TELLURIDE FILM REVIEW: BATTLE OF THE SEXES An Uplifting Celebration of Achievement Against The Tide
Billed as a quasi-silly comedy about a seemingly ridiculous match between a chauvinist and a feminist in the 1970s, Battle of the Sexes appears externally to be a simple popcorn movie for a thoughtless afternoon. But it is, in fact, something else, something more. The battle, if you look closely, is not just between the sexes, but within them.
Call me a sucker for emotional stories of triumph over adversity, of edification through struggle, but I fell hard for just those tried-and-true themes in the upcoming Battle of the Sexes. Though it bills itself as being about a simple tennis match, the movie is about a lot more. It is about two people carrying their own demons in opposing paths, about a time we thought we had left behind. Indeed, as the filmmakers sincerely conceded before the world premiere of this film at the Telluride Film Festival, the concept seemed quaint and even anachronistic when they began to develop it in 2015. But, in the world we know today, no longer.
Emma Stone returns after her Oscar as Billie Jean King, the by-then already legendary tennis champ struggling in the early 1970s to achieve equal pay for women in her beloved game. But even though she—at times voluntarily—carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, or at the least the weight of the women’s movement on them, she is human after all and has her own internal sexuality problems to sort through.
On the other side of the universe, it seems, exists Steve Carrell’s Bobby Riggs, a washed up former champ, now stuck in the spiral of a loveless marriage, addiction to gambling, and no way out. Riggs promotes himself as a male chauvinist pig, mostly for attention (sound familiar?) and sees in King’s activism an opportunity for one last chance under the spotlight. He sets about to challenge her to a match to prove once and for all that men are better than women basically at everything, and that her call for equality is the end of days in disguise.
But there is a path to travel before we get to the advertised confrontation. King and her female cohorts walk out of the major tennis organization in the country after a tournament is organized in which women are paid an eighth of men. The misogynists are led by self-avowed woman hater Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman in a difficult role), while King herself is essentially in charge of her pack with the help of their promoter Gladys (an over the top Sarah Silverman). They set out to form their own women-only tennis league, to some stunning success, to show the men who’s boss.
King, however, is distracted by her own internal struggles. She has a devoted and doting husband played by Bridge of Spies’ Austin Stowell, while falling for her hairdresser, and understated Andrea Risenborough, all with the support of her in-the-know costume designer Ted, a brilliant Alan Cumming. King’s toil is, if you think about it, extraordinary at that moment in history. Externally, she is battling the rampant and odious misogyny that pervades most of society while having to smile about it. On top of that, however, she also has to deal with her own sexuality, a topic so taboo that it is used against her by tennis rival Margaret (Jessica McNamee).
Briggs is not doing much better. His rich and sometimes cynical wife Priscilla, played by a resurgent Elisabeth Shue, is growing tired with his endless gambling escapades. And his disease only gets worse while his relevance becomes less.
That is essentially the core of the movie and also the backdrop against which the climatic battle later takes place. The battle is as much within their own genders as it is between them. King must overcome the imbalance that her gender is subjected to. Riggs must meet the pressures expected of him as breadwinner and man of the house.
Buoyed by a dramatic and exacting score by Moonlight composer Nicholas Brittle, a sincere if simple screenplay by Slumdog Millionaire writer Simon Beaufoy, and the careful and methodical co-direction of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle of the Sexes grips you in ways you do not expect and bounces you around within that space through its inspirational conclusion.
It may seem basic and even trivial, but a critic must always ask, for most movies anyway, why was this project made? What is its purpose? Most of the time, it is to advance an idea or to celebrate an achievement. Perhaps to remember an accomplishment or never forget a tragedy. Battle of the Sexes sneaks up on you in answering why you are watching this film and why it was made. You realize, as Billy Jean struggles through the various machinations against her—some of her own doing—that her struggle is worth remembering and celebrating, that her strife made advancement possible and being where we are today a reality. Steve Carrell infuses the film with his usual flamboyance, but the character calls for the buffoonery with which he provides it. Though it holds itself up with levity at times, the film simply is not a comedy. It is a serious film about a serious topic, one that today we no longer should take for granted.
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