Rob Reviews "Battle Of The Sexes"
Being a man of a certain age, when I hear “Battle of the Sexes,” my mind immediately goes to the famous tennis match in 1973 between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. In a world where the media circus was still in its infancy, the promotion of this match would be on par with some of the crazy events that are put on today with the only difference being the more pressing social morays that were being challenged here.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valarie Faris, who brought us “Little Miss Sunshine,” Emma Stone plays King and Steve Carell Plays Riggs in a script written by veteran scribe Simon Beaufoy to bring to life a very complicated story that goes WAY beyond tennis. It begins with King (at that point being the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in a single year) and her manager, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), informing the U.S. Open that they will be boycotting their tournament due to there being a very large gap in the prize money between the men and the women. In doing so, they form their own tour, which would become the long-standing Virginia Slims Tour, building it from the ground up. During this time, Riggs is struggling to keep a day job working for his father-in-law and unsuccessfully keeping a promise to avoid gambling with his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). As the Virginia Slims Tour grows in popularity, even attracting another of the biggest names in the sport in Australian Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Riggs decides he wants to do a “Man vs. Woman” match with a huge payday for publicity. And all of this is happening as King struggles with a life change that could not affect her but also the entire sport she has worked so hard to make viable.
The biggest thing for me here is the strength of the script. This story is told in a way that is completely and totally engaging while being respectful to each and every one of its characters. Riggs is shown as a man who constantly is on a hustle but wants to still be his own man, out of the shadow of his in-laws without having to be stuck in an office the entire time, while King is shown as a woman who feels the weight of the world on her shoulders (whether justified or not) that she doesn’t want to burden those closest to her with and realizing what direction fate is beginning to take her in. (As a side note, this is a great companion piece to the HBO documentary from 2006, “Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer”.)
The main reason I spent so much time talking about the greatness of this screenplay is because it covered up for me the fact that I never really bought either of the leads in their roles. This is not to say that I did not enjoy Carell or Stone; quite the contrary: given who they are with minimal makeup or prosthetics involved, they both did serviceable jobs. I just never really lost the actors into the roles here, with Stone and her signature lisp constantly reminding me that it was her and Carell trying not to be Michael Scott from “The Office,” but also realizing the amount of that character that lies in Riggs himself. For me, the standouts lie in the very brief but poignant work of both Alan Cumming and Wallace Langham as the costumers for the Virginia Slims Tour, who are in this film at very pivotal moments and carry their parts of the story incredibly well.
“Battle of the Sexes” is another one of those stories that is just as important now as it was almost forty-five years ago, as it deals with equality, overcoming barriers, and simply being okay with who you are. I don’t know how this will fare in early 2018 in a year with some VERY strong contenders for the awards it will compete against, but this is a film that is very well presented with a story even better told.