BATTLE OF THE SEXES: Believe it or Not, That’s Sort of the Way it Was

Battle of the Sexes is a hugely entertaining entry in the current seventies nostalgia boom. A game-upper from Little Miss Sunshine co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their latest outing examines the media circus surrounding the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, widely touted as “the Battle of the Sexes.” The first female athlete to win more than $100,000 in a single year, King was a feminist icon. Riggs was a self-avowed male chauvinist pig and compulsive gambler.

As it happened, King had already fired an opening salvo by refusing to knuckle under to the polite despotism of former tennis champ and then USLTA head Jack Kramer, played with disarming conviction by Bill Pullman. King finds out that male players an upcoming tour are to be paid eight times what the women players will be and it’s on. She and business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) announce a rival tour. The upstart tour seems destined for bankruptcy when Heldman enlists an all-important corporate sponsor – Virginia Slims. It’s hard to imagine big tobacco so prominently sponsoring a sporting event now, but it was common then, and the deal seems to suit the chain-smoking Heldman to a tee. In any event, Silverman is  very entertaining in the part.

Sports movies are almost always about something else

Sports movies are almost always about something else, and this one is really about the personal struggles faced by both protagonists as they entered the hugely publicized match. Written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) the movie also deftly captures a point in time when long-standing social norms were beginning just to be upended. Younger audiences will likely be horrified by the dinosaur attitudes that prevailed at the time, but there’s no question that Riggs/King match and the media circus that surrounded it provide a perfect canvas to depict the beginning of the shift in some of those attitudes.

Courtesy Fox Searchlight 2017

The movie sets up the characters with deceptive ease. Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is a rising star and making waves with her feminist views that were at the time categorized as “women’s lib,” a term that could be praise or perjorative, depending on the person using it. Riggs (Steve Carell) is a has-been living off Stepford wife Elisabeth Shue. That is an irony that the movie for better or worse decides not to pursue.

Steve Carell shines as Bobby Riggs

Riggs, played here with astonishing manic energy by Steve Carell, was a former world champion tennis player – in the thirties and forties. He was in his fifties when he challenged the up and coming Billie Jean King to a match. She initially declined. Riggs moved on to Margaret Court, at the time the number one women’s champion after beating King. That match – you can’t make this stuff up – was on Mother’s Day. Riggs brought her flowers and she curtseyed. Then Riggs beat her. That put the spotlight back on King.

Riggs reveled in his inflammatory male chauvinist pig rhetoric, and schtick or not, it is genuinely cringe-worthy to hear it now. Carell gets it right – playfully in your face with neither self-consciousness nor irony. A scene where Riggs holds a Gamblers Anonymous meeting hostage while diatribing on the subject of gambling versus hustling is very funny, while also demonstrating Riggs’ undoubted ability to grab the limelight.

Emma Stone nails it again

Emma Stone, who apparently does not know how to give a bad performance, plays Billie Jean King with an earnestness and normalcy that belies the fact that there was little about this woman that wasn’t extraordinary. The script details her same sex relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), though leaves out the relationship’s messy end, in which Barnett sued King for palimony (and lost), outing the by nature private King to the world. Nonetheless, Riseborough successfully injects a neediness into her performance that is likely to fuel audience distrust.  In any event, the movie is more interested in the internal struggles Billie Jean’s attraction to Marilyn triggers than titillation. The only scene depicting any physical lovemaking barely progresses beyond some PG-13 kissing and unbuttoning, and generates less erotic electricity than an earlier scene when Marilyn cuts Billie Jean’s hair for the first time.

Courtesy Fox Searchlight 2017

These scenes are sensitively and sympathetically handled. King claims she’s never had a female lover before, but it quickly becomes evident she has discovered something about herself that she either never knew or never admitted to herself. She clearly understands that should news leak out that she’s having a relationship with a woman her career could be over – she’s also clearly concerned about the effect the situation would have on her blameless husband Larry.

Austin Stowell proves there are no small parts

Austin Stowell takes what could have been the completely thankless role of Larry King, first husband of Billie Jean King, and transforms it into a shining featured role. The best movie acting takes place behind the eyes, and the young veteran of Whiplash and Bridge of Spies proves it in scene after scene, where his face and body language convey volumes without dialogue, unhindered by his Redfordian good looks. Finding a particularly decorative bra on a dresser top in his wife’s hotel room it’s clear he knows instantly that it isn’t hers, and Marilyn’s omnipresence suddenly seems to make a new, terrible sense and we get it as though we’re reading his mind.

Courtesy Fox Searchlight 2017

The always wonderful Alan Cumming lifts his stock role as a women’s designer who reassures the sexually struggling King from the gay best friend cliché it could have been in the hands of a lesser actor, while a strangely sinister and creepy Fred Armisen appears sans dialogue as Hollywood nutrition guru Rheo Blair, who plies Riggs with vast amounts of vitamins.

You can’t make up a character like Howard Cosell

The outcome of the match is a matter of record, and so the movie never quite achieves the Rocky-esque suspense it might have otherwise. Faris and Dayton have chosen to cover it visually like a TV sports broadcast of the time, primarily long shots from an elevated angle. They have also incorporated ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell into the proceedings, both verbally and physically. Honestly, I had forgotten how unbelievably annoying Cosell could be. Younger viewers, observing him with his arm creepily snaked around the shoulders of Natalie Morales, as tennis star and commentator Rosie Casals (digitally inserted into the Cosell footage with Forrest Gump skill), will probably have a hard believing he wasn’t just made up by the filmmakers. But you couldn’t make this guy up.

The movie is handsomely shot on film, giving it an edgy, grainy look (some scenes were actually shot on 16 millimeter instead of the standard 35 millimeter)  which enhances the overall seventies vibe every bit as much as the hairstyles and the wardrobe.  The use of period music is uninspired but effective.

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