted father and as a husband whose finances challenges the patience of his wife, it is increasingly difficult to root against him.  True, it could be argued that his chauvinism alone is reason enough, but even that comes across as something of an act for this “show” he’s trying to put on.  It turns out that Riggs is not the villain in this story, it is instead tennis broadcaster and advocate Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) – and therein may lie another issue.  

King’s character should be easier to root for, but that’s not always the case.  It’s not that she comes across as a villain, it’s that some of the people whom she opposes aren't necessarily all that unlikeable.  For example, Margaret Court doesn’t appear as an unpleasant person, but King nevertheless dislikes her for reasons that seem to go beyond merely due to their professional rivalry.  Then there is the matter of King cheating on her husband Larry; while we feel for King’s inability to be more open about her lesbianism, we also feel for her husband, who (at least based on the movie) was faithful to his wife and crushed when he learned of her affair.

One of the bright spots in “Battle Of The Sexes” is the performance by Steve Carell; if you are old enough to remember the real Bobby Riggs, then it’s easy to see that Carell truly embodies this clownish buffoon.  Emma Stone’s performance as King is not quite so believable; although she’s a terrific actress, she may have been seriously miscast in this role.  While it may be difficult to think of a famous actress in that age range who could portray King more realistically, perhaps it may have been better to go with an unknown in this case.  Although King may have blown Riggs off the court in real life, it is Carell who blows Stone off the screen in this movie. 

Battle of the Sexes (2017) on IMDb

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