“Battle of the Sexes”: Relevant, Perceptive and Fun

| November 7, 2017 | 0 Comments

Even before the opening credits, we know who scores the game point in Battle of the Sexes. Still, it plays like a tense volley, testing the strength and nerve of opposing social tides in the early 1970s. The film tells the real-life story of former World No. 1 tennis pro Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), and her rivalry with the puerile, self-proclaimed “chauvinist pig,” Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). But as the title suggests, the King-Riggs rivalry–only one thread of the richly layered movie–is merely a stand-in for gender equality issues more broadly.

The film’s directors, the married-couple duo Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, are masters of blending laugh-out-loud comedy with serious subjects (as in their 2006 breakout hit, Little Miss Sunshine)–a delicate tone that is far easier to butcher than to nail. But here they deliver a film with the perfect pitch of comedy (largely credited to the ebullient ensemble cast) to complement its perceptive portrayal of a shifting cultural landscape in the wake of the ‘60s.

Not only does Carell play Riggs as a clown, an act we know and love him for, but he balances the role with an underlying self-loathing. He hams it up for the spectators, wielding costumes, props and inflammatory comments about women, as if to prove just how much of a joke life is to him. But privately, he fights darker battles. He’s a gambling addict and his marriage is on the rocks. His adult son–in the least-developed storyline that could have been eschewed altogether–is embarrassed by him. He represents the boys club of sports (as well as most other professional spheres of the time), and he knows change is inevitable, but he won’t accept it. Carell’s comedy often seems to be masking a deeper sadness, and that’s what makes him so engaging as a performer. Beneath the joker facade, Carell conveys, along with the film’s gaggle of other chauvinists flatly portrayed as the villains, the insidious male anger stirred by King and her cohort.

If Battle of the Sexes at moments gets distracted, Emma Stone keeps us locked in. Facing obstacles in every direction, Stone portrays King with the determination and complexity that the role demands. She’s ambivalent toward her husband and toward her same-sex lover; she sacrifices privacy to advance gender equality; she’s scrutinized and criticized on television by both men and women. We feel her burden, but we never doubt her. Of the performance, the real-life King has said, “She did a remarkable job capturing my essence, my vulnerability, everything that was going on in my head at that time.” When has it been so enjoyable to root for a character as genuine as Stone’s Billie Jean King? And floating above it all is the sense that Stone and her co-stars of the Virginia Slims Circuit could not be having more fun. Fortunately for us, we have the fun with them.

The tour’s publicist, Gladys Heldman, is played by the witty, acerbic Sarah Silverman, who claims many of the film’s laugh-out-loud lines. Their wardrobe designer is played by Alan Cumming, who, in a surprisingly moving role, turns out to be one of the film’s unexpected heroes. Andrea Riseborough is magnetic as King’s hair dresser/love interest. Others in the ensemble include Riggs’s wife (Elisabeth Shue) and adult son (Lewis Pullman), King’s husband (Austin Stowell), anti-hero Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Association of Tennis Professionals Executive Director Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), and nutritional guru Rheo Blair (played by Fred Armisen, whose comedic register feels out of step with the rest of cast, as if he were still in a Portlandia sketch). Each role commands our attention, and this is the film’s primary flaw: it captures too many perspectives. We’re constantly plucked between point of views, but we care far more about some than others. Still, the film never drags, and it always hits the right notes when it counts.

The politicization of sports is more relevant now than ever before. Battle of the Sexes is about a tennis rivalry in 1973, but more importantly it’s about the ways in which people use their platforms to make small steps toward equality. What could have been sentimentalized is delivered with wit, playfulness, and just enough Elton John to leave you a renewed optimist.

Featured photo credit: Theen … Lonely Ball via photopin (license)

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Category: featured, The (Sex)es

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