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In these days when two of the most famous women in the world are the exciting tennis phenomena, sisters Venus and Serena Williams, it is hard to imagine a time when women were restricted, unwanted and utterly disrespected in the sport.  BATTLE OF THE SEXES takes place at a crucial period for not only female athletes, but for the rights of women everywhere.

The ladies’ tennis circuit is heating up.  The play has become harder, faster and more aggressive, and audiences have begun to take notice.  Despite increased attention from both the public and the media, who happily broadcast the women’s victories at the US Open or Wimbledon, the exclusively male powers that rule over professional tennis have no intention of giving the ladies anything close to what the men are earning.  Their participation is seen more as an amusing diversion, than serious, marketable athletic competition.

Not everyone has discounted the growing popularity of women’s tennis.  Bobby Riggs’ salad days on the professional circuit ended before the Korean War.  Well into middle age, the former champion whiles away his days at a boring office job provided by his wealthy in-laws, and his nights hustling tennis bets.  The rising stars in the ladies’ game, along with the era’s zeitgeist of feminism and women’s lib, gets the wheels in Riggs’ mind cranking as to the best way to exploit them for his own gain.

While Riggs schemes, Billie Jean King is making a high-stakes gamble of her own.  The current women’s champion has had enough of the United States Tennis Association’s unfairness, and with the support and participation of the sport’s highest-rated female players, barnstorms across the country on an unsanctioned women’s tour to prove the ladies’ ability to draw paying crowds.  King’s organisation of the tour means the expulsion of herself and the other players from the powerful USTA; the main governing body of American tennis, but the women know they are not only fighting for their own right to equal pay and respect, but for the rights of future players, as well.

King’s single-minded drive to make a success of the Virginia Slims Circuit is derailed somewhat by the advent of a free-spirited hairdresser who sparks feelings in the theretofore happily-married King she had no idea existed.  In the years before gay rights were considered human rights, King is terrified of all she stands to lose as not only a public figure and the main focus of the women’s circuit, but as a wife and daughter to a family who would never understand, yet she grows closer and closer to Marilyn.

A late-night phone call from Riggs proposing a man vs. woman match between himself and the champion is immediately dismissed by King, who sees the 55-year-old huckster for the exploiter that he is, but after Riggs actually hooks one of the champions and beats her soundly; his victory stands to set back the advancement of all King has risked, so she reconsiders and takes him up on the challenge. Playing up an obnoxious male chauvinist pig persona for any camera he can find; what starts off as a trash-talking media circus eventually evolves into something much more significant.  King understands this lark has become a battle for the legitimacy of all women, not just as viable tennis commodities worthy of the same pay and regard, but for the equality of every women who’s ever been disregarded and discounted by men.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES features Emma Stone’s most true and heartfelt performance as the legendary athlete Billie Jean King.  Stone’s clear-eyed, fearless gaze, whether on the court, or in the face of the blatant sexism of the USTA heads, or enduring Riggs’ buffoonery, is a striking contrast to the hesitance and inner turmoil her character suffers in private as her affair with Marilyn deepens.  Stone captures the dichotomy between King the player; who was a physical beast of enormous power, and the awkward girl from the conservative background, who married her college sweetheart with every expectation that they would be happy forever.  King’s initial flirtations with Marilyn crackle with sexual tension.  Stone lets us see King’s bliss when she is with Marilyn, a feeling that quickly becomes a weight of its own as she must hide her newfound attraction on two counts; for having an extramarital affair, and the more shocking detail of that infidelity being with another woman.  Stone is particularly wonderful in a scene when King, alone in her locker room, allows her stoic, invincible facade to crack after coming to terms with the pressure of the Riggs match, her affair, the women’s tour, and all she has endured for the duration of the film.  

A glaring flaw of BATTLE OF THE SEXES is in its goal to make sure the audience is aware of how very, very important the events we are watching will be on the future generations, that the script suffers from ham-fistedness and anachronistic telegraphing.  There are all sorts of clumsy little nods, giveaways and unlikely behaviour for the period that portend a future the characters cannot possibly know at the time that the story takes place.  We have moments like King’s chain-smoking manager (A shrill, overdone turn by Sarah Silverman, mercifully cut short) bursting into the private men’s club of the USTA president and loudly accusing him of not welcoming her because she was both female and Jewish.  There are also several “It Gets Better” PSAs throughout, including a schmaltzy line spoken in King’s ear by her flamboyant wardrobe designer about how “One day we will be free to be who we are and love who we love.” 

Such artlessness doesn’t bode well for character development, and there’s almost no one outside of our main protagonist and antagonist, that registers more than one dimension.  It’s particularly egregious with King’s lover, Marilyn.  Outside of a whirlwind physical attraction, there is nothing between them that makes us understand why King is willing to turn her life inside out and risk everything she worked for.  Marilyn seems vain, opportunistic, and inconsiderate of her lover’s dilemmas, with constant sulks and disregard for King’s need to keep on the down-low by inserting herself into the increasingly public profile of the women’s tour.  They seem to have nothing in common outside of the bedroom. 

Likewise, the lack of consequence for King’s infidelity, once it’s discovered by her loving, supportive husband, is glaring and uncomfortable.  The calm, almost-Buddha-like acceptance from Mr. King, who doesn’t even so much as raise his voice and goes on managing his wife and her interests like a loyal employee, leaves a very sour taste.  Cheating is cheating, no matter who it’s with, but one gets the impression that the filmmakers adamantly refused to have their heroine be looked at as a bad guy, even for a moment, which she kind of is, regardless of her identity realisation.

The clunkiness of King’s melodrama is leavened by Riggs’ tennis court jester antics.  The antithesis of the earnest, plainspoken King, Riggs is a PT Barnum-ish figure; loud, flashy, over the top – in other words, perfect for television.  His clownishness softened the undercurrent of real sexism and misogyny that rose up when women began demanding their equal rights.  BATTLE OF THE SEXES shows us an athlete well past his prime, grasping for one last moment of fame.  Ironically, he did so with an angle it seemed he didn’t actually believe in himself, as evidenced by his devotion toward his wife, who clearly wore the pants in the family.  However, the grand scheme has hit paydirt, so he’ll ride it to the end and enjoy all the financial benefits therein.  One humourous moment occurs at the height of the big match, where Riggs, pouring sweat and gasping for breath, refuses to remove his windbreaker, emblazoned with the logo of the famous Sugar Daddy candy, because the company said they would pay him an extra $25,000 to keep it on for the duration.  In the weeks leading up to the King match, Riggs, in character as the stereotypical male chauvinist pig, has cameras following his every move, and the mix of his actual training (Including a comically intense regimen of dozens of vitamins prescribed by an obvious quack), taunts against King, and carnival-like publicity stunts, makes him a prototype of the reality stars that consume the media today.  Steve Carell is excellent at portraying the Riggs in all his bluster and pathos.

Overburdened by the need to hammer home its various social messages, BATTLE OF THE SEXES would have been better served to add more wit and nuance to its script, and let the incredible true story behind the history-making tennis match speak for itself.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Sept. 22nd, 2017

 

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