Battle of the Sexes Review
Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
Engaging and sunny (literally; this is the brightest, squintiest film in months), as far as it goes, "Battle of the Sexes" is a two-headed biopic reluctant to complicate its coming-out story with too many ... complications.
This will not be a problem for most audiences. Collectively, the "Battle of the Sexes" team knows how to please a crowd. The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, made the wish fulfillment smash "Little Miss Sunshine." The screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy wrote the wish fulfillment smash "Slumdog Millionaire." Emma Stone, who plays sports legend Billie Jean King, broke hearts all over the place in the wish fulfillment fantasy (bittersweet division) "La La Land."
Stone's co-star, Steve Carell, boasts a career born in comedy and now conversant in a wide range of seriocomic and dramatic projects. Here he plays the inveterate hustler and former tennis champion Bobby Riggs, who declared war on the "lib thing," aka the women's movement and women's sports in particular. Riggs challenged King to a best-of-five match when she was up and he was down and the world was primed for a gender-war gimmick with teeth.
There should be a limit on the number of film reviews per Trump administration that turn into a referendum on our current president. (Some presidents make this harder than others.) With "Battle of the Sexes" we'll simply point out that this particular wish fulfillment fantasy (bonus: it actually happened) concerns a tough, controversial female sports star besting a controversial, clownish, chauvinist novelty in a winner-take-all smackdown. It's the Hillary-Trump narrative plunked down into the recent past and recast with a different ending.
Deep inside the circus of the Sept. 20, 1973 "battle of the sexes" contest, held at the Houston Astrodome and watched by 50 million people, the stakes were high, and serious. The meaning and impact of the King-Riggs match far exceeded the boundaries of a tennis court. The whole time it was happening, King's off-court life was consumed by a budding affair with a hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett, conducted while King's marriage to her husband, promoter and business partner Larry King, had many years left to go.
This is the emotional focus of "Battle of the Sexes," the side of King's story left out of the 2001 TV movie "When Billie Beat Bobby." In the early scenes of "Battle of the Sexes," King has conquered the 1972 U.S. Open, but the patriarchal U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (Bill Pullman oozes avuncular privilege as its figurehead, former tennis champ Jack Kramer) is throwing most of the prize money to the male players. King and the other female players walk out and establish the Women's Tennis Association. Brokered by World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (played in the film by Sarah Silverman), the Virginia Slims tour is born. (Screenwriter Beaufoy compresses the timeline here.)
All this coincided with the run-up to and aftermath of the 1972 Title IX law, designed to prohibit sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, including sports. Riggs, a compulsive gambler (Elisabeth Shue plays his wife, fed up but still fond of the lunkhead), gets King's rival champ, Margaret Court, to play him in a match that came to be known as the "Mother's Day Massacre." Riggs prevailed that day. King, who'd turned Riggs down a few times, agreed to a match. Her strategy: keep him hustling all over the court to the point of fatigue, and who knows? A win might change the country's thinking on a lot of fronts.
Beaufoy's script lobs between King's struggles and Riggs' hustles. Andrea Riseborough plays Barnett, and as photographed by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, the scene where she and King meet in the salon chair (King's getting a 'do along with the other players) is treated as an intoxicating vision of romantic promise. The movie's look is the most aggressive, in-your-face aspect of the movie, period. Long-lens close-ups, extreme and intimate, keep the faces in extreme proximity. The King/Barnett affair, closeted for years, meant King lying to her husband, risking a career, potentially rupturing a bond with her traditional working-class parents and gambling more than Riggs ever did.
The movie's determined not to demonize any of its major players. The performances, with the exception of a rather wan and indistinct Austin Stowell as Larry King, add spice and nuance where they can. But there are tricky obstacles in "Battle of the Sexes." The climactic match wasn't much in terms of suspense (6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in straight sets), and to the degree this is a sports movie, it's not a very exciting one.
The larger obstacle, I think, relates to what isn't on the page, or on the screen. The King-Barnett relationship ultimately played out in highly visible and painful fashion after the movie's timeline. In 1981 Barnett outed King, suing her unsuccessfully for palimony and a house in Malibu, Calif. King later said: "She was a bad choice ... she was dangerous. I just screwed up." The movie wants none of what happened later messing up its preferred, gently rousing tale of one woman's sexual enlightenment and the first blush of a passionate affair conducted in the shadows.
On the other hand: Since when did a sports biopic worry about all the angles? Rewatching the 2001 TV movie written and directed by Jane Anderson, I was surprised how dodgy its version of events was, and yet how sharp the writing and acting were in the juiciest exchanges. The performances of Holly Hunter and Ron Silver had something Stone's and Carell's lack: true drive and animal energy, a sense of athletic competitors who mean business even when they're kidding, or saying they are. The placid tone of "Battle of the Sexes" smoothes the edges. So much has changed since 1973, and so much hasn't. The lib thing is still a sticking point for approximately half of the country. This is why this story's timing remains excellent -- and why the movie is both fun and a mild disappointment, the latter being the one value judgment King herself never heard from anyone.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and partial nudity).
Running time: 2:01