' ' Cinema Romantico: Battle of the Sexes

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Battle of the Sexes

The famous Billie Jean King v Bobby Riggs tennis match at the Houston Astrodome in 1973 was billed as the Battle of the Sexes, the moniker which Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s 2017 chronicling the same event, inevitably, takes as its title. Indeed, the actual tennis match of it, the specifics of it, the how and why King routed Riggs in three straight sets took less precedence than the match’s social backdrop. As such, Dayton and Faris’s movie is more interested in the social backdrop too, allowing it to assume center stage, transforming nearly scene in “Battle of the Sexes” into a referendum on feminism and/or male chauvinism. That inevitably means much of the dialogue functions less like free-flowing exchanges of thoughts than principled statements, no character more egregiously than Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), who might have been King’s fashion aide-de-camp in real life but here is more like a platitudinous observer. “Times change,” he says to King. “You should know you just changed them.” Tell that to Serena Williams, G.O.A.T., after John McEnroe said she’d be 700th best on the men’s circuit. Don’t you wish she could have sent a patented forearm missile straight into his receding hairline? I digress.

“Battle of the Sexes” builds its world through King (Emma Stone) and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) confronting tennis tournament chairman Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) over his refusal to make the winning prize money equal for women and men. In the movie’s light, Kramer represents the sexist status quo, denoted by the rocks glass he almost always has in his hand, usually in a wood-paneled room. And while the character has virtually no dimension, I nevertheless liked how Pullman played the part, blinkingly with a halting way of speaking, like being in the presence of women truly brings him physical pain.

As such, King and Heldman in conjunction with several other women form their own non-dude league. They are poorly compensated, reduced to staying at fleabag motels and working hard on their own to promote the venture, all of which suggests its own movie, frankly, like an old school version of the NWSL or WNBA. But this storyline merely runs concurrently to that of King’s eventual opponent, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), introduced in a long shot through a window which emblemizes how he is presented throughout, all alone in wide frames, working to underscore what a sad-sack this self-proclaimed chauvinist really is.

Carell has often excelled at injecting blowhards with pathos, and whether or not you think Riggs is deserving of pity, he is given some by the actor anyway, the chuckle-infused big personality clearly masking woe. The movie never quite makes clear whether all of Riggs’s intolerant ramblings are marketing ploys or his real attitudes, and in Carell’s hands, the one-time tennis great often comes across more like an out of touch old man than someone weaponizing sexism. The closest the movie gets to demonstrating what his behavior has wrought is through Elisabeth Shue as Rigg’s wife Priscilla. Granted, her character has little to do, mostly just sitting on the couch and listening to her spouse hem and haw. But Shue invests those moments dignity by quietly letting us see just how much his act has worn her down and left her indifferent to his self-ascribed fate opposite King.

King’s own complicated love life is threaded through the narrative too, re-ordering and condensing some events. Her marriage to Larry (Austin Stowell), more professional than romantic, is compromised by an affair with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), though the movie prefers watering down the oft-explosive complications of this triangle, punting on the opportunity to truly examinethe era’s LGBT persecution. These scenes are best when everything is left unspoken, like King meeting cute with Marilyn by way of just a few looks, attraction at its most elemental, or how Larry tenderly applies ice to his wife’s weary knees. The latter happens in a scene where both paramours appear at King’s hotel door at the same time, the stuff of thousands of bad rom coms. But the way this goes, with her husband acknowledging the truth simply from his air, and yet helping his wife anyway, conveys multitudes of truth about the complex, difficult, yet still loving nature of their relationship.

This sequence, however, doubles as one of the few moments also addressing the tangible effects of tennis. In most every other regard, tennis is less about the physicality required than the off the court emotions. This is most explicitly connected to King’s sexuality. Upon questioning it, her court on the play struggles, which we are shown less than told about, and in advance of her eventual defeat of the braying Riggs, when the chips are down, Marilyn’s re-appearance at Larry’s urging suggests that love helps Billie Jean win, reductions of King’s talent that feels insulting.

As King, Stone nails the social awkwardness but is never really allowed to revel in the character’s command of a tennis court. There’s a great line when Marilyn says it must be intoxicating to be inside King’s skin, hinting at how we all feel whenever we watch a top-tier athlete, making us wonder what it must be like to do the things they do. But we only get to see that once, really, in the actual Battle of the Sexes showdown, which Dayton and Faris thankfully linger over, showing it pretty much as it was. Grace Lichtenstein famously wrote off the actual match as “an inconsequential, made-for-television, silly matchup…it shouldn’t have been a landmark anything.” Ah, but sports has a way of laying everything bare. And whether it was merely made-for-television or not, to watch Bobby Riggs get throttled by Billie Jean King is to see time pass an old, hapless white guy by.

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