Sunday 8 October 2017

Movie Review: Battle Of The Sexes (2017)

A biography of tennis legend Billie Jean King around the time of her famous showdown with Bobby Riggs, Battle Of The Sexes reveals the tumult behind the headlines but doesn't quite achieve the intended emotional heights.

It's 1973, and 29 year old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is on top of the tennis world. When tournament organizer Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) refuses to close the gender pay gap, King leads a renegade group of players in the establishment of the Women's Tennis Association, with her friend Gladys (Sarah Silverman) as manager. Although married to Larry (Austin Stowell), King meets and starts a secret lesbian affair with hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough).

Meanwhile, former tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is now 55 years old, a compulsive (but successful) gambler much to the disdain of his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). He is also a self-professed male chauvinist pig. Sensing an opportunity to make money and reclaim the spotlight, Riggs tries to goad King into a publicity-grabbing "battle of the sexes" televized tennis match. She refuses, but Riggs does find an opponent in Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). The outcome of that game forces King into accepting Riggs' challenge, although her private life is in turmoil.

Directed by the duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle Of The Sexes takes on plenty of weighty topics. The early 1970s witnessed the confluence of turbulent currents that had been building up over a decade, and finally feminism, sexuality, money, broadcasting and politics started to fully come together.

The specific tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was just that: a one-off, made-for-television stunt event, but it also carried the winds of change: if the reigning queen of women's tennis, carrying the torch of pay equity, could not defeat a loudmouth overweight over-the-hill sexist man in his mid-50s, the cultural setbacks would have propagated far from the tennis court.

Dayton and Faris, working from a script by Simon Beaufoy, are workmanlike in capturing the events of the times, but the central character's spirit eludes them. The film largely focuses on King as she helps form the WTA, meets Marilyn and awakens to her sexuality. Despite a focused Emma Stone performance, King's energy and societal drivers are notably missing. The film meets her at the peak, a woman demanding change while grappling with fundamental personal changes. How and why King got here are absent, an unfortunate gap in a biographical film.

Riggs is very much a supporting character, a caricature battling his middle-age demons and refusing to grow up because his wealth means he does not have to. The rest of the characters are fleeting. Marilyn remains an ethereal partner, more a muse than a person. Riggs' wife Priscilla and WTA organizer Gladys drop in and mostly out of the story.

The match itself forms the climax of the film, and is well presented as an inflated media circus, King cutting a lonely figure as she singularly enters a noisy arena in a world tilted against women's equality. Her on-the-court public showdown contrasts well with her private life, King compelled to keep her relationship with Marilyn a secret despite the whispers, the battle to come for gay rights already visible, but for now still ahead.

Battle Of The Sexes is a good serve, but misses the ace.

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